"I think everybody can agree the visuals are very pretty," says Hedrick "Rocky" Rivero, one of the designers on MMA, as he presents the game. Are they? You think? Flowers are pretty. The Chrysler Building is pretty. Unicorns and waterfalls and that Florence lady out of Florence + the Machine is pretty (just me?). MMA, chock full of sweaty biffers with stubbly faces and tight pants, simultaneously giving each other a lamping and a shoeing - these are the official terms - isn't really pretty is it?
What it is, though, is staggeringly convincing. EA's yet to let anyone outside of the development team pick up a pad for themselves, but to see Fedor Emelianenko and Brett Rogers zip about the ring with a faultless frame-rate, pin-sharp textural details and unnervingly realistic animation provides another one of those rare moments in games where you almost can't believe your eyes.
Compared to the lean forms of boxers like Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, MMA fighters often look like a couple of tanked-up builders laying into each other after a few beers at that pub on Coronation Street, but the work EA has put into making the characters duck and weave and step in and out with that unlikely swiftness the best in the business seem to possess, bodes well for the rest of the game. The actual modelling isn't bad either - when Rogers went to the studio recently for character creation, his new tattoos were still a little puffy, and you can genuinely see that in-game.
Each fighter, we're promised, will behave convincingly throughout. EA is focusing on the personalities and characteristic quirks and flourishes, so Fedor nimbly moves into position with his fists up and a nervy spring in his step as he bounces back and forth on the balls of his feet, while Rogers is more flat-footed and likes to keep his arms relaxed, but unleashes heavy strikes to the centre rather than trading in Fedor's looping punches.
It's hard to tell just how those blows will really feel when you're playing - the animation seems good, and the collision detection is perfect, as it has to be, but the visual feedback and blood is missing from this build - but already the fighters are reacting to each other based on where they currently are in the ring, raising their fists automatically, and moving more precisely as they get in close.
MMA builds on the physics platform of Fight Night Round 4: pre-canned animations are out, and punches and kicks - and the damage they inflict - are calculated on the fly. On top of that, EA's been extensively mo-capping the game's stars to make sure everything is as authentic as possible.
"The fighters would come in for mo-cap, and we wouldn't just capture them," says Rivero. "We'd sit down, talk to them, take notes, find out what they were really all about. And we take feedback. Jason Mayhem Miller said, 'Oh, when you go in for the catch-kick, you've got to still be able to deliver a punch,' so boom! It's in there, it's in the game." (Does anyone know if the producers get tipped for using EA's catchphrase?)
While Fight Night could mainly make do with a close-up viewpoint, MMA brawls, with their bigger rings and awkward cages, not to mention their kicking as well as their punching, mean the camera has to work a bit harder too, zooming in and out of the action as fighters move across a larger game space. Luckily, so far the engine can handle everything the bouts ask of it, and, in debug mode, the developers can move from a full-ring view straight in to see the individual pockmarks on Fedor's face. Not that Fedor has pockmarks, right? (Play along. He might be reading this.)
It's not just the legacy of Fight Night that hangs over MMA, of course, there's the fact that THQ made a pretty good UFC game recently: a polished and surprisingly physical effort filled with star power and the sport's queasy glitz.
EA is confident it can compete, however, pointing out that MMA isn't tied to a single league, which opens the door for the differing strategies of ring matches as well as cage fights, while also ensuring that the game's an ideal vehicle for solving those eternal playground arguments over who would win in a scrap against who if their respective organisations ever allowed for a meet-up. EA also wants the game to work as a primer for the sport - something that will encourage new fans to take a closer look and learn the surprisingly complex nuances of MMA's particular brand of face-pummelling.
All EA's traditional stuff is to be included, with Photo Game Face and Create A Fighter slotting in alongside career mode, but even without the ability to play as Yehudi Menuhin or the family tortoise, MMA is looking extremely promising at the moment. There's a lot EA's not willing to talk about yet: it's mostly quiet on the roster, although it is willing to reveal the team's going for a fan-favourite mix of legends and rising stars, with Frank Shamrock, Randy Couture, and Gegard Mousasi already announced, and there's very little clue as to how the ground game is going to work (the greater game itself will allow for either stick or face button controls as with Fight Night), with the developers announcing only that they're currently iterating on several different approaches, and that the winner will be chosen via a kind of beauty contest at some point in the future.
So we're back to prettiness again and, as Rivero, a self-confessed hardcore fan, who has even managed to get his wife to start following the sport, stares at the screen, controller in hand, his face does seem to have the rapt expression of a man in love, so maybe his original phrasing was bang on the money after all. There's a lot of waiting to be done until it will be clear whether EA has what it takes to floor THQ, but if what the team's currently showing is anything to go by, MMA will certainly be able to put up a decent fight.
EA Sports MMA is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2010.