When you see a good fight in motion — real or simulated — there's a grace to it. It's like watching a dance where you see the will and wit of two people intertwined. At its best, it is a like watching abstract art. EA Sports UFC is not that.
EA Sports UFC is a lot of things. It's a lifestyle simulator and a sports game. It's an attempt to recreate the insane energy of a sport that I and many other people love. It's EA trying to get people excited about a new franchise. But I don't feel excitement when I play it, instead I feel dull confusion.
Some context: For the last seven years, I've trained Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I choke, armbar, throw and omoplata people for fun. I know the rush of hitting that perfect kimura, the physical and emotional pain getting caught off guard. I know what grappling looks and feels like.
When it works well, a submission is a graceful, fluid thing — something done by an expert in one motion. In UFC, a submission is a disjointed and segmented process done by a robot wearing human flesh. While I was playing UFC in the office, I tried to break it down to one of my coworkers at Deadspin. The conversation went something like this:
"Okay, so to start a submission on the ground, you have to hold R1, then do a quarter circle up left or right from a dominant position."
"From there, you initiate a dual-analog QTE where you counter the opponent's movement with the right stick, while at the same time hitting a series of left-analog prompts which brings you through successive segments of the move."
"This doesn't seem fun."
"Yeah, it's not."
It's a problem of abstraction. What UFC is trying to do is show how nuanced, specific and complex the movements of a submission are. The key to pulling off a flawless move is in the tiny details (make sure your weight is here, pinch your knees together, move your hips for god's sake). But the closer the characters come to approximating that complexity, the more confusing and alienating it becomes.
The same holds true with how the fighters move. While EA spent a lot of time and effort making the texture of the skin and striking look convincing, the characters transitions look stilted and alien. On the ground, a real person's movements are subtle — they breathe. In execution and feel, UFC is right in the thick of the uncanny valley.
I'm not laying the blame squarely on the people that made UFC. They're in the unenviable position of having to solve one of the gaming's most difficult problems — making grappling intuitive, believable and inviting to the ever-growing population of MMA fans. How do you show off nuance without making a product that's just obtuse? How do you make a game that anyone who watches the sport can get behind?
MMA is growing bigger and bigger every year as a sport, and this game will not be the last. I hope that with time, it'll learn to be a little more human.