The last few years has seen plenty of mainstream coverage for the brutal sport of Mixed Martial Arts. With an ever growing amount of television coverage, it is now firmly entrenched as an exciting and legitimate professional sport. Having fought its way out of the more obscure worlds of shady barroom cage fighting and Japanese kickboxing tournaments, the world’s most intense sport now gets the treatment from gaming powerhouse EA Sports. Going head-to-head against the more firmly established UFC: Undisputed series, EA Sports releases an accessible and enjoyable foray in the world of ground, pound, choke-out and submission.
Despite starting with the disadvantage of not having the recognisable fighters from the UFC (with the one prominent exception of MMA legend Randy Couture) developer EA Tiburon takes all the experienced gained from producing the NFL games to release a very playable sport sim.
Going a long way towards making MMA such an enjoyable experience is the well considered and essentially simple control system.
Stand-up is all about striking. You move in and out with the left stick and, just like in Fight Night 4, punches are thrown with the right stick. Holding the triggers changes the head-shots to body-blows or kicks. So, flicking the right stick up and right, depending on which trigger you’re holding, can be a right jab aimed a Randy Couture’s jaw, a right hook to his body or a kick to his leading leg. Also, moving the right stick down and up, depending on the trigger, throws an uppercut or a front kick. Although this gives the fighting a slight arcade feel, with the one action doing different things according to the situation, it makes mastering the basics very simple. However, there are still plenty of combinations and variations to practice before you become a complete fighter.
Once you have kicked Couture in the head a few times, pressing triangle will take you into the clinch. And when you get a solid grip of his head those right stick controlled strikes become foot stamps and knees to the face. A few of these and his stamina will be reduced enough for an easy take down. Pressing the x button while in the clinch will drop him firmly to the ground. There, the battle turns into a contest of conserving stamina and pressing the face buttons. Every time you hit a button, either to gain dominant position, try for a submission, block an attack or break free of the clinch, your stamina will reduce. So getting to a position where you can control your opponent for a while is vital to regaining enough stamina to effectively sink in that leg bar that will end the fight.
Once you've got the knack of the fight mechanics its time to start your MMA career. Like all EA games, MMA has a thorough player creation mode where you can give your 6 ft 6 in, New Zealand born, Muay Thai kickboxer (who looks remarkably like Sonny-Bill Williams) all the tattoos and celebration moves you could ask for. In career mode you are taken under the wing of former UFC Champion Bas Rutten. In fairly brief cut scenes Bas explains how you go about booking fights, training specific areas to increase your cosiderable set of stats, and signing with different organisations. After you win enough fights in the lower leagues you will be contacted by Strikeforce of the Japanese Mystic league to sign a contract and fight for million dollar purses and recognition as the world’s best.
To be the best, you have to go through a lot of training. Every fight you book has a training window of eight weeks. You can choose to train in Bas’s gym or spend your prize money to fly around the world. In the different gyms you can learn special moves from trainers including Randy Coture and Rickson Gracie. There are over thirty different special moves to learn, from flying knees and superman punches, to the legendary Kimura. To gain a special move you have to complete a challenge, such as avoiding a clinch for 60 seconds or knocking a fighter out using just kicks. However, you are only able to learn 16 moves, so choosing what area to specialise in becomes an issue when trying to build the ultimate fighter.
The career mode is pretty simple. Without too much trouble, around a dozen solid fights, you should be holding titles in a couple of lower leagues and signing with Strikeforce. In comparison with some very long career modes in other games, MMA’s is surprisingly short and easy.
So, it’s good that EA Sports MMA has a very solid online mode. The quick play option is just that. You select a weight class and a fighter, from either real life or your career mode, and within seconds you’ll be fighting. However, because stand-up is all about judging distance and timing your strikes, the slightest lag makes winning almost impossible. So, shooting in for quick takedowns, just like the real thing, is often the tactic to go for. Once on the ground the two basic mechanics that you‘ve spent so much time practising come into play to get you that submission victory.
If you get your opponent in a choke, a large circle appears on the screen. A sweet spot indicator swings around the circle and you have to match that movement with your left stick. Hit the spot and the circle shrinks, closing off you opponent’s airway. Release the stick and you regain some stamina, making it that much easier to cinch in. Fighting for (or out of) choke holds is intense, dramatic and works brilliantly.
Joint submissions are achieved differently. Once you have established the hold, the camera zooms in and a x-ray image of the stressed joint appears over your opponent’s leg or arm. Tapping the square button slowly will maintain the pressure while not dramatically reducing your stamina. As the pressure increases on the joint the x-ray turns red. Tapping fast may get you a quick tap-out, but it might use up all your stamina, making the hold easy to break. This system feels a bit more hit and miss than the choke mechanic, but can sometimes get you a surprise win even if you have been in trouble for the majority of the fight.
If your wins start to mount up you can eventually gain championship belts within the EA online community or upload and download fights and created fighters. You can also set up fight cards to manage a pool of ten fighters to compete against and watch, scouting them before taking them on yourself. If MMA is short and simple in singleplayer, like the best sport sims it becomes far more challenging when playing real people.
All things considered, EA Sports MMA is a very solid game. Like a 15 and 10 fighter who has won his last four bouts and finally gets a shot at a title, it’s a game that’s more a hard worker than a prodigious talent. The graphics are fine, and while there is nothing spectacular or groundbreaking to look at, the fighters all look very good. Unfortunately, the commentary, though not noticeably repetitive, sometimes gets a long way behind the action.
So, a few small issues, coupled with a short career mode, undermines a very playable game. It’s a game with a nice control system, a lot of fine fighters, a selection of venues from the UK, the US and Japan and the ability to fight in cages or boxing rings. As well as Unified and Strikeforce rules you can fight Vale Tudo and Japanese matches all with different restrictions on using kicks, knees and elbows. But, as with all MMA matches, it’s all about training hard, self-discipline, mastery of ancient and noble martial arts, and, most importantly, kicking the crap out of half naked men.