EA Sports UFC 4 finds itself in a unique position as it kicks off the 2021 season. It’s also the only game in the EA Sports catalog that does not come out on a yearly cycle. This presents a unique position for the team as they have longer to work on it which is something many of the Madden, FIFA, and NHL players clamor for; for the development teams to get extra time. In some respects that extra time is helpful and in other respects not as helpful as you might think.
To really understand the DNA of the EA Sports UFC franchise we have to go all the way back to 2009 when THQ tasked wrestling game developer Yukes with also making its newly-acquired UFC license into a video game. The series pioneered the Tekken style controls (one button controls one limb) that still stands today. While a failed project, EA Sports MMA leaves in some of the DNA from the once-popular Fight Night series. While THQ and Yukes were able to produce a follow-up in 2010 they missed 2011 and instead called the last game in the Undisputed line Undisputed 3. In 2012, THQ announced that they would give over the rights to EA who would begin their current franchise in 2014.
So where does that leave us in 2020? What you end up with is something that is slowly becoming more of a fighting game and also a gigantic brawler with a WWE 2K game size roster. Because of this, even signature fighters can begin to feel somewhat homogenized. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. In EA Sports UFC every type of move is assigned to the same button input no matter what fighter you’re using. You know what buttons are going to do what. While not a pure fighting game in the traditional sense, this is probably the easiest pickup, play, and “do cool shit” type of fighting game you will find and for that, it has my praise. Spinning kicks and punches, while difficult, can create a satisfying feeling. These might not be viable for an entire fight, but allow you to feel powerful for a brief moment. You use these bigger strikes by holding down the button, while this does simplify combat, as a person with slight motor function impairments, I find it difficult to switch between tap and hold commands when the game wants me to and while not a deal-breaker it is something that I’m not sure that I can overcome.
The developers have spent the majority of the cycle on one of the forgotten elements of the game: the clinch. In previous titles, it was this weird stop-gap between the standing and the ground where you had to use the standing punches and ground transitions to get into an ultimate position to lay down knees to the head. This time around it looks much closer to what you are likely to see in a televised fight, much closer to dirty boxing and scrambling today. As opposed to the standard grab the neck and knee their head over and over; techniques that you might see in past UFC events, this is maybe the last bastion of adding ‘realism’ to the game. Now it’s much easier to get in close and handle a variety of strikes inside the clinch. And much much easier to trip fighters and get them on the ground.
When you decide you want to take someone down in UFC 4 the new simplified grappling control will help you get a faster understanding of what’s happening on the ground. This is where real-life knowledge of the sport can come in handy. But if you’re completely unfamiliar it shouldn’t take more than a couple of rounds on the ground to understand the hierarchy of positions. Color coding for escaping, advancing, and getting submissions makes it much easier to understand, even for returning players. The submission system is maybe the sweet spot that the series has been hunting for, for nearly a decade. Joint submissions like armbars and leg locks are simpler to understand and easier to pull off while more complex chokes might take longer to sink in, both systems are understandable and this is the most I’ve been able to submit people in an EA Sports UFC game
In somewhat of a bold move the team has decided to get rid of an EA sports staple; instead of presenting an overall rating they now present a 1 to 5-star rating with half-star increments. This improves readability and can lead to a greater understanding of what a fighter’s best discipline is. Additionally, they have taken out the EA Sports Ultimate Team mode. While it is popular among the rest of the franchises, the developer cited low player engagement and an inability to produce content over the life cycle of the game. Instead, they have opted to give players Overwatch style progression based on cosmetics. The Cosmetics are outlandish to some extent but not fully out of line with the old EA Sports Tiger Woods, NFL, or NBA Street series and while I’m not overly invested in them, some of the goofy holographic effects get a slight chuckle out of me.
The other major upgrade in EA Sports UFC 4 is the career mode. It starts off strong and unique, in media res your MMA coach explains how you two met each other. The tutorial is a solid hour of Coach Davis introducing you to the different disciplines in MMA as you go through tutorial fights that show you how to play the game. It’s a good tutorial but sadly coach Davis takes a backseat to the rest of the action thus far throughout my 10 hours in this game. While I understand why EA doesn’t want to commit the resources of a FIFA Journey or a Madden Longshot mode there’s a part of me that wishes they would because when they actually try I believe that they tell good stories and I believe the authored stories should have a bigger place in sports games.
Thankfully, the progression is much improved and it uses my favorite system; ‘to do it, you do it.’ Want to level up leg kicks? Use them in a fight. Want a big boost to your secret weapon strike? Land a knockout blow with it. Moves upgrade on a 1-5 scale. They also reward you with evolution points which can be spent on your stats. In order to min-max your gains, each fight camp should be focused on one single discipline and while the system generally feels right, sometimes the game can hit you with what seems like an impossible objective; asking you to hit a move that you don’t own. So you hire a fighter to teach you the move, which then leaves you without enough time to go train with that move. It’s an interesting balance and one that thankfully feels intentional and meaningful rather than frustrating. What is frustrating though is if you get used to having specific moves on your own fighter you can’t use those moves necessarily in ranked mode as create-a-fighters have a limited and balanced moveset for ranked. Again, while not a deal-breaker it can be perplexing to be using a specific moveset for 30 hours and then not have access to that moveset anymore just because you’re going online.
In an effort to centralize the admittedly smaller player pool, ranked matches will have one division every hour (In a late-breaking update during the writing of the piece I discovered that the divisions will switch every hour instead of every 24 hours based on community feedback). This seems like a smart change, though with 13 different weight classes in the game, finding your favorite will be a little bit more difficult.
I want to take a moment to talk about something that is separate from the mechanics and technical quality of the game. The community built up around this game is not my favorite. The community coined the term “wrestle-fuck” to describe what happens when someone is expertly denying your transitions. Because of the way stamina costs work in this game, too many transition denials in a row can leave you at a disadvantage for the rest of the fight. Rather than adapt, many players would rather scream obscenities at anyone bothering to use the ground-based options the game provides. You often see players knock an opponent down and refuse to go into ground-and-pound with them because they want a ‘clean’ knockout. This to me is the ‘going for it on 4th and 10’ in Madden type of play. I understand why it’s done but personally, it frustrates the hell out of me. Thankfully EA has decided to use a Clash Royale type system where only short messages can be shared between fighters so now we can no longer scream obscenities to each other over microphones and no longer add players after matches to message them terrible things about their mothers.
I don’t feel comfortable giving a full review until after career mode has been completed and after I’ve gotten at least 50 ranked fights in. However, I can say with some confidence, EA Sports UFC 4 is an improvement that I hope the developers get to continue working on as no next-gen port has been promised. If you have $5 and a PS4 or an Xbox One, you too can play EA Sports UFC for free for 10 hours with EA Access. (You’ll also be able to play Madden for 10 hours within that same 30-day period.) I think that is the best way to decide for yourself if EA Sports UFC 4 is for you.