Up to this point the Mixed Martial Arts space has been dominated by THQ's UFC series. Not being one to be left out of the party, EA Sports is leaping into the ring with the aptly named EA Sports MMA. While it is lacking the big-name UFC license, that doesn't stop EA's first foray into the MMA world from impressing in more than a few crucial areas.
For those uninitiated, Mixed Martial Arts has been all the rage over the last five years or so. It pits two combatants in an octagonal, circular or boxing ring (all of which are available in-game), puts gloves on the two blokes (no women are present in EA Sports MMA) and pits them against each other in a no-holds-barred (nearly) battle.
While UFC is undoubtedly the largest name in the space, Strikeforce (a league that's present in EA Sports MMA) and other organizations have plenty of talent and pizzazz in their own right. EA Sports MMA is a game that tries to infuse the global nature of the sport into the experience it delivers, while still showing that MMA is one of the most brutal sports on the planet. While it lacks some depth in its feature set, there's little doubt that THQ needs to bring its A-game with the next UFC if it wants to wrestle away the title belt from this newcomer.
The first, and also the most important, thing that EA Sports MMA does right is the action in the ring. There are certainly missteps that I'll get into later, but for the most part EA keeps things moving at a high level. The control scheme – the crux of any MMA game – is handled much better than it has been in other series. EA Sports happily relies on its Fight Night, right analog stick mechanics for the striking. That means that swiveling the stick in pretty much any direction will yield a punch, while making those same motions with the left trigger held will launch kicks. Once you head into the clinch or to the ground, that's when buttons enter the fray.
Essentially A advances your position or performs a takedown, X performs a submission in the proper situation, Y will enter the clinch or attempt to stand up while on the ground, and B blocks your opponent's attempts to bring you down or advance his position. There are certainly modifiers that can be used to widen the breadth of attacks (both strikes, takedowns, and moves on the ground, in the clinch and standing), but those are the basics.
I also enjoyed the strategic pass (advance your position in the clinch or on the ground) system that EA Sports has implemented. When you're on the ground the game preaches a "strike to pass, pass to strike" mentality, and it's extremely evident, especially in multiplayer. It works like this: as you strike your opponent, it brings down their stamina, which makes it easier to pass. In multiplayer this strategy is taken a step further. When you strike your opponent, it rumbles their controller (while still bringing down their stamina). The same goes for when you try and make a pass. That means you can disguise pass attempts with strikes. If I throw three strikes on three consecutive trips to the ground, chances are you'll think those same three strikes are coming the next time we hit the dirt. That gives me the perfect opportunity to only launch two strikes, then go for the pass and advance my position as you're trying to block a strike that never came. Your controller will still do the telltale rumble, thus leading you to think that the predicted strike was still on its way. Of course, by that time I'd probably be in full-mount, postured up and raining elbows to your eye sockets.
Sadly that system only truly shines when playing against another human opponent. I could never escape the feeling that the CPU was a bit cheap with its moves and its uncanny ability to counter my ground moves with extraordinary efficiency (when facing against upper-echelon opponents). The same goes for its ability to lean away from and parry stand-up strikes. I still didn't lose many fights in my career, but when I faced tougher opponents, the frustration felt like it was higher than it should have been.
For solo play, the two options are standard exhibition fights and a career mode, though there's also a strangely built tutorial known as MMA 101. I say "strangely built" because it doesn't actually show you how to do anything without you first pressing a few buttons. Basically, when you first launch a punch, it shows you that the right stick is used for punches. When you go for a takedown, it shows you which button is used for takedowns. It's much different than the traditional tutorials in sports games and could make it tough for those not willing to venture into the deep career mode to learn the real intricacies of the game.
Career Mode is obviously the real meat of EA Sports MMA. It allows you to create a fighter (using Photo GameFace, if you like), outfit him with one of nearly ten fighting styles, strap on some skin-tight shorts and send him into the ranks under the expert tutelage of Mr. Bas Rutten (who does some of the funniest voice work I've ever heard in a sports game). Thankfully, though, you aren't limited to Bas's gym. Instead, EA Sports MMA incorporates the true international nature of the sport and allows you to travel the world over to learn different moves from several different fighting styles. You get a different trainer with each gym that you visit and you select different special moves depending on the fighting style you're studying.
Of course, none of this means much without training exercises to develop different areas of your fighter's skills. Instead of having you run through the same training exercises over and over, EA Sports MMA implements a system that allows you to easily sim activities once you've completed them. There are separate levels for different drills (you'll need to earn an A grade on kickboxing 1 to get to kickboxing 2 and so on), so there's a bit of repetition there, but it's never as much of an annoyance as it is in other sports titles.
Once you start earning a few wins with your created fighter, you'll ascend the ranks of your league until you reach the top, at which point you'll start over in a new league with tougher opponents. One big issue that I had with the career mode is that there really isn't much to do outside of training and fighting. There's no media exposure beyond a text-heavy blog that you can check after each fight and there's no sign of endorsements working their way into your fighter's career. I think that this first year is a great starting point for the franchise going forward, but they really need to blow it out with the next iteration with more activities that actual MMA fighters have to deal with on a daily basis.
The online offerings deviate nicely from the single-player fare and bring refined elements to the table. The first, and likely most attractive, is Live Broadcast, a mode where you match up against a fighter, set a time for your bout and can then send out a simple URL to your friends and they'll be able to watch either on their console or on their PC. Coupled with the live broadcast are hype videos that will be seen by everyone watching the fight except the two fighters themselves. It's an odd choice to have the hype videos hidden from the actual fighters, since the videos themselves are an integral part of smack talking. Thankfully the onlookers will get to see everything and the combatants can view the fight replay (a certain number of replays are stored for scouting purposes) which will contain the hype videos.
Elsewhere online you'll find the ability to build your own Fight Card, which is very similar to designing your own Pay-Per-View. You build out a list of combatants, all of which can hop online and watch the fights that they're not involved in before heading in to their own bout. For regular ranked matches, EA has given fighters the ability to earn belts for every weight class and they've decked the game out with some custom commentary (the same stuff you'll hear in your career) for title shots.
The online options coupled with the sizeable career mode make EA Sports MMA a very attractive package, but I can't help but feel like it needs more. In the modern day of sports games, you really have to throw the kitchen sink at a game to turn heads. EA Sports MMA has a wonderful foundation built for the next iteration, but the amount of content isn't quite where it needs to be.
Thankfully the visuals pack more than enough punch to pick up the slack. EA Sports MMA uses Fight Night Round 4 technology which equates to muscles that flex and awesome physics-based combat that looks more natural than anything we've seen from the genre prior. I'll admit that animations get a little repetitive once you've seen the same takedown a few hundred times, but the feel of the combat stays natural through most of the gameplay.
All of the presentation elements in EA Sports MMA keep to a relatively high level. The announcers are accurate for the most part and have some surprisingly fluid deliveries during specified instances. Punches and kicks in the ring also sound solid without ever being overblown and arcadey. The one thing I'd like to see (or hear) added is grunts and more sounds of struggling when grappling for position in the ring.