Conventional wisdom holds that EA Sports saw UFC Undisputed's success, said wait a minute, we're the Fight Night guys, and started hustling out a competitor. That's crap, says Peter Moore, and EA Sports MMA's floor demo backs him up.
At E3, Moore, the EA Sports president, told me this project was greenlit back in 2007. Three years may seem like an eternity for the annualized sports genre, but it's a common development cycle, especially for a completely new game. What I saw isn't a rushed product. The development team at EA Tiburon has put a good deal of thought into game balance and defense - not shorting the impact or visual appeal of mixed martial arts offense, but not giving it undue primacy either.
My biggest takeaway - a considerate defense will be your key to consistent winning. EA Sports MMA flipflops UFC Undisputed in a basic control mapping - defense in UFC is on the right analog, in MMA it's on the face buttons, specifically B or circle. Punching/kicking in UFC is a face-button control; in MMA it's a right-analog control with an execution similar to Fight Night. B (or circle) will be your best friend in a jam-up. It will automatically deny a takedown or bodyslam, regardless of stamina or attribute. It'll defeat a transition when you're on the ground. I'm not familiar with technique on a personal level yet, but transitions are when your foe gets into a posture to kick your ass, bad. At the same time, getting into one on offense is also a face-button control. You (or your opponent) will be alerted to a transition by a vibrating controller - that's when it's time to hit the block. Not to make this too comparative to UFC Undisputed but the control set made more sense to me on a button than an analog, where you can't be entirely sure you executed the move correctly.
The caveat: Spamming any control is a recipe for defeat. Spamming a defense will tire you out as much, if not more, than spamming an attack. So keep your guard up, but jitting on the B button is going to deplete your stamina, which leads to telegraphed punches and less effective moves overall.
The other control that just seems to make innate sense - but it takes some getting used to - are the submission holds. You get into one with a face button, provided you're on the ground, of course. Applying the pressure isn't a jam-on-it control, though, you'll see a meter deplete and recharge, so you have to battle against it - run it down, pause, and hammer back on the pressure, very much akin to arm wrestling. Just laying on the submission control will wear you out and break your hold, possibly even initiating a reversal.
If it's a choke-hold, you go into a minigame where both players are seeking out a constantly moving location on a wheel with their right thumbstick - if they've found it, it vibrates, more strongly if they're directly on it. Holding your stick in the correct position longer equals success. Again, it's skill based, so finding the correct location will always win the day, but the range you're looking for is larger or smaller depending on where you are in the fight - both in attributes and stamina.
I didn't hear much of the audio, but the rest of the game offers strong detail - I saw different cage layouts (circle vs. octagon) that, presumably, echo the multiple rule sets EA MMA promises to incorporate. Clocking your opponent (or getting clocked by him) close to the cage can create a nice rebound effect that works to your advantage. The team has also included a catch-punch control that's a nice assist to active defenders looking to carry over their counterpunch methodology from Fight Night.
The drawbacks? Some stray or spammed punches landed a little too solidly for my taste - but that's in the physics only. With the HUD up you can see they don't wildly move the stamina or damage. Fighting back from a submissive position on the mat is more effective than in UFC Undisputed, but seemed a little too strong for the context. I'm also not sure I like the fact that takedowns can be executed (provided they aren't blocked) at almost any point standing up. While the balance definitely encourages defense, in multiplayer, this will still be a strong advantage to ground-and-pounders with surprise reflexes.
All that said, EA Sports MMA has serious potential to elevate the sport within video gaming. I grasp its controls in a more innate way, but it's possible that's because of prior exposure to Fight Night. Whatever the case, EA Sports will bring heavyweight marketing to a challenger product with an underdog license. All of that places a premium on game fundamentals, and what I saw inspires confidence in this as a real contender for 2010's sports gaming champion.