According to UFC legend Chuck Liddell, there are few things as deeply satisfying as delivering a proper knockout blow. The explosive growth of mixed martial arts (MMA), lead by the UFC organisation, is easy to understand in that context. But while the sport enjoys immense success, the games based on the UFC have done the opposite. They've been dull affairs where you'd often feel as if you're fighting under water.
Grappling on the mat and doing "ground and pound" is just something that isn't easily simulated, and that's a problem that EA's previous UFC game struggled with, as did the UFC games developed by Yuke's back when THQ held the license. Thus the big question for UFC 2 is whether the game manages to convey the explosive intensity of real-life grappling.
Initially, UFC 2 is a drop-dead gorgeous game. We can hardly believe our eyes as Jon Jones and Anthony Johnson step into the cage, Herb Dean yells "fight!" and the match begins. How they hesitantly move around each other, carefully feeling each other out before the action really begins. We find ourselves thinking that this might be the best-looking sports game ever, as Bones delivers a stunning kick to Rumble's face.
And that's where the illusion cracks. As long as we can remember, we've been unimpressed with fighting games developed by western studios as their animation work is rarely up to scratch. Independently they look good, but they never really feel connected to the moves that preceded them or how the opponent reacts. Smooth animations break and chained movements that flow together are notable in their complete absence. All of that applies to UFC 2 as well, where fighters move with a robotic stiffness; it never sells you on the illusion of real MMA. It's game that looks much better in screenshots than in motion, and that's usually not the case.
You feel this disconnect in the gameplay as well. In an attempt to recreate as much of the sport as possible, there's a system in place to let you direct your attacks at specific body parts. That makes the controls unnecessarily complex, and pulling off 100 hit combos in Killer Instinct is a piece of cake compared to this. There's no flow when aiming for different areas, and your attacks occasionally freeze when striking the opponent, as if the game doesn't know what should happen next.
The same goes for the replays, where the camera often seems lost and has trouble conveying what happened. On top of that, the commentators are unexciting and have trouble keeping up, making for some rather dubious play-by-play. And so you never really believe that what's happening in the octagon is actually thrilling.
There's a training mode that drills you through all the moves and options you have available, and it's something we'd recommend you dive into properly and take your time with. UFC 2 isn't exactly an accessible game, and you'll need to know what you're doing. That said, we have had some very fun games with friends who didn't yet have a grasp of the mechanics, where they slid around like a greasy eel and we were unable to connect any hits. That approach would be impossible in real life, but it's a testament to the fact that UFC 2 relies on you playing it "properly".
At its best, when your coach is yelling from the ring corner, the crowds roar, and the commentators keep up with the action, UFC 2 sounds, looks and feels like it's supposed to and brings about the desired adrenaline rush. But too often that's not the case. The tension is missing, punches sound like you're hitting people with rubber foam, and the stamina meter makes fights too static. The results of direct hits are too varied, and the magical combination of water and Vaseline doled out between rounds can seemingly cure any amount of beating.
For us, the best part of the game is the jiu-jitsu, where the game changes from its usual fighting premise to something more akin to a mini-game in which you have to keep up your attacks, hold on to your opponent, and be vary of their counters. These bouts can be terribly exciting, even if the actual gameplay doesn't feel like fighting as such.
UFC 2 is best enjoyed when playing against a buddy of equal skill, where the game occasionally becomes really great fun, but there's a single-player option here as well. The career game mode is the biggest draw here, but it's built on the same uninspired structure as we've seen a hundred times before. You pick a fighter or create one yourself and work your way from the bottom to the top. It's reminiscent of the career mode in the Fight Night games and completely lacks a dynamic element.
Recent WWE games have fared a lot better in that regard by focusing on recreating the career paths of famous wrestlers. Give us something with some kind of story rather than the UFC version of getting every driver license in Gran Turismo for the umpteenth time. Why not let players relive Chuck Liddell's career with obscure footage, fighting through all his important matches and taking part in massive battles?
There's a variant of Ultimate Team here as well, where you assemble and manage crew of five fighters and guide them to the top. You can play it solo, but it's obviously better when played online against others. Time will tell whether it has the same draw as FIFA Ultimate Team. Live Events are another feature that let you bet on the results of real UFC matches, where winning gets you points to improve your fighter with. It's neat, but hardly the thing you buy a game for.
UFC 2 feels like EA has taken the criticism of the previous game to heart. The grappling has been changed, there's more content and a large variety of classic and current matches. But that's not enough. UFC 2 needed to focus more on the actual fighting and less on everything surrounding it. The game just isn't good enough to enjoy if you aren't a diehard UFC fan. But if you do love UFC with all your heart and have been longing to hand out beatings in the octagon, this will just about do.