"Fastest-growing sport" is often faint praise applied to niche competitions, but with mixed martial arts, it's no joke. Relentless violence and blink-of-an-eye knockout potential make MMA fight night for the video game generation. Can a video game do that justice?
EA Sports MMA is the first mixed martial arts offering from EA Sports, which faces off against THQ's UFC Undisputed 2010, using a more recognizable branding and stable of licensed fighters. More than two years in development, EA Sports MMA borrows from the publisher's acclaimed Fight Night boxing series while still striving to provide a wide-open variety of punches, kicks and submissions.
Mixed martial arts enthusiasts will find much to love but EA Sports MMA is not an insular experience. Fans of the Fight Night series will feel right at home, and those wanting to learn more about MMA will get very solid introduction.
Mixed martial arts, though relatively new as a professional promoted event, is now a fully established sport that consistently rivals present-day boxing for compelling matchups. That said, it retains an independent, grass-roots character, whose passionate fanbase is served by hungry, crowd-pleasing fighters. MMA is here to stay, and video games are playing a strong role in its introduction to larger audiences.
What if you know jack about MMA? Why is this worth playing? Because the commands - particularly the clinch and ground game - are as pick-up-and-play simplifed as could be imagined for a combat sport with three distinct modes. Right stick controls strikes; the four face buttons control (clockwise from A/X) takedowns when standing, or moving to a stronger position when grappled; submissions; clinching from standup; and denying your opponent's move. You can modify things with a bumper (body shots) or trigger (kicks), but it's second nature after only a few fights.
Pick a fighting style that uses your preferred strikes and moves but don't be a one-trick pony; vary your attack and keep your guard up.
Yeah! Let's get in there and beat ass! Not so fast. EA Sports MMA places a premium on fighting sensibly and foremost, that means no control-spam. But it still serves up fast-response instances where you feel like you have no choice but to spam - particularly on the B/circle button to deny a takedown or clinch. With live players, your opponent's controller will rumble not only when you are trying to pass, but also when you're getting ready to strike. So you can fool him into blocking your strike while you attempt a major pass or vice versa. But this is not useful against the computer, and AI opponents will execute many takedowns, clinches, passes and reversals that feel automatic and cheap. Suck it up, take stock of where you are, strike to pass and pass to strike.
What the hell does that mean? It's the first fundamental of mixed martial arts I ever learned and EA Sports MMA, by not overthinking its ground game, taught it to me. Basically, when you're on the ground, hit the guy to get yourself into a better position to hit him more. If you're on your back, struggling to get up won't work by itself and if you're on top, pounding someone isn't enough. Any sports game can preach fundamentals in the abstract; it was satisfying to see this one honor your commitment to them in competition.
And that'll make you a fighter? No, Bas Rutten will make you a fighter. Career mode is a longtime strength of Fight Night and it carries over to EA Sports MMA as the preferred singleplayer option here. Rutten, a retired MMA standout and former champion, and several of his all-star pals serve as mentors. Under Rutten's tutelage you'll fly to other gyms run by MMA luminaries, unlock up to 16 special moves, and hear them in your corner for your fights. Many fights during your ascent are easily won, following Fight Night's tendency to ladle up TKOs early in your career. Training will get repetitive as you become more advanced - you have eight weeks to prepare, regardless of the fight or your proficiency - but the routine, attribute-boosting tasks can be simulated if you like. The core goals are the special move unlocks and, naturally, winning titles, and those two are satisfying enough for now.
Is it a violent game? Yes, necessarily, sometimes graphically, but not gratuitously. If you're pounding a guy in the face, there will be blood on the mat, and blood will transfer to you, too. There are broken noses but no broken bones otherwise. Submissions work one of two ways: An arm/leg submission opens a button-press minigame - with an X-ray of the limb affected - that requires one fighter to apply pressure and another to defend against it, without depleting their stamina. The choke submissions are the most fun, as you both circle your left stick looking for a magic sweet spot on the screen, which you know you've hit when your controller rumbles. You always have a chance, but the game breaks noticeably for the fighter with a ratings advantage. I got out of four choke submissions and two joint submission attempts in one three round fight.
Being a fighter, though, this thing had better serve up the multiplayer. It does. You might be lucky enough to be picked for a Live Broadcast, a very innovative promoted online bout arranged by EA Sports, which matches combatants from the game's community. They'll duke it out to live commentary from the Tiburon studios, and the fight is viewable and replayable over the console or the web. If you don't get into a Live Broadcast, you can arrange a Fight Card of up to 10 matches (or be invited to one), a great way to both socialize and compete. Chat can get very rowdy when there are a lot of guys online and a bout swings decisively. What I don't care for is the fact no one can see who their opponent has chosen until the bout loads, in any multiplayer mode. This will inevitably lead to a lot of Fedor-vs.-Fedor heavyweight fights as everyone rushes to the top-rated combatants, whether they want to or because they expect their opponent to do the same.
This is EA Sports' first MMA game. Did they get it right, right out of the box? It's not a definitive "yes," but it's far from "no." Total Strike Control is a responsive control method for jabs but you really need to crank the sticks for hooks and uppercuts, and that'll leave you winging a lot of punches and kicks, sometimes from the wrong side, when you're trying to follow a fast combo with a roundhouse from the opposite hand or foot. Other animations seemed to take a bit too long to respond to the sticks; it was really aggravating to try to stick and move and get clinched when you were sure you were telling the game to dash away. The load times also are a pain in the ass, and if you have the hard drive space I absolutely recommend an installation.
EA Sports MMA really lacks only the star power of UFC Undisputed 2010's branding and roster, and even then its lineup has many recognizable names. In nearly all other aspects, EA Sports MMA is the preferred mixed martial arts game primarily for its intuitive control set, its emphasis on tactical fighting and the means of learning it, and a strong singleplayer career. It is more suited for those who want to star as themselves in a sports fantasy rather than live it through a famous fighter. But with nine different fighting styles, three types of cages or rings and four sets of bout rules, there is still plenty of depth for sophisticated MMA fans.
EA Sports MMA was developed by Electronic Arts Tiburon and published by Electronic Arts for the Xbox 360 and PS3, released on Oct. 19. Retails for $59.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played all singleplayer and online multiplayer game modes on the Xbox 360.