Review: EA Sports MMA (Sony PS3)

EA Sports MMA
Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Tiburon
Genre: Fighting/Sports
Release Date: 10/19/2010

By now, you probably know the story behind this game. Dana White claims that the UFC went to EA a few years back to try and get a new UFC game made. He was told that MMA wasn’t a sport and was more than a bit pissed about it. He ended up with THQ, who produced UFC Undisputed 2009. That game sold millions of copies, garnered numerous awards, and proved that a good MMA game was possible. During the buildup for the game’s sequel, EA announced that it was making its own MMA game in cooperation with UFC rival Strikeforce.

Suspicions arose, tempers flared, and Dana even vowed to blackball any athlete that signed up to appear in EA’s game. He later backed down on this, unless a completely different Jake Shields debuted at UFC 121, but there was still a lot of intrigue. EA, for their part, claims that the UFC talked to the wrong branch of the company, and not EA Sports. If true, it raises the question of why they wouldn’t have told White he was talking to the wrong guys rather than insult his company?

Either way, I’m not here to judge the policies and practices of either EA, THQ, or the UFC. What I am here to do is review the finished product that EA Tiburon has put out. In almost every endeavor, EA Sports has been the dominant brand in sports. They’ve got the best football games, the best hockey games, and their soccer games are getting better and better. Now they’re entering the world of mixed martial arts. THQ has already put out a critical darling with the biggest brand in the business. EA is the underdog in this story, no matter how much they want to pretend that Strikeforce has the best fighters in the world.

So, can this game compete with the best, or is it doomed to linger in the shadows?

Modes

You have several options when it comes to modes. The most basic of these is the “Fight Now” option. Basically, you can chose your rules, pick a weight class, and get to the fighting. With several levels of difficulty to chose from, this is a great way to try out all of the fighters and practice for the main events.

The first of these is the career mode. You start off by creating a character, choosing a fight style, and then running through the basics under the tutelage of MMA legend Bas Rutten. After a few practice sessions and an optional tutorial, you get to chose one of a couple minor leagues to start your professional career. After you win the belt in that league, you move up to one of two middle league organizations. Once you’ve topped the rankings there, you can chose either Strikeforce or Mystic as your big league home. (Mystic being a fictional organization in Japan.) Then, you pretty much battle until you reach the end of your career, which will take forty fights. Between each fight, you have eight weeks to train. You do this by participating in training exercises that give you specific tasks. You can chose to simulate your results with your highest score. It will give you the same boost and save you time and effort. In any case, any activity that raises your skills also eats up a week. After eight weeks, you fight.

You can also travel to other trainers to focus on a specific discipline. Randy Couture teaches you wrestling, a Gracie handles your jiu-jitsu training, etc. Over the course of your career, you unlock seven different camps. Apart from boosting your stats, you can also earn new moves at these camps. Each camp has about four moves you can learn by completing a specific task. You can earn a major pass by getting to the full mount position quickly, or earn a new kick by knocking your opponent down. Some of these are a pain to accomplish. One tasks you with avoiding takedown attempts without the ability to sprawl, clinch, or even go for a takedown yourself. It was a pain. You can learn up to sixteen different moves, but you can’t switch them out at any point. Without about thirty moves in the game, you’re going to get a lot of crossover. More to the point, there are several moves that you should get with every character, regardless of their fight style. You’d be a fool not to get the major pass ability and the triangle choke. Both prove invaluable both in the career and during online play.

In any case, the basic career layout is OK, but there are several problems. For one, the matchmaking is ridiculous. I went into Strikeforce with a perfect record of 12-0. I was greeted by a guy who didn’t even have a fight to his name yet. I got a championship shot despite not being ranked in the top ten of my weight class. I didn’t even see a licensed fighter until my championship fight. Later on, I was Strikeforce Champion, had defended the belt more than a dozen times, and somehow I ended up defending against a guy with an outstanding record of 0-1. He was ranked dead last in a field of over forty fighters. What kind of organization puts a championship on the line against a guy who hasn’t even won a fight? Another issue that sprang up involved a supposed champion of champions match against the Mystic champ. This fight was teased after my third defense, but ten fights later I still hadn’t heard anything about it. Then, I finally get told that if I win my next fight, I’ll get that match as my career swan song. Of course, I get hit with a fluke leg kick, lose my belt, and never get to fight this match. I suppose this way of booking is realistic. Strikeforce teased Emelienko vs Overeem for a long time. They never booked it, Fedor got beat by Fabricio Werdum, and the fight lost its luster. Also, Bret Rogers got a championship fight despite coming off of a high profile loss. It made no sense.

So, from a progression stand point, the career mode works, but it is filled with plenty of stupid moments that make you shake your head. Speaking of which, I didn’t even mention the sports writer that follows your career, is a complete prick, and says nothing remotely interesting your entire career. He even ditched me after I dropped the title. What a jerk.

The other big part of the package is the game’s online modes. It starts with a simple quick match option, where players earn experience to increase their rank (depicted by various color belts), as well as increase their contender status for an online championship. If this was the only mode, it would be OK, but the game goes the extra mile. Fight Card allows for up to four matches to made with ten players in a lobby. When you’re not in a fight, you get to watch the ongoing match and chat with other spectators. These matches don’t count towards your ranking, but they are an absolutely fantastic way to practice, learn from others, and be a part of an actual community. The UFC games should take notice.

Perhaps the most prominent feature of MMA’s online suite is the live broadcast. How it works is players put hype videos online to get picked to participate in a match. These fights are broadcast live online and have commentary from EA staff members. Other cards feature bouts for online championships. I have to say, watching this proved very interesting. I just wish there had been more than two fights. Even still, I have a lot of good will towards this mode, and if it continues to grow, it could be the coolest feature in the game, bar none.

Beyond what I’ve already mentioned, there are two other modes worth mentioning. You have a tutorial mode which claims to teach you the ins and outs of the game. However, it doesn’t tell you how to do anything until you’ve stumbled across the controls yourself. It isn’t very useful from the standpoint of someone learning to play the game. You can also create and share fighters via the web. Fighters that don’t go through the career have caps put on how high their stats can be and they can learn fewer special moves. Still, the ability to share fighters is cool. Again, this is something that the UFC games should take note of.

What all of this text boils down to is two things. The game’s career mode has some interesting features, but is ultimately a letdown. You never get the sense of freedom you get from UFC 2010 in terms of character customization. While the progression is nice, there are plenty of stupid moments in terms of how your fights are booked to keep it from being as good as it could be. On the other side, the online modes are simply fantastic. I’ve never had trouble finding opponents, lag wasn’t an issue, and there are plenty of things to do. The attention to detail here sets the game apart from the pack.

As such, even without tournament modes or classic fights, EA Sports MMA is a fully featured MMA game with plenty to offer.

Graphics

There really is only two things to talk about when detailing the graphics of a MMA game. The first would be the character models and the second would be the animations.

From a character model standpoint, there are some highs and lows. In the ring, fighters appear to have a plastic-like complexion which never looks right. However, the models do look remarkably like their real life counterparts. Just with plastic complexions. There aren’t enough facial expressions, but it gets the job done. The best part is how their bodies change throughout fights. When characters bleed, the blood gets everywhere. It stains arms, legs, shorts, and even the mat in a very believable and realistic way. After a particularly gruesome fight, it was amusing to note that the winner was covered in blood, but none of it was his. Muscles tense with each strike, bruises start to form on areas that have suffered a particularly focused attack, and sweat builds believably on the surface of the skin. I can’t be anything but impressed.

From an animation standpoint, the game initially doesn’t impress but shows its depth as you play on. I’m still not convinced by the basic walking motion of fighters, and a lot of punches seem like bits of spaghetti noodles flying around instead of human flesh. Despite that, there is a lot of detail given to most animations that is impressive. During a rear naked choke, the defending fighter will grab the attacker’s wrist and try to hold him off. As the hold tightens, the grip is lost and the defender now struggles to keep his cool. It serves the function of giving you visual feedback as to how far along the submission is going, and is very true to what you see when you watch a real fight. There are a ton of nice touches such as that that turn this into a pretty good looking game in motion.

There are some other, minor things worth mentioning. There are occasional clipping issues, mostly during grappling situations. The announcer’s faces contort and freeze while the game loads. The crowd is almost completely lost in shadows with only a row or two actually visible. Basically, the less important stuff hasn’t seen the attention to detail.

Still, the fighters and fighting are what’s important in a game like this. While they have some hiccups, the graphics as a whole are decidedly solid.

Audio

This being an EA sports game, you can pretty much expect the same audio package that you get in games like Madden. Firstly, you have the suite of licensed music tracks. This includes songs from bands like Avenged Sevenfold, Disturbed, and Linkin Park. There are also some more obscure songs, such as a nice slow Russian song that Fedor Emelienko comes out to. In particular, there are plenty of nifty options for when you want to create an entrance for your fighter. The songs start to repeat early and often, but they fit.

The commentary is provided by Mauro Ranallo and Frank Shamrock. They might not be as awesome as Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan, but they do a pretty bang up job. In particular, Frank’s long career in MMA lends a particularly large amount of credibility to everything he does. They don’t always get the call right, but that is the case for any commentator in or out of video games. I can’t think of a complaint to lodge against them.

There are three different announcers in the game. The three of them combined couldn’t lace up Bruce Buffer’s boots. They don’t instill energy into fights. In fact, the two males suck energy out of fights while the female announcer has proven nothing but annoying to myself and anyone I’ve talked to.

The sound effects are hit and miss. I’ve heard the audience go dead quiet during exciting, hard fought fights. I’m also not particularly impressed with the sound a punch makes when it makes contact with someone’s face. It isn’t bad, but I never got the same sense of impact that I do with comparable games.

So, the soundtrack and commentary is solid. The rest of the package doesn’t quite meet that level. Still, considering most of what you’ll hear is in those first two categories, I can give the aural presentation of the game an overall positive mark.

Gameplay

Before I get into this, I would like to mention how disgusted I am with this game for the shots they took with at the UFC series. There is a constantly running section during loading times called “MMA facts”. More than one of these are dedicated to poking fun of UFC‘s control scheme, particularly when it comes to submissions. For example, it often says “Don’t make the controller shinier”. This is in reference to rotating the analog stick to perform a submission. I know these guys are proud of their game, but these are cheap shots and are not at all appreciated.

Anyways, lets get down to how the game plays.

If you’ve played any of the recent Fight Night games, you’ll figure out what this game is going for pretty quickly. Striking is done with the right analog stick. You make different motions or spins to perform various punches. For example, flicking the stick diagonally upwards performs a jab, while rotating it in a semi circle is good for a hook. I am definitively against this way of striking. For one, you need to press a shoulder button to kick. That isn’t too bad, but there is a separate button if you want to attack the body. You press L2 to kick, R1 to kick the body, and you’ve still got to flick the stick in the correct direction to even get the kick to work. It is overly complicated and hard to do quickly during tense fights or even for training exercises. There is an option to switch to a copy of UFC‘s control scheme, but it hasn’t been properly implemented. It doesn’t feel responsive for this game.

One thing I do like is how the game gives you plenty of options for defense in the standing game. You press the R2 button to block, and using either the left or right stick, you can either dodge or parry an attack. Dodging simply moves you out of the way, while parrying has some bonus effects. If you parry correctly, the opponent is open to attack and loses stamina. During tense clinch situations, this can save you from a major beating if you can get your opponent’s timing down. You can also parry while on the ground. While it works a bit for when you’ve been mounted, there are some situations where it doesn’t make a bit of sense. If you’re in offensive half guard and you want to knee someone’s body with your free leg, they can’t avoid it. I’m sorry. Also, if you’ve given up your back, you shouldn’t be able to dodge attacks as if you can see them. Still, against human players, parrying is incredibly useful.

What this game is really about is the management of stamina and the health of three main body parts. With every action you take, you expend stamina. If you throw a bunch of wild strikes or try to pass like a madman, you’ll gas yourself. When gassed, you slow down incredibly, and can’t try to pass guard or go for a takedown. Meanwhile, your opponent has a great opportunity to get the upper hand. When you factor in parrying, it becomes extremely important to time and vary your attacks. It makes for a slower paced game, but one that is wrought with skill and planning.

You have health meters for your head, torso, and legs. If you lose all of your health in either your head or torso, you go down and your opponent can go for a TKO. You can mash the circle button while they pummel you to get your wits about you, but your overall health will be lower. When leg health is depleted, you move extremely slowly and can’t get away from your opponent’s strikes. I would have liked to see more instances where this knocked you down, but it isn’t to be. As such, barely anyone uses leg strikes, even the computer.

Submissions work differently in this game. You’ve got two different types of submissions. For chokes, both fighters try to follow a sweet spot by rotating the analog stick. Continually moving the stick lowers stamina, and the sweet spot moves constantly. You need to react quickly by switching directions or taking quick breaks to work your way either to a submission or an escape. Joint submissions work by tapping a corresponding button. This is not button mashing fest however. Each press depletes stamina. If the attacking player runs out, he loses the hold. This forces you to attack or defend in small bursts and manage your stamina carefully. If you fail in your attempt at submitting someone, you lose a bit of stamina permanently, so you can’t go crazy with these things. Overall, I like the submissions in this game because they require thought and skill to win, but are still easily accessible. It is much easier to get submissions in this game than in UFC.

With the right analog stick set aside for strikes, you might be wondering what the face buttons do. Well, these are actually for grappling. The x button shoots for a takedown or moves to pass guard, the circle button sprawls or prevents passing, triangle initiates a clinch, while square goes for a submission. The idea here is “strike to pass, pass to strike”. What that means is that you need to throw strikes on the ground to hide your attempts to improve your position, and you need to get to a better position to do more damage with your strikes. The best part of this is how this is implemented. Whenever you throw a strike or attempt to pass on the ground, your opponent’s controller will rumble. This allows you to attempt to hide what you’re doing. Not many games use the rumble feature in such an important way. It makes a distinctly positive impression on the player and is the kind of thing I want to see more games do.

I do have some small complaints to make. There isn’t always a good sense of visual feedback in moves. For example, if a knee to the head is parried, it still looks like the knee hit the body. You’d expect it to do damage, but you’d be wrong. Another problem arises in how hard it is to get a knockout. I’ve played/watched over hundred matches. A grand total of five of them have ended in knockout. Two of these cases were instances where the attacking player was intentionally not ending the fight by TKO when they had the chance. You really have to do for knockouts for them to be a viable strategy. Meanwhile, submissions are much easier to get, especially once you get good at them. It’s like the complete opposite of UFC 2010.

Overall, there is a solid fighting engine at work here. However, without a proper tutorial there is a learning curve that you need to get past before you can start getting into the game. There are some nifty ideas here, especially concerning the submission system and parrying. As far as how good the fighting is compared to UFC? I’d have to say UFC wins out, but this is a solid contender that should prove deep enough for MMA and video game fans alike.

Replayability

If there’s one problem that I have with career mode, it is that each time you play it will be exactly the same. You’re always trained by Bas Rutten, you always have the same small set of special moves to train from, and you’ll have the same six leagues to fight in. Worst of all, almost all of the people you’ll fight over your career are not licensed fighters but computer generated. The game already has a limited roster with a lot of crossover when it comes to weight classes, but the fighters get split up between two leagues, meaning you’ve got maybe ten actual fighters in the top league. What it boils down to is several hours spent running through crappy created fighters until you get to the big time. And all the while, you’ll have that same smarmy blogger tracking your progress using the same articles for you lightweight fighter that he did for your heavyweight one.

Thankfully, the online options are expansive and give the game some serious replay value. Being able to win an online championship that shows up whenever you fight is something that will push you to get better and continue fighting. The progression system is forgiving enough that you move up even after a loss, meaning that a tough streak is no reason to give up. There is a pretty strong community in play right now that should give you plenty of challengers to meet up with. If you are into a competitive online experience, you’ll find one here.

What this all boils down to is a game that might not last as long as Undisputed 2010, but it can come darn close. After all, a strong online feature can keep players coming back for a long time. This game definitely has one.

Balance

From a single player standpoint, the balance outright stinks. For one, AI fighters almost never know how to escape submissions unless you jack of the difficulty to its highest. I can’t count the number of times I’ve won without throwing a single punch or making one offensive move. I simply got taken down, threw up a triangle, and got a quick win. Also, the computer acts like a mind reader when it comes to dodging strikes, particularly in the clinch. It is amazing to me that I can try a dozen different timings and strike patterns, but the computer finds a way to parry every single attack. On the ground, I can’t land a punch or improve my position half the time, no matter how I time my pass attempts. It gets extremely annoying. What it boils down to is the game is simultaneously too easy and too cheap. It makes for an uneven experience.

However, one you start fighting other humans, you see that the fighting is actually well balanced. Fights come down to skill, stamina management, and forming solid game plans. Sure, there is the odd fluke knockout, but these are rare as I’ve mentioned. You need to be deadly on your feet, a master of submissions, and able to react appropriately to any situation. If you can do that, you can win any fight.

Originality

Well, this is pretty much just another MMA game. Most of what this game does is stuff we’ve seen before. The career mode is pretty basic for sports games, the striking controls are taken from Fight Night, and there was more than a little bit of Deja Vu when playing this game.

The big feather in this game’s cap when it comes to originality is the live broadcast feature. I haven’t seen anything like it any sports game. If it pans out they way they are claiming, it could be something truly special. As it is, we’ll have to wait to see how that turns out.

Addictiveness

I honestly had to push myself to keep playing this game. I was getting annoyed with the AI’s cheap tactics and the odd booking. I didn’t get the same sense of growth from my fighter as I have in most other games. He was steadily getting stronger, but neither his new moves or improved stats affected how I went into each battle. Again, this is mostly due to the cheap AI. For example, my guy had awesome strength in his punches, but it was impossible to land a hit, so I settled for submissions because they were dependable. Contrarily, in UFC I was able to change up my game drastically by adding a new move or skill. It would get to where I could be comfortable in all situations and could dictate the pace. I never got that with this game’s single player.

Once again, the online functionality saves this game. I found it easy to fight multiple times in a row, even when on a losing streak, because it was so much fun. It also kept me going in the career because I wanted to improve my created player so I could be more competitive.

If you haven’t figure it out by now, the online experience is vastly superior to the online one.

Appeal Factor

Well, if you’re both an MMA fan and a video game nerd, chances are you’ve already played one of the UFC games and you’ve played them to death. Take me for example, I played through the first game’s career mode about seven or eight times on multiple consoles, and I’ve easily racked up fifty hours or more in this year’s entry.

So, you’re wondering whether or not you should bother with this game. If you prefer Strikeforce to UFC, this is a no brainer. If you’re UFC true, then this game offers one thing that is vastly superior to those games. Care to take a guess at what that is? Come one just look at the last sentence of the last section. That’s right! The online play is vastly superior and practically worth the price of admission on its own.

So, if you want a strong single player game, stick with UFC. If you want competitive online, this game should definitely peak your interest.

Miscellaneous

There is one thing this game does that is truly evil, and I can’t help but take points off for it. You see, the game locks a fighter. Sure, it is just another version of Randy Couture, but that isn’t the point. If you want to unlock this fighter, you have to inundate your friends by getting them to download the demo for this game. So, players who want to use this character are going to be annoying their friends with inane requests. It might seem like a harmless promotional tactic, but it isn’t. EA is keeping content from players unless they shill their games. That’s about as reprehensible as it gets.

Beyond that, my overall experience with this game was quite positive. I have a tendency to pick a brand and stick with it fiercely, so I was a little bit afraid I wouldn’t be able to get into this game because of my love of UFC. However, I was able to get past that and find a game with a very solid fighting engine and a fantastic online option. If you’re looking for a good alternative, this is it.

The Scores
Modes: Good
Graphics: Good
Audio: Enjoyable
Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Good
Balance: Mediocre
Originality: Decent
Addictiveness: Decent
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Decent
Final Score: Above Average Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

EA Sports MMA is a solid start for EA in the world or video games based on the fastest growing sport in the world. The single player aspect might not be up to snuff, but the game features a solid fighting engine, enjoyable presentation, and a dynamite online feature. If you want an alternative to the UFC games or are just looking for a fun competitive multiplayer experience, you should definitely give this game a look. With two major franchises vying to be the best, the future is looking good for MMA games indeed.

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