No matter if you are new to the whole “MMA” idea or are a seasoned veteran of all things fight related (including THQ’s Undisputed series), the first thing you will want to do is play a round or two in the MMA 101 tutorial. What is different and cool about this “how to” guide is the fact that it’s not the usual approach that is most often used in games like this. Instead, it turns up the pageantry of MMA right from the start by placing you in an actual fight, complete with intros, announcers, and a referee. Another sweet idea is the “adaptive” style of the tutorial itself: instead of the “try-to-teach-you-everything-in-5-minutes” philosophy, this allows you to kind of “feel things out” and let you decide want you want to learn first. It tells you that the Left Thumbstick controls the character, then it gives instructions as the fight matures: in close and trying to strike? it tells you how to use the Right Thumbstick (by default) and the different gestures that coordinate to a particular punch or kick. But if your getting your bell rung instead, it informs you of how to block shots so that you can create an opportunity to get some offense going. On the flip side, if the game detects you may be trying to get the fight on the ground, it will let you in on the ways in which to go in for the takedown, how to transition, land blows, and even get a submission attempt. As the fight plays out, you either will win or lose the fight the way you would in any other game mode, but it gives you the option to hit “Rematch” and get it going again. My advice is to replay it a few times, and try a different approach each time (standup, then takedown, then “ground n’ pound,” then submission).
This leads into the second way to play, the Fight Now option. This is the standard “pick up and play” exhibition offering that is found in most sports/fighting titles. Here, you select a particular weight class from Lightweight to Heavyweight and the venue which spans different parts of the world (from Japan to Cowboys Stadium) and different ring styles (standard square and ropes to hexagon cages to round cages). The third selection is the most interesting and is an advantage over the UFC game, and that is rules. Because mixed martial arts are a global phenomenon, one will encounter different sets of guidelines depending on what the customs for that particular part of the world are. The one we in the U.S. are most accustomed to seeing are the Stikeforce rules which are 3 rounds/5 minutes a piece and no ground elbows/kicks/or knees are allowed. The second option are Japanese standards of 2 rounds with a 10 minute first round then a 5 minute second and allows for ground kicks and knees but no ground elbows. The third (and my personal favorite) is the Brazilian Vale Tudo style which consist of a no holds barred 1 round of 20 minutes that allows all ground attacks. And if none of these appeal to you, try the unified option that combines the Strikeforce round/time structure with ground elbows, but no ground kicks or knees.
This is probably the best way to get practice in and have a ball in the process. As I said before, the UFC guys are obviously not in this game, but you can probably find some names you are familiar with even if you’re not a huge mma fan such as Ken Shamrock, Bobby Lashley, Herschel Walker (yes, that Herschel Walker), and Randy Couture. The format is about the same as it is for MMA 101 without the tutorial guides, but gives you the freedom to really uncover the gameplay elements for yourself. The most basic and best offensive choice is strikes (punches and kicks). Fight Night fans will feel right at home with MMA’s Total Strike Control that utilizes the Right Thumbstick to do different kinds of strikes like jabs, hooks, and uppercuts. You can also hold L2 and performs kicks instead of punches that target the head and legs. The game also allows you to modify the strikes; by holding R1 you can target the midsection and really get the opponent’s stamina down. Speaking of stamina, this is the most important gameplay aspect to grasp and keep in mind while playing. Unlike the “button mashing” strikes that are characteristic of the Undisputed games, you really have to watch your wind and make sure you don’t over exert yourself. Landing strikes uses a lot less of the bar, but if you repeatedly try a punch or kick strategy that is not working and is getting blocked, you will hit a wall really quickly and leave yourself open for a barrage of attacks from the other guy. And you will also be useless if you want to take the fight to the ground. The ground game isn’t quite as intricate as the standup portion, but it works. Attempting a takedown is as simple as pressing X at an opportune time, and you also advance you position by tapping X while on the mat. Submission attempts are done with Square and are another case of pace. Locks and bars are done by pressing Square in a nice rhythm so that you continually apply pressure and conserve stamina at the same time. Chokes are a little different; you are given a white circle in the middle of the screen with a moving blue section that goes around the circle, you them must “catch” the moving part by mimicking it with the Left Thumbstick. This mechanic takes some getting used to, but in practice, it actually becomes sort of natural. After the fight, you can save a replay with different camera angles and speeds, select a rematch, or quit back to the Play Now screen.
As equally impressive as the revolutionary gameplay is the Career Mode. When you start a “run at greatness” the game takes you to the Elite MMA gym and your trainer is none other than MMA legend (and YouTube sensation) Bas Rutten. He gives you the normal talk about how scaling the mountain is a tough road, but that with hard work and dedication, your dreams are attainable, yada, yada, yada. The first thing you get to do is create a character. You first give general info (name, hometown, height/weight and weight class), then choose your fighting style (from Brawler to Jiu-Jitsu to Wrestling) and each has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. The most limited aspect of creating a fighter is the appearance offerings. A few years ago, I picked up the EA title Def Jam Icon. The game itself was okay, but it had the most incredible customization options for a fighting game ever, complete with the EA F.A.C.E technology that allowed you to have near complete control over the look of your character. I don’t know where that amazing engine went, but it’s definitely not in this game. You can use the GameFace option which allows you to use a picture of yourself for the character, but the basic selections in the game itself are short and bland. The tattoos are also kind of a letdown, you can choose many different places to put them, but the ones in the game feel kind of “campy” and do not go along with the “realistic” theme of the game. The clothing options, on the other hand, are really good from the vast selection of t-shirts to the varied short styles that allow for much customization.
After getting your guy the way you want him, it’s time to fight. There are three levels of the career that you move through to become the eventual world champion in your weight class. Before each fight, you are given eight weeks to train. This is a very well designed part of this mode and is a nice asset to the game as a whole. A week can be used to work on a particular skill (standing strikes, defending strikes, ground strikes, ground defense, ect.) and based on you performance in the drill, your ratings will improve in certain areas depending on what drill you do. Fans of this genre will pick up on this system right away, and even those new to sport fighting games will get used to it very quickly. You can also spar with someone else, and it doesn’t cost any weeks to do which gives you as much fighting practice as you want between fights. The first league features pretty easy fights and you will more than likely find yourself in a title bout it no time. During that first short step towards immortality, you get the opportunity to “travel” and go to camps run by some of the greats in the sport to take part in more intense training sessions and learn “special moves” like triangle chokes and Superman punches that will set you apart from the competition. After spending time and whoopin’ ass in the mid tier, you will be given a choice between entering one of the two major leagues in the world (Mystic in Japan or Strikeforce in the U.S.) and attempt to complete the quest of being called the best in the world!
The last main selection is Multiplayer, which allows you to play someone on the same console, or settle the score online. The online options allow for some cool ways to battle real people. The first is Quickfight, which matches you up with a comparable adversary to duke it out against. Upon wins, you “rank up” by advancing your color of belt from white on up. Continuing to treat kids like chumps will give you the opportunity to contend for championship belts and separate yourself from others online. The other way to play over the Internet is with Fight Card, which gives you the ability to become a promoter and set up fights between your online friends in the undercard and put yourself in the main event. What’s cool is the fact that the Fight Card bouts don’t count in your ranked record, and gives one a chance to just have fun and trash talk with your buddies. The most innovative portion of online is the Live Broadcast, in which top gamers from across the world are given the chance to compete live while other MMA players are watching as it happens, complete with hype videos created by the combatants that air before the opening bell.
Along with the strong gameplay and game modes, the presentation is spot on as well. The character models are okay looking overall, but don’t quite blow you away like the ones in Fight Night Round 3. But what is very impressive about them is how close the body structures come to looking just like their real world counterparts. The first time I played with Couture and Bob Sapp I was taken aback by how the Tiburon folks were able to make Randy look fit but aging while Sapp has the abnormally big shoulder, biceps, and chest that he does for real. The collision detection on display here is fantastic. I can’t remember a time when a fist went straight through a face without making contact, or arms didn’t wrap around legs during a takedown attempt. This is a mark of superb dev work and should be celebrated. The sound design is pretty good, but doesn’t quite hit the mark as strongly as the aforementioned aspects. The fight sounds themselves are nice, but there are times they could seem a tad more “dramatic” (like a big pop when you got someone against the ropes). One part that Undisputed definitely has the upper hand in is with the announcing. UFC fans are treated to the great combination of Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan in their game, while MMA gets play-by-play with Mauro Ranallo and color commentary by Frank Shamrock. This duo isn’t bad, but it just doesn’t quite measure up to the Goldberg/Rogan connection. I will say that I am very thankful that EA didn’t use Gus Johnson and went with Ranallo instead because although Johnson may be a good NFL guy, his work is beyond terrible when he does Strikeforce events on TV. Thank you so much for not putting us through that crap in this game. The EA Trax in this effort are a nice touch to the sounds of the game, and offer a wide selection like Linkin Park, Method Man, and even “off the wall” stuff like Japanese rap/metal fusion.
Although sparse, there are a few negatives to this title. There tends to be some frustration in the gameplay when going against a CPU opponent that is either much lower that your character in stats or is a completely different discipline. When I was just getting used to the game, I did a Play Now match where I picked Rutten and chose Kevin Randleman to go up against (hoping it could be a fight I could learn from). Because Bas’s ratings were much higher than Randleman’s, 95% of his “strategy” was to get me in the clinch. He wouldn’t try any real offense to speak of like knees, he simply didn’t want me mangling his face. And while that is a very valid way to handle a fight, playing a video game representation of that is boring and uninteresting. I was finally able to wear his stamina down and he had to open up, but until then it was a lot of “rinse and repeat” of getting in and out of his clinch. The second is that it is extremely hard to land a flash knockout. When I watched the first Live Broadcast held on PSN, one guy dominated the main event. But during the course of the thrashing, he landed numerous flying knees. I felt like after the poor guy was running low on health, one of them should have knocked him out, but he was able to take much more punishment than I expected. The ground mechanics are also a bit simple. Overall, this is kind of like the thinking man’s MMA game, but transitioning is simply button mashing on X, and just doesn’t seem to fit the overall motif of the control scheme. The last point is kind of nit picky, but the game would have been better for it. I feel the folks at EA should have worked their tails off to get as many major MMA leagues and tournaments as they could into this one. Strikeforce and Mystic are good, but they should have also tried to get the licenses to M-1, K-1, the Dream tournament, Bellator, the list goes on. If they could have gotten that done, this game would have flat out been better than this year’s Undisputed.