Electronic Arts released their third quarter results for their 2017 fiscal year. Typically, I turn a deaf ear when gaming talk covers balance sheets, profit, loss and “Operating Highlights, and Metrics”. However, during an investor call when speaking of the EA Sports lineup of titles, CEO Andrew Wilson mentioned that the next title in the EA Sports UFC lineup is coming in the 2018 fiscal year. My ears were perked. I have a love/hate relationship with all the UFC games since UFC: Tapout on Xbox, UFC Undisputed on the last gen consoles and now the EA Sports UFC games.
With that in mind, I have compiled a list of the top five things EA Sports needs to get right to advance the series, much like the natural advancement in an MMA fight from full guard, to half guard to mount. Like a Rumble Johnson right hook, I need these features to knock me out when I drop my hard-earned cash on yet another UFC title. So EA Sports, listen up like the fighters do to Herb Dean before a main event and deliver me a title worthy of the most exciting sport there is.
1) Fix the Submission Game
The submission systems in the UFC games are a mess. From chasing a colored line around an octagon shape in Undisputed to matching any of the four stick directions of your opponent in EA Sports UFC the submission portion of the games never satisfies. It is completely ridiculous that in certain situations all it takes is a button press to initiate a submission sequence. Furthermore, the submissions favor those that have become adept at what is all intents and purposes a mini-game of follow the leader. Where is the skill? Where is the recognition that submission attempts can often be “sunk in deep” or merely superficial with the intent to gain position as opposed to trying to end a fight. EA Sports needs to go back to the drawing board for submissions. While I don’t necessarily hold the key to the answer I think an improvement lies in taking the combat engine they use for the stand-up portion of the game and implementing it on the ground when submissions are attempted. In short, many submission attempts are merely a more micro version of the same macro striking and grappling battles that happen on the feet with players vying for position and trying to gain advantages in control while dishing out damage. This seems to be the direction needed to give this important facet of the sport its appropriate due.
2) Re-tool Career Difficulty Settings
I get the replayability and therefore longevity of the investment in the game from the career mode of the UFC titles. EA Sports UFC 2 did many things right in the career mode, the largest of which was the ability to skip training sessions if you were happy to duplicate a previously earned outcome. What the game still got incredibly wrong was the progression of a career and how that influenced the difficulty of matches. The career mode had your fighter languish in mediocrity for an incredibly long time with the potential to be 15 or 20 fights into your career and still not cracking the top 20 of the division with an excellent fight record. There was simply no way to fast track things if you were dropping gold with each trip to the octagon and no way to avoid special challenge fights where you are forced into matches against far higher ranked and more established fighters. The biggest problem though is the gaping chasm between being a fighter outside the top 20 and within. After dozens of fights against inferior foes, you are dropped into the lion’s den suddenly with opponents in a whole different class than you are used to. The career needs to follow a steady progression which is the avenue most fighters, other than the elite, take on their road to a title shot. After playing EA Sports UFC 2 I never felt that the fights I had that got me to the elite of the division prepared me for the fighters I found there.
3) The Blocking of Transitions is Obtuse (at best)
EA Sports UFC improved the clinch and ground transition game considerably from its predecessor as the success or failure of each transition was directly proportional to your position and movement at the time. Additionally, the game allowed you to block or reverse your opponent’s transitions for a more favorable position. This was all great except that it was virtually impossible to do. First, the game’s tutorial system in no way prepares you for executive proper transition blocks nor does it provide an avenue to practice these during any of the main training forums within. As a result, I was left scouring the internet looking for ways to identify how to block a transition and what to counter with. The same can also be said for parrying strikes where you have to see a punch or kick coming and swat it aside. In EA Sports Fight Night Round 3 this was a task that could be repeated with some consistency. In EA Sports UFC 2 these could be near impossible depending on the situation. I think that part of the reason lies in the developers tuning the game to online multiplayer in an effort to balance matches. What they do not realize is that rarely does AI act in any way like a live opponent and therefore tuning career matches the same as multiplayer results in awkward and clunky controls that deflate the enjoyment of a higher difficulty CPU-controlled opponent.
4) Skill Progression is Far too Slow
Another grumble about the career mode is the length of time it takes to get any good. Each fight comes with training opportunities that result in skill boosts and new potential moves but this is contrary to the pace at which real fighters develop. Jon Jones was the youngest UFC champion ever, winning the belt after his fourteenth fight. At age 23 his repertoire of skills and moves far outweighed any fighter I ever played with in the game after 30 fights. Cain Velasquez won the heavyweight title in the ninth fight of his career. There is zero chance of ever doing that in an EA Sports UFC career. I think the problem lies in that the developer wants gamers to get many fights in and have a long and illustrious career although that differs from the realities of the sport. Perhaps one solution would be to alter the career mode so that instead of creating a fighter, you create a team of fighters and progress them through each of their shorter careers. That would allow the chance to shepherd many fighters at different stages of development and allow for that diamond in the rough that can win the belt in less than ten fights.
5) Bring Back the Danger
The earlier UFC Undisputed titles had a relatively acceptable level of flash knockdown and flash knockouts. These have all but disappeared from EA Sports UFC. Rarely can a heavy hitter knock his opponent out cold with a single tap early on in the match unless it is preceded by some nice combo work. This is not how real MMA works. In the real sport, if you leave yourself open to a clean shot, there is an excellent chance that you are on your way to hitting the mat with your eyes closed. In the latest games, a player can absorb head kick after head kick with little repercussions. Fighters generally lack any tools to end a fight with one devastating move. This betrays the UFC’s appeal where gamers rarely get to experience the first-round devastation of a Shane Carwin, Francis Ngannou or Cody Garbrandt. This needs to return. It would focus the game more on the need for defense when on the feet and also propagate the cat and mouse game that is high level striking instead of two fighters typically teeing off on each other. By re-introducing the cataclysmic consequences of not blocking a strike the next EA Sports UFC title could bring a new sense of heart pounding action to each fight with gamers knowing that one small misstep could result in an instant KO.