Everyone, meet my fictional UFC fighter, Eldest Diaz. Secret brother of reluctant UFC stars Nick and Nate Diaz and distant relative of my custom character from EA UFC 2, he was a graphic designer for most of his life before taking up fighting at age 44. Against all odds, he’s now on track to dethrone Conor McGregor, avenge his brother’s loss, and become the lightweight champion of the world. He’s easily the most entertaining thing about EA UFC 3's career mode.
When I’m feeling facetious, I like to tell people that the UFC isn’t a sport. It’s a circus that wears sports-like trappings in addition to its rainbow wig and clown nose. The zaniness, the drama, the unpredictability, the rivalries that culminate in assault charges over one idiot manchild throwing a boomerang at another—for better and worse, those things are part of the appeal. That in mind, EA UFC 3's new and improved career mode, one of the game’s biggest additions, functions as a sort of “what if” scenario, only a boring one: What if the UFC really was the functional, buttoned-down sport it likes to imagine itself to be?
Devoid of personality, it turns out. “GOAT mode,” as it’s known, sees you bring a fighter up from the no-name amateur leagues into the UFC in hopes of eventually being declared the greatest fighter of all time. In between fights, you put your fighter through multi-week training camps that basically amount to choosing workouts that boost different stats from a menu, doing quick in-ring challenges to learn new skills, and sparring to unlock opponents’ weaknesses.
The in-ring stuff is sometimes interesting, but the menu-driven segments are what take up the majority of your training time. There are wrinkles, like the looming specter of injuries and over-training if you push your fighter too hard, but they’re easily avoided. Mostly, you just nudge your stats upward for a few minutes, and then it’s time to hop in the cage. I appreciate that EA got rid of most of EA UFC 2's annoying training minigames, but I’m not sure this is the right way to go, either.
You can also build buzz around your fights by doing things like talking about them on the in-game version of Twitter or streaming video games to hang out with your fans. As with the bulk of your training, there’s no actual interaction here. You just pick an option from a menu, and then your fighter sends out a dull, generic tweet not at all befitting of Eldest Diaz, a man who’s composed several concept albums about the storyline deftly weaved by his own tattoos and who has his backstory, somehow involving a woman named Cheryl, literally written on his back.
You even get a rival, but a Rocky movie this ain’t: So far, I’ve knocked my rival so unconscious that I’m fairly certain he briefly died, relinquishing the majority of his soul to the devil. That’s the best explanation I can think of for the majority of our interactions, which consist of him tweeting snooze-worthy trash talk at me, which I can reply to by being hilariously respectful and sincere, straightforward and terse, or what Disney Channel shows imagine an asshole to be.
Ahead of major rival fights, you get some basic cut-scenes at press conferences and things of the like, but the drama’s too one-size-fits all and impersonal, especially if you keep winning every time you face your rival. It feels like a scaffolding, rather than a fully fleshed out idea. There are glimmers of something cool here, but it hasn’t made me care. Instead, my rival is just kind of around, shouting in the background while I punch a procession of increasingly famous dudes in the face.
All that said, I’ve still had an alright time with GOAT mode over the course of the handful of hours I’ve spent with it so far, mostly because the fighting is so dang good. While there’s definitely a learning curve, the striking is the best it’s ever been in a UFC game. Your finite stamina meter forces you to analyze opponents, slip punches and kicks, and capitalize on other fighters’ bad habits, rather than blitzing them with heavy leather like in EA UFC 2. Grappling and submissions, on the other hand, remain kludgy and frustrating, conferring too much of an advantage to the fighter applying the submission. So far, I’ve been pumping points into my takedown defense to avoid them.
Also, while GOAT mode’s packaging is mostly a dull beige of busywork, EA UFC 3 does nail the presentation. Walkouts, fighter introductions, camera angles, and promos feel authentic, like your custom fighter is taking part in real UFC events. Even as a somewhat jaded UFC fan, I can’t help but feel a slight thrill every time commentator Joe Rogan drools over Eldest Diaz as he walks to the cage while an extremely bad song by The Killers blares over the loudspeaker.
Beyond that, though, GOAT mode is just too bland and insubstantial to tell any truly compelling stories. That’s a shame, because MMA is a sport that’s chock full of them. Here’s hoping the game’s other modes do a better job of wowing me, because so far, third time’s still not quite a charm for EA’s UFC series.