Video Games Review: EA Sports UFC 2 (PS4, 2016)

I am probably the last person on earth who should be reviewing a UFC video game. I’ve never seen a UFC fight and I only know names like Ronda Rousey because my social media feeds never stop talking about her. I’ve never even been in a fist fight in my entire life. It would seem, however, that developer EA Canada have¬†tried to¬†account for this possibility.

Mixed martial arts video games have popped up more and more over the last decade¬†as the global popularity of the Ultimate Fighter Championship soared. They’ve always been strange beasts to me, full of finicky, complicated controls that attempted to marry the sport’s three-phase structure — standing up, clinch and then grappling on the floor — with mixed results.¬†UFC 2‘s first order of business is to make these transitions as fluid as possible so that a win or a loss doesn’t feel like flailing wildly and letting fate decide.

Despite a brief stint on struggle street as I learned the rules of the sport, once I had my bearings it became clear that the game works surprisingly well as a fighter sim. It felt at times as though I was a part of a genuine brawl, in deference to my usual strategy of mashing the face buttons of my controller with my palm.

After watching a few real-world matches in preparation for this review, its easy to see the way the game follows the same beats and it feels better for it. There’s the dramatic lead up as opponents attempt to dance around one another, trading minor blows, looking for an in, and¬†the dam breaks, an opportunity is seized and a series of swift, brutal movements ends the fight in the blink of an eye. It’s these opportunities that require constant vigilance on your part, both offensively and defensively. Leaving yourself open at the wrong moment can have devastating consequences, while landing a surprise punch at exactly the right moment may start the dominoes falling in the other direction.

The key to finding this rich, creamy centre is knowing not only the rules but your fighter’s own limits. By far my biggest gripe with¬†UFC 2 is that the tutorial on offer could charitably be described as paltry, so novices trying to learn the ropes may feel a bit overwhelmed. Thankfully, there are a number of skill challenges that pick up the slack from the undercooked tutorial and are compulsory play for anyone new to the series. The challenges allow you to sample a bit of everything from the MMA buffet, which is great because it lets you figure out quickly what you’re good at but, and here’s the part some players may struggle with, they also force you to address the things you suck at. I found I was better at ducking out of the way of takedown maneuvers and then punching people directly in the nose with the force of a semi-trailer, thus I built my fighter around these noble goals.

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I know, I know, that probably sounds like the most boring fighter in the world to the more experienced UFC fans in the peanut gallery. Point is, I was surprised by my own ability to come up with a strategy and then successfully implement it in the ring. It felt as though the game wasn’t especially picky about the¬†how of the fight and that it would have been happy to give me a W for ridiculous kung fu prowess and a series of weighty submissions.

UFC 2 has also made an adjustment to grappling that newer players will appreciate. Once in the clinch, the game provides an on-screen prompt for the right stick. The stick can be pushed in each direction to select a specific move, and held to perform it. The AI/opponent player can counter these moves to try and gain the upper hand, but you can then attempt to counter their counter, and on and on it goes until someone either completes their move or one of you runs out of stamina.

What this means is that I now feel like I have some kind of recourse when I’m suddenly pinned and locked into a submissive position. I know there’s a way out as long as I can keep the right stick moving, even if my opponent is raining blows on me as I try to wriggle out. It’s a really smart piece of game design and it serves to make the entire game feel that much more accessible.

Visually, the game is a true feast for the eyes. It’s the kind of graphical fidelity that reeks of bigger budgets and talented artists. Animations and motion-capture are pitch perfect, making each movement and hit resonate and feel more lifelike. For those used to seeing wresting and fighting sims with strangely robotic avatars, this should be a real treat. This greater clarity in the visuals allows for cues in the animation — small slips, whiffs and staggers that only the most eagle-eyed players can spot and turn into opportunities.

Every hit feels like it has weight to it and the rounds end and new ones begin, both fighters will begin to look like ground mince. Blood strews the octagon floor, indicating where the most savage altercations took place. I still found that certain controls for punching and kicking required the ability to fold your fingers in such a way that they become entwined arcane sigils. There are quite a few moves that require such button-wrangling and, though I gave it my best, I was never able to recall a single one when I really needed to. I also found it next to impossible to parry any incoming blow, though this may have been by design.¬†UFC 2 has its high and low blocking bound to the L1 and L2 buttons respectively, forcing you to keep your fingers above both buttons in case you need them. It’s incredibly unintuitive and I quickly gave up on trying to block every blow.

The complexity of these controls means that the harder moves were, for me at least, off limits and in the end I found that simply belting people in the jaw repeatedly had much the same effect. Attempting any of these harder moves in the skill challenge mode left  me without much to show for my work but a bunch of D and F scores and a deflated sense of bravado.

Actually getting someone to submit, also, seems random at best and vindictive at worst. Subs have their own set of discrete ‘stages,’ requiring a hold of a particular length. Some subs have more stages, some have fewer, and all require you to move the left stick when prompted. That sounds pretty easy to pull off, doesn’t it? It’s not.

The player or character defending the submission has the aforementioned right stick radial menu to deal with, attempting to thwart the submission moves as they present themselves. The defender can get away clear if the offensive partner even half-misses a press on the left stick. Ultimately, I gave up on trying to get submissions right as well and focused more on ducking around them.

While the career is notably lacking in major bells and whistles, one area that will please a great many players is the inclusion of a women’s campaign that is easy as brutal and challenging as anything thrown at the men. If you would like for your character to chart a rags-to-riches story across the career mode then you’ll need to create that it in your imagination because there’s barely anything in the game to suggest that you’ve hit the big time until you actually win the title.

There are a number of factors that will determine the ebb and flow of your career and they must be balanced responsibly if you want to progress. Your fighter can hurt themselves if you push them in training drills too hard between bouts, especially when attempting the higher difficulty drills. If the discipline being trained isn’t one your fighter is familiar with, the chance of injury is increased again. Your fighters also have a wear-and-tear stat that means you can train them hard and have them cop a thrashing in the ring every round, but their career will be over quickly as a result. It’s rather clever design and I appreciated the strategy and balancing act it introduced.

Like other EA Sports titles,¬†UFC 2 has a variation of Ultimate Team mode all its own. Ultimate Team runs almost entirely on microtransactions and has very much become EA’s monetary bread and butter, allowing players to put together fantasy rosters of their favourite fighters past and present. Knockout Mode is another addition and is a surprising amount of fun, especially if you’re keen for a bit of couch co-op. The mode revolves around beating the hell out of your opponent and going for the K.O. Your fighters have HP instead of stamina and the moment you touch gloves, the race is on to drop your opponent as brutally as possible. (Pleasant bonus: it doubles as an outstanding sparring mode)

EA Sports¬†UFC 2 is not without its ¬†problems, but it is nevertheless a faithful and loving video game representation of one of the most popular sports in the world today. It’s more accessible than its ever been, though I feel it could be moreso, and it¬†is definitely enjoyable once you get your head around its rules. This is a game that will thrill fans and entertain more dedicated newcomers, and it strives hard to provide a satisfying fight every time.

Review Score: 7.0 out of 10
Highlights: Gorgeous visuals and animation; allows you to develop your own playstyle
Lowlights: Move controls still need work; Tutorial a bit light on for newbies
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Released: March 15, 2016
Platform: PlayStation 4,, Xbox One

 

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David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.

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