It's our first hands-on time with EA Sports UFC. After acquiring the license from THQ (announced at E3 2012), EA Canada's Fight Night team has been working with the new Ignite engine to realise what they consider to be the most realistic athletes in a video game ever. Seeing how muscles and flesh move independently of the skin of the fighter, it's hard to argue with their assessment. Were it not for the overly fluffy hair-do of challenger Alexander "The Mauler" Gustafsson, it would have been easy to mistake the on-screen action for a rerun of the epic slugfest with him and champion Jon "Bones" Jones at UFC 165 last September. Looking past glitches and imperfections that are due to be ironed out in the run in towards launch, the game manages to mimic the styles of each fighter very well.
We end up talking groin shots with producer Brian Hayes. It may not be the most obvious question to ask, but it's part of the sport as Georges St. Pierre is evidence of - the champ always gets a free one. As it turns out this is one aspect of the sport that the developers have decided not to include.
"We had low blows in one of the Fight Night games, but what ended up happening was that when someone was about to lose online, instead of allowing their opponent to get a knock out, they would throw four low blows on purpose and get disqualified. Thus robbing their opponent of the satisfaction of a knock out."
Not very sporting. Then again online gaming seldom is. The answer also ruled out the follow up question of how groin shots would affect female fighters - a first in a game portraying mixed martial arts.
Hayes makes it clear he can't reveal anything apart from what's officially announced about the roster of EA Sports UFC. We play as Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson, as well as lightweights Benson Henderson and Anthony Pettis - two match-ups that were some of 2013's best championship fights. Screens showing off the faces of Cung Le and Joe Lauzon are on either side of the action. Each character takes about twice as long to model compared to the ones that featured in Fight Night. Early on in the project they mapped out how many fighters they would be able to squeeze in given their deadline, and that's the number they went with. But as you'd expect, unforeseen things tend to happen in the world of mixed martial arts and on a couple of occasions the developers had to scrap a fighter from the game that they had scanned and modelled as he was no longer part of the UFC family. No fighters were named, but one can only assume former light heavyweight champion Quintin "Rampage" Jackson, middleweight contender Yushin "Thunder" Okami, and heavyweight mainstay Cheick Kongo could have been among these.
One thing we appreciated hearing was that special attention will be paid to making sure fighters won't use moves they'd never use in real life. Seeing Roy Nelson land a spinning back kick to the head of Stefan Struve would just look wrong (without even imaging how the polygons would have to be stretched out for Roy's foot to land on Stefan's head). It will be interesting to see how this in turn affects game balance, but we assume that fighters will be able "game plan" according to their respective strengths.
Another thing we managed to squeeze out of Hayes is that appropriate fighters will be able to fight in several weight classes. Former lightweight champion B.J. Penn will actually be available in three versions - welterweight (170 lbs), lightweight (155 lbs) and his new weight class featherweight (145 lbs) in the game. Hayes chuckled as he noted that Penn, who is set to face rival Frankie Edgar later this year, at 145 pounds was nowhere near the welterweight limit when he was scanned for the game. Penn is rather notorious for enjoying the good things in life in between fights, and Penn wasn't the only fighter to arrive for scanning sessions significantly larger than what they weigh in at for fights. Something that surely makes it a little harder to properly depict the fighters in-game. Sadly, Hayes told us, featherweight champ José Aldo would not be one of the fighters available in multiple weight classes, at the time of our session his now semi-official move to 155 lbs was not a reality, but hopefully EA Sports will provide updates that adds new weight classes to fighters who are already available in game when appropriate.
Facing Jon Jones is as intimidating in the virtual octagon as the real one. His superior reach keeps you on the outside while he uses his arsenal of damaging kicks to chip away at your health bar. Step inside and he'll likely deliver one of his patented spinning elbows. Distance is a concept that has always been key in fighting games. There is rarely a time when both fighters are equally pleased with the distance that is kept or the position they're locked in. That's what makes Jones such a formidable champion. While he's extremely good at maintaining a distance where he can score with his arsenal of oblique kicks and spinning attacks, he's also extremely strong in the clinch and when the action hits the ground.
Speaking of the ground, this is where the game takes on more complexity. When the fighters are standing, you predictably use one of the face buttons for each limb with context and bumpers providing a range of different strikes. You initiate the clinch or take downs with the right stick and the right bumper blocks (face buttons allows for high and low parries). One new feature that will likely not come into play all that often is that fighters can use the cage to launch strikes. This is obviously something that has been added as a result of lightweight champ Anthony Pettis' famous Showtime kick (a Matrix-esque move that saw him jump off the cage and headkick Benson Henderson in the final WEC bout), but we also saw how the cage could be used to lunge out with a superman punch.
Once you're in the clinch you can cycle and jostle for position. If you manage to score a takedown you'll be able to pass guard by moving the stick in the appropriate direction (this is countered by blocking). Depending on your position you'll have various submission moves at your disposal. Hayes tried to demonstrate a twister (basically a move from someone's back where you twist the spine to cause... discomfort), but failed in doing so. But that is an indication of the range of moves available to players as the twister has only successfully been pulled off once inside the Octagon by Chan Sung "The Korean Zombie" Jung against Leonard Garcia in 2011.
The submission system is surprisingly deep. When a submission is initiated an interface with four directions is displayed. The defending fighter will have to use the right stick to drain the bar in the correct direction in order to escape, while the attacker blocks. With the left stick the attacker then needs to advance in one direction to reset the bar for the next stage of the submission. Each attempt has five stages, but the defender can escape them at any time. What adds another dimension to it is that, depending on what stage you escape, the resulting position will be different. A confident player can therefore bait the aggressor into advancing a couple of stages as escaping from the third stage may result in a more advantageous position. This added layer of complexity will no doubt appeal to savvy tacticians. Submitting a dazed opponent will naturally be quicker and it may be that a superior grappler (based on stats) could move or skip a stage, but that sort of balancing has not yet been decided upon. One example of a grappler who may be able to achieve a finish quicker would be welterweight Demian Maia, and with his neck crank on Rick Story fresh in mind (turning Story's nose into a blood faucet) it's easy to see why.
We did not have a chance to sample the career mode, but overall the presentation was very close to what you'd expect to see during a UFC pay-per-view. Certain trainers like Greg Jackson will appear in the corners of their respective fighters, and fighters have their respective walk-in shirts (Jon Jones wore his "Bones Knows" shirt).
We're playing EA Sports UFC in late January and there is still ways to go with the game. Animations are missing, there are some hilarious physics bugs, and sound glitches make the game extra dramatic (as the outro music booms mid-fight). And then we're only given a glimpse of the quick match mode. As always it's hard to tell how difficult these things are to polish up and how much time and effort it will take. We're typically shown vertical slices of games that pretty much look and play like the finished product. This was not the case with EA Sports UFC. However, we choose to remain optimistic as the team has proven themselves in the past and they seem to have the right ambitions and aspirations going into the project. Mixed Martial Arts is a very complex and difficult sport to portray in a video game, even if it seemingly lends itself perfectly to the medium.