Version tested: Xbox 360
As it increases in popularity, the world of Mixed Martial Arts is becoming ever more competitive as the best of the best get better by eliminating the weaknesses in their comprehensive fighting styles. With many epic battles to its name, 2010 has already tested some of the sports' greatest champions.
Brock Lesnar's title defence against Shane Carwin and Anderson Silva's gruelling match against Chael Sonnen both saw a bruised champion snatch a submission victory from the jaws of defeat. But while the real-life competition has been consistently brutal, MMA videogames have been dominated by the unchallenged success of UFC Undisputed – until now.
EA Sports MMA steps into the ring this week to see if it has the mettle to topple the champion. But with THQ and Yuke's game having exclusivity with the UFC's armoury of muscle-bound sluggers, how has EA Tiburon come up with a competitive roster?Fortunately, the UFC isn't the only promoter with a penchant for bloody bouts and octagonal cages; EA has teamed up with one of Dana White's biggest competitors, Strikeforce.
We see a virtual Randy Couture wailing on a floored Tim Sylvia as MMA's intro kicks off to a Linkin Park beat. This is then followed by an explosive roll call of Strikeforce's biggest names, including Fabricio Werdum, Fedor Emelianenko and Cung Le. Fedor presides over the main menu, his eyes nonchalantly following whichever game mode you're highlighting. After making him nod like a Churchill pup for about 10 seconds, you may decide it's best not to piss off one of the toughest men on the planet and venture into Fight Now mode.
The fight options range from choosing a rule set which may or may not allow ground knees and elbows to picking from 13 different cages and boxing rings. The size of the roster is impressive, with around 60 fighters including familiar faces like Dan Henderson and current Heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem, who, despite being born in London, avoids adding to our surplus of national pride by being Dutch.
Once the long-winded introductions are out of the way, it's time to start dancing in the octagon. As opposed to Undisputed's fairly technical control scheme, MMA is trying for something more intuitive. It borrows the Total Strike Control system from Fight Night which works by flicking the right analogue stick in different motions, allowing you to string together jabs, hooks, uppercuts and backfists.
Far from being limited to your fists, MMA mixes things up substantially with kick, low and fake modifiers which cater for flying footwork, body strikes and deceptive fakeouts. Defensive manoeuvres, meanwhile, are mapped to the block button and can be modified with the analogue sticks, allowing you to absorb heavy blows, duck away from predictable haymakers and, if you're really good, parry them mid-air to open up counter opportunities.
In a toe-to-toe stand-off, MMA's striking repertoire isn't as extensive as Undisputed's, and in terms of stringing together precise combinations, let's just say that the inclusion of a button-based Classic configuration was a wise decision. But its style of combat is easier to comprehend without losing the inherent gratification of pummelling an opponent into the canvas. This less complicated design also stretches to the clinch and ground game mechanics.
While standing, the face buttons are split between Sprawl, Takedown and Clinch, with Sprawl being an all-purpose "stuffer upper" which, if hammered quickly, will save you from a protracted grapple war. Fail to predict a double-leg takedown, however, and the fight will eventually transition to the ground. From here, it's the familiar story of working from your opponent's full guard, peppering them with punches and trying to gain the full mount position. Rather than offering analogue motions, MMA keeps the ground game strictly digital.
Passing from half guard into side control is only ever a button press away, with your success determined by your opponent's remaining stamina and whether they countered in time. Submissions, meanwhile, come in arm, leg and choke variations which, if timed correctly, put both players into a stamina management mini-game. For joint locks this requires controlled bursts of a single button whereas chokes have you competing to find the sweet spot on an on-screen circle by methodically spinning the analogue stick.
Taken as a whole, MMA's fighting system has a lot in common with Undisputed, which is understandable. But while Undisputed emphasises depth and complexity, MMA's gameplay is more forgiving. That's not to say an experienced player won't dominate an octagon newbie, but MMA has the less demanding learning curve.
It's also surprising how rarely the game throws up a full-blown knockout, as nine times out of 10, the fight will end in a TKO. Some matches will go the three- or five-round distance, but if both players keep a modest tempo then it's only a matter of time before someone gets rocked by a well-timed superman punch. At this point, the game turns into a mash-fest where the attacker rapidly punches with the analogue stick while the defender tries to weather the storm by bashing the defend button.
As streamlined as MMA sounds, EA Tiburon has nonetheless bulked out its plucky young fighter with a few bells and whistles. The most notable is the Career Mode which lets you pick a weight class before using a pretty average fighter creation system to put together your ideal man. In itself this is a missed opportunity, since the one area in which Strikeforce trumps the UFC is by having a women's division.
Once you've selected a menacing haircut and fighting style you're then inducted into Bas Rutten's Elite MMA training gym. From here it's a case of choosing an amateur fighting league and then training for eight weeks before each match. This is done by completing training exercises which slightly improve your attributes and take the form of practising punch combinations on pads and escaping from a full mount within a set time limit.
A good trade-off is that once you complete an exercise to an A-rank standard you can then simulate it rather than go through the whole routine again. Plus, as you advance through the ranks and earn more money, you can travel to other gyms which offer more advanced training programs as well as the opportunity to learn additional techniques. This is the only way to unlock the deadlier flying knees and climbing armbar submissions.
Compare this to Undisputed's number-crunching expedition through the UFC, and MMA feels more straightforward, lighter and less substantial. But it isn't without its charms; intrigue comes courtesy of an aspiring young blogger named Justin who documents your progress through the amateur divisions all the way up to Strikeforce.
In terms of graphical output, MMA is a trickier beast to judge, as although it strives for realism with detailed character models, it often looks oddly pronounced and rubbery. Nonetheless, the attack animations do a good job of conveying momentum and, with cuts and bruises piling on as a fight enters the final round, it's possible to end a match with both fighters looking like they've just taken a Super Soaker of tomato puree to the face.
The best way for a fighting game to save face is to include a robust and full-featured online mode – something which Undisputed has often been accused of lacking. Unfortunately, MMA's online servers are currently barren, but with the Belt Race and Fight Card modes standing in for ranked and player matches there seems to be plenty to keep MMA fans busy.
More interesting still are the hyped Live Broadcasts, invite-only events where the EA Sports community managers check out the online leaderboards and video uploads to determine which players will fight the most interesting matches. Then, after setting a date and a time, players compete for bragging rights with the best matches being posted on the official website.
This is a great idea which, if done correctly, could help to give MMA an edge over the more technically accomplished Undisputed. Because right now, that's exactly what's holding MMA back. Although it gets a lot right with a well-structured fighting system – which has a solid mix of subsystems to master – it doesn't have the same level of hardcore appeal as the current champion.
This also extends to the license itself. Placed side-by-side with the UFC – effectively the MMA premiership – Strikeforce only has a fraction of the big-name fighters. But EA Tiburon's effort is still an accomplished debut which is capable of standing on its own two feet. It doesn't put Undisputed on notice, but at least the MMA arena is no longer a one-game fight.
7 / 10