It’s been more than 25 years since I was in an honest-to-god fistfight, and it was brutally embarrassing. But if I could fight, I’d like to think I’d do it just like my fighter in EA Sports UFC 2: relentlessly, on top of the other guy, raining down fists like Ralphie on the bully from A Christmas Story.
Over the past eight years, mixed martial arts video games have tended to baffle me as I struggled to remember the discrete command inputs and tactics in the sport’s three different phases of standing up, the “clinch” and then down on the mat. UFC 2 comes the closest of any in allowing me to win, credibly, with what I’m good at, and in helping me minimize or hide my shortcomings.
The result in UFC 2 is something that, in my hands at least, looks like a real fight instead of a series of spammed inputs from my panicky hands. My bouts unfold with MMA’s distinctive tension, followed by a burst of scream-at-the-TV action. Even the best fighters are still in perpetual danger, and not just from flash knockouts, which have lost some of their randomness. A lucky punch can cascade into all sorts of bad outcomes if you get careless, as it should.
A lucky punch can cascade into all sorts of bad outcomes if you get careless
To unlock this action, one must understand who they are as a fighter. EA Sports UFC 2 doesn’t have much of a tutorial, but it does feature a series of skill challenges that are a must for any newcomer or intimidated novice. You’re going to have to do a little bit of everything in MMA at some point, but you have to be honest about what you’re not good at so you can build a fighter with what you are. In my case, I found that I was really good at takedowns and very good at avoiding them, and that I really enjoyed hitting guys in the face.
A ground-and-pounder may sound more like a cliché than a breakthrough for those more experienced with MMA games, but I was surprised at how effective I was in picking a plan and sticking to it. I felt like, if I was better at submissions, kickboxing and prolonged work in the clinch, the game would have been fine letting me win that way, too. As a scared rookie around my fifth fight, deliberately taking on a tougher opponent fighting a muay thai style, I beat his ass inside of the first minute when I wobbled him with an uppercut, providing all the opening I needed to get him to the ground and thrash him. That was just as authentic as the next fight, where I submitted in the second round.
EA Sports UFC 2 features a significant new assist to help players manage the grappling system. When you’re clinched, a joystick map appears, indicating the available holds and stances you can transition to. It’s then a matter of pushing the stick in that direction and holding it there for a period of time to complete the move. Naturally, this is affected by the countermoves the AI or other player will use to avoid the hold (and counter-countermoves you can attempt to keep it going), as well as ratings and fighter stamina.
But I’m no longer clueless about what constitutes a major or a minor transition, which one is appropriate in the situation, or how to execute it on the sticks. It’s also a lot less panic-inducing when someone puts me on the ground and transitions to a dominant position; I feel like I at least know my escape route, even if I might be battered to the point that I can’t make it. The one-move transitions, holds and takedowns (the stick modified with a trigger press) make UFC 2 much more accessible than its predecessor.
momentary stumbles and slips are an opportunity for the hawk-eyed fighter
The drawback, however, is that I spent a lot of time looking at that on-screen indicator instead of the rest of the game, and UFC 2 is gorgeous. This was a selling point of its 2014 predecessor, but there’s still recognizable polish to UFC 2‘s visuals. Animations are more lifelike and really sell the moves, without the kind of jerkiness that makes combat sports characters seem robotic. Moreover, this is useful information —€” information I missed while staring at the transition interface — because the momentary stumbles and slips are an opportunity for the hawk-eyed fighter.
Punches, kicks and knockouts arrive with palpable force and sound to match, and as a fight wears on, both combatants can look downright hideous. Still, some strike controls remain as complicated as ever, leaving me pretzel-fingered as I attempted some of the moves that distinguish MMA. More than a few need a bumper, a left-stick motion and a face button press, and the volume of different options made it hard for me to commit more than one to memory. Parrying a strike is difficult, perhaps necessarily so, but because high and low blocks are separated, it can require hovering fingers above both the right bumper and trigger — an unnatural, uncomfortable position.
In an MMA game I want to be able to instinctively do, like, MMA things — like a superman punch or a dramatic roundhouse kick. But in the higher-difficulty strike drills, where I struggled to earn a D grade with jumping knees or spinning back fists, it became clear that putting my knuckles in the other guy’s grill, a lot, was job one.
The submission minigame also remains as inscrutable as ever unless you’re willing to put in a ton of frustrating practice, despite a new coat of paint. In the first EA Sports UFC, the “stages” of a submission hold were all of an equivalent length, and every submission comprised five stages. UFC 2 tries to add variety to this by giving some submissions fewer stages, and by adding a left-stick prompt for the attacker, which if keyed in time will advance the submission to the next stage.
This isn’t as simple as it sounds. As in the first UFC, attacker and defender are still scooting around a four-direction map with their right sticks, trying to fill up a quadrant or block it. Also, any early or late left-stick press results in an instant escape for the defender, meaning it’s better sometimes to not answer that prompt and continue focusing on thwarting your opponent’s escape. I don’t think I completed a single submission in the tutorial, and in my fight career I focused on avoiding rather than applying submission holds, which is a lot easier, almost unfairly so. It strips out a lot of value to have such a distinguishing feature of MMA inaccessible to all but the most committed practitioners.
Online play offers a standard menu of options, including a “rivalries” wrapper that tracks your stats against fighters you challenge from your friends list, and a ranked championship series running on a promotion/relegation system similar to online leagues in FIFA. What I played was smooth enough that I could fight as naturally as I did versus the computer offline, but it bears mentioning that online multiplayer has been on less than a day, and only on Xbox One. We will revisit this review if additional time with online multiplayer affects our opinion.
The career mode doesn’t have a lot of trimmings, but you can now create a woman and take her through a career as robust as the men’s division — a noteworthy if overdue addition. Still, it’s going to be up to the player to concoct any real narrative for themselves if they want to feel like a big-time fighter, as there isn’t much in the presentation that acknowledges your progress, outside of winning a title.
The between-bouts portion of the career mode adds a wrinkle to the training exercises, in that a fighter can hurt himself or herself if they attempt a higher-difficulty drill, particularly if it’s in an unfamiliar discipline. There’s also a wear-and-tear factor to the fights themselves; you might take a hell of a beating and still win, but that’s going to shorten your career. It’s a competent package that keeps the mode from being just a series of fights strung together, but not by much.
UFC 2 also adds its own take on Ultimate Team, the microtransaction-driven staple of team titles like Madden and FIFA, and Knockout Mode, which became quite a guilty pleasure. Knockout Mode is more for casual play and better with a couch companion, but you can also whale on the CPU and get right to the point of a fight game, which is a KO. In the mode, players are reduced to hit points and strikes take one off, so when a fighter is out of hit points, he drops to the canvas like a 40-pound bag of puppy chow. I found it useful as sparring practice in ways the more structured striking drills aren’t, without going through an entire match that might involve grappling and other things I don’t want to do.
Ultimate Team is essentially a career mode with online multiplayer, leaderboards and championships. Players create a stable of five fighters, either gender, and the card-collecting concept comes in to give them fighting moves, styles and other upgrades that you can distribute among them. Yes, there’s the option to just buy something for real money rather than earn the virtual dough needed. Where I found Ultimate Team useful was in getting me to play outside of the familiar style of my career fighter, because sometimes I’d get a great card for something like a judo style. You can earn the virtual currency that buys these cards by playing the mode a lot, but of course EA Sports is hoping people also splurge on something they want right now, for real money.