It’s not often that EA finds themselves in the position of the challenger with something to prove, but after the incredible success of last year’s UFC game, and this year’s entry taking a fantastic game and making it even better, EA Sports MMA certainly had some high expectations to live up to. Fortunately, even with lacking the UFC license, and using the Strikeforce one instead, and dealing with a far more limited roster of name fighters, EA still delivers a fantastic MMA experience.
One thing that the UFC games haven’t done very well was represent the global nature of MMA - as UFC sims, they’re fantastic, but as MMA games, they don’t fully encompass the sport. They covered one company, didn’t include the UFC-owned WEC, and also lacked a PRIDE ring despite that group also being under their corporate umbrella - it also only featured the unified rules of MMA.
EA MMA’s replication of the sport as a whole is fantastic because the developers included multiple countries to fight in, numerous sets of rules, and fighting surfaces - like a hexagonal or circular cage and a PRIDE/DREAM-style ring. If you want to have a unified rules fight with five minute rounds, you can have one in any of those surfaces, or if you’d like a Japanese rules fight ala PRIDE with a ten minute first round and five minute rounds after you can. There’s even a Vale Tudo option, with one 20 minute round and all strikes legal.
Each fighting surface and set of rules imposes its own change to the core MMA game. With the unified rules option, you can be a bit more wasteful with your stamina since you can regain it between rounds, however, when you’re dealing with the monstrous by comparison 10 minute first round for Japanese fights, and especially 20 minute Vale Tudo ones, you need to be more conservative with your approach. You certainly can go all-out and swing for the fences in these contests - but you stand a greater chance of losing then you do in a unified rules fight. As far as the surfaces go, the circular cage gives you the most freedom to move around - so if you like to stick and move, go with that, while the ring can easily trap you because it’s the smallest area to work with, while the hexagonal cage can only trap you against its six sides and gives you more room to work with than the ring, but not as much as the circular cage.
EA MMA’s career mode spans the globe and allows you to fight in all of these areas if you choose the correct companies for each fighting surface. Unlike THQ’s very menu-heavy career mode, EA opted for one that is action, action, action, with some menus to navigate but not many. You’ll start off at Bas Rutten’s gym, and he’ll act as your advisor throughout the mode even when you travel to other gyms - like the ones run by Randy Couture and Pat Miletich, to train in a particular discipline and improve your skills. You start off with low-level fights, then you’ll quickly move up the ranks into a mid-level group until graduating to the major leagues - Strikeforce and the in-game equivalent to PRIDE or DREAM - Mystic. It’s a pretty simplistic mode in theory, but a lot of fun in execution since it doesn’t get bogged down by making things too complicated than they need to be.
Having Bas as your lead instructor was a brilliant move because he’s known within MMA as being one of its most charismatic spokesmen, and that ability makes him perfect for his role here. Just about everything he says is hilarious, and his voice work really adds a sense of humor to the game. He’ll wish you well as you travel from gym to gym, and you’ll get advice from each trainer on how to improve - each gym specializes in something, from boxing, to muay thai, to wrestling, etc., so you’ll wind up as a well-rounded fighter by the time you’re able to reach the major leagues. The career mode doubles as a training mode because unlike the actual training mode, this teaches you how to do things before you do them, while that mode only tells you what to do after you’ve done it - which kind of defeats its purpose to a degree.
EA Sports MMA sets itself apart immediately with its right stick-based controls ala Fight Night, with a kick and height modifier thrown in, while using face buttons to take foes down, avoid being taken down, change position on the ground, and go for submissions. There’s also a more traditional “classic” control setup that uses the right stick for takedowns, takedown blocks, ground movement and submissions, while the face buttons act as your striking commands. I found the classic control scheme to work the best for standup since it’s easier to pick your attack with a specific button than it is with the stick - you can easily push the stick very slightly in the wrong direction and wind up with a different attack than what you want, but using the face buttons to counter on the ground and for takedowns and blocks is actually easier than using the stick.
Submissions are handled differently here than in the UFC games. ‘09 allowed you to mash face buttons, while both ‘09 and ‘10 saw victory come from them by spinning the right stick. Both methods received some criticism, which EA addressed by giving players two ways to earn a submission that involved stick-spinning and button mashing, but also required more skill to use. Chokes require you to clamp the hold on, then slowly rotate the left stick until you hit “the spot”, found with an increasing rumble in the controller as you rotate - kind of like unpicking a lock in stealth games. Arm and leg submissions are earned by clamping on the move only when you have some stamina left - otherwise, your attempt will be countered. When it’s on, you press a button in a rhythmic fashion - enough to apply pressure, but not enough to deplete your stamina gauge, until you see the on-screen X-rayed limb reach its breaking point. This system takes some getting used to, but after a handful of fights, it becomes second nature.
Pretty much everything about EA MMA is technically fine, but there are some hiccups that hurt it. For one thing, loading times are pretty extensive. There’s a minute-long one when you start the game up, then it takes more time to log onto the EA servers upon startup. Loading times before a fight can take up to a minute, which encourages rematches, which have their own problems. When you skip through a ref’s instructions, you’ll often hear his voice as your fight begins - also, the fight could be a few seconds in going by the in-game clock before you’ll actually see it. It’s a very strange glitch. It’s not terrible, it’s just a surprise to see an EA game ship with such a problem.
Online, EA MMA introduces some fantastic features, but is hurt by a lack of available players to face.. However, every fight I had online was lag-free, which makes a timing-sensitive game like this more fun to play online, and the ability to upload highlights is perfect for MMA. The fighter share feature allows players to upload their created fighters to EA’s server, and provide a fine solution to the limited roster problem. The Live Broadcast feature is nice, and allows players who submit the most impressive hype videos on EA’s site to fight developers on two-fight cards. I partook in one event on both my PC and PS3 to compare the two, and the PS3 feed seems to be about a minute behind the PC feed, but featured much crisper video quality. The developer play-by-play commentary native to this feature is pretty amusing - with a recent fight building up the battle by bringing up the hype videos, showing them, and then referencing a fighter doing a Flair flop after getting knocked out. I loved that part, and the idea behind this feature is sound - it really does reward players willing to go the extra mile by submitting hype videos with a relatively authentic live MMA card as their reward.
Visually, EA MMA varies between absolutely stunning and below-average for an MMA game. Character models look tremendous in replays, but during actual fights, they seem to be dramatically downgraded, with bodies going from resembling the real deal to looking more like simplistic action figures that bear a resemblance to the real deal. Compared to both UFC ‘09 and ‘10, the character models seem almost generic by comparison, and it’s even more evident when you compare fighters who have been on both series - like Tim Sylvia, Dan Henderson, and Fabricio Verdum.
However, while the models themselves are a bit lacking, I was very impressed to see muscles flex and in the case of flabby fighters, fat jiggle. Animation-wise, things also vary between silky smooth (especially true for weaving out of an attack’s path or escaping a ground position) and robotic. Standup punches usually look good, but high kicks lack impact, while hammer fists from the full mount look incredibly robotic, and there’s no sense of weight or force behind the blows. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lighter-weight guy like Aoki, or a monster like Fedor or Lashley - they all have the same weightless animation, and it takes a lot of excitement out of the fights.
One area that EA MMA excels at compared to the modern-era UFC games is entrances - they’re actually shown here, albeit in truncated form with only the first half being shown, and then the camera cuts right to the ring or cage for ref instructions. Why only the first UFC games and the lone PRIDE game have full intros, I have no idea - they add a lot to the ambiance of a real-life fight, and can do the same for virtual ones as well. It’s especially mind-boggling here since they actually licensed a lot of music for the soundtrack so entrance music is largely fantastic and sometimes perfectly authentic for the fighter, but the purpose of it is somewhat lost with intros that only take 20 seconds to complete.
Commentary is provided by the legendary Frank Shamrock and Mauro Ronallo, whose announcing career since 16 years of age with Stampede Wrestling is actually brought up in loading screens. They do a fine job, and there’s nothing really “wrong” with the commentary, it’s just less exciting than Rogan and Goldberg’s UFC game work. Ring announcing for Strikeforce cards is done by Jimmy Lennon Jr. while Japanese fights are handled by PRIDE and DREAM’s Lenne Hardt, who does as tremendous a job as ever yelling everyone’s names in the most dramatic manner humanly possible. Strike sound effects are pretty good - the smack of the gloves against the skull and feet against the ribs sound satisfying enough. The licensed soundtrack makes for some great menu music, but the shortened intros hurt it for that purpose.
In the end, EA Sports MMA is a fantastic foundation for the series, and delivers a very fun experience overall. However, it suffers from some robotic animations that cripple the intensity of the fights. I think future installments would easily rectify that matter, but as it is, fights lack intensity that is found in the UFC games because of the extra level of polish they have in their animations. Thanks to the online play and numerous rule setups, there’s a lot of replay value here, but I’d only recommend this as a purchase for MMA die-hards. Casual fans are probably better off waiting for a future, more refined installment.