There's little doubt that mixed martial arts (MMA) is one of the fastest-growing sports of today, captivating audiences of increasing magnitude in a sport tantamount to modern-day gladiator fighting. Much of this has been possible due to the promotional efforts of the president of the UFC, the biggest MMA organisation in the world. If you haven’t seen it, give it a chance because quite simply, it’s an absolute spectacle. MMA fans now have two choices when seeking their virtual MMA thrills: THQ's UFC Undisputed 2010 and EA Sports MMA.
EA Sports MMA offers the standard range of game modes expected with a sports title: a quick play, exhibition-type mode, a career mode and online play. The exhibition mode is great, offering a range of styles and rule sets, including the fabled Brazilian Vale Tudo, which can dramatically alter strategy and outcomes of fights. The career mode is spectacular. It starts with the usual premise of taking an unknown athlete to the pinnacle of achievement, but the levels of customisation and training take it to another level. The online play was solid, with little error or lag, and I had some excellent fights against a range of opponents.
Game modes aside, the real success of any sports game generally comes down to the gameplay. You can have all the amazing modes, dress up all you like, but if the actual product is sub-par, the game will flop. For those new to MMA, there are three distinct areas where fights take place: stand-up, in the clinch and on the ground.
The stand-up portion of MMA is fighting on the feet. Think a combination of boxing, kick-boxing, Muay Thai, even karate. EA Sports MMA does a superb job of modelling the stand-up, both for offence and defence. The controls are assigned to the analogue sticks by default, much like EA Sports’ Fight Night. The controls combined with the animation allow fluid, realistic-looking striking that’s just excellent. There's nothing more satisfying in this game than stringing together a beautiful combination of punches, kicks, knees and elbows. The defence is equally good, utilising a solid combination of movement and blocking.
The only real issue with the stand-up is the rigidity of the footwork, which is a detriment for those who try to use strategic movement to control the ring. But it’s a very minor issue, and going back and playing UFC Undisputed 2010 only served to remind how far ahead EA Sports’ striking is.
The clinch is an area of grappling in MMA, where fighters control each other either on the feet or in an effort to take the fight to the ground. There’s a wide range of strikes, positions, takedowns and throws at your disposal. The ground game is not up to the standard of the clinch or stand-up; it’s oversimplified and just turns in to a strategic button mash. There’s such a range of jiu-jitsu positions and passes that could have been used. It's a real shame about the ground game, as the rest of the gameplay is impeccable.
Presentation-wise, EA Sports MMA is hit and miss. Graphically, it’s a masterpiece. The fighters look great, all brilliantly modelled and represented. The effects and animations are on another level entirely; seeing blood and sweat spray, muscles flex and noses break is incredible. The commentary is another story however, with the two commentators possessing an extremely annoying and limited repertoire between them The other sound effects are standard, though the commentary is a definite black mark.
But, as great as this game is, there’s a down side: the roster. There’s no way around it; it's lacklustre and will probably be the difference between EA Sports MMA being an unheralded success and a business disaster. Any MMA game released lacking UFC fighters is going to struggle. The UFC is the biggest MMA organisation in the world, featuring a host of recognisable names from Brock Lesnar to Georges St. Pierre, who have huge drawing power with casual fans. While the roster for EA MMA is littered with stars of Strikeforce, the second biggest MMA organisation, and other, smaller outfits, the difference between them and the UFC is huge. EA Sports MMA certainly has its share of elite fighters, but the casual fan is largely unaware of Fedor Emelinaneko and Alastair Overeem, let alone the likes of Gegard Mousasi and Jacare. How much this will hurt EA Sports MMA remains to be seen, but the significance of the UFC brand in the world of MMA cannot be understated.
So what are we left with in the end? EA MMA is a huge step in the right direction for MMA games. The striking is superb, the game is deep and the overall gameplay is superior in almost every way to UFC Undisputed. Where UFC Undsiputed holds a massive edge, however, is in the licensing. The UFC is a major brand, and its fighters are known commodities that have universal appeal to MMA fans. It seems clear that THQ’s and EA Sports’ titles will certainly appeal to very distinct audiences. EA Sports MMA has a steep learning curve and is a far more simulation-styled approach to MMA. THQ's game, on the other hand, is far more arcadish and very easy to pick up and play, but the rigidity and simplicity of the game make it feel like playing Rock-em, Sock-em Robots in comparison.
EA Sports MMA is an excellent game and there's no denying that competition will bring out the best in both developers; it's just a case now of seeing whether EA Sports MMA can survive, in a UFC-dominated world.