Our review of EA's first UFC game was apparently the lowest in the entire world (it's not, but there you go). The 5/10 score caused irritation at the developer and that's easy to understand. Having worked very hard for years only to have someone call your efforts "consistently mediocre" is clearly not something that is easily shaken off.
But the score stands and it feels like the right one in retrospect. EA Sports UFC was a monumental disappointment, not even close to as smooth, explosive, and above all graphically polished as the vertical slice first shown in 2012. The review was critical and EA improved on parts of the game months after the premiere, but ultimately it mattered little. The game was still heavily flawed. Two years have passed since then and in five weeks, it's time for EA to bring out the eagerly awaited sequel to EA Sports UFC and during the past week we've spent about ten hours with the beta version on Xbox One.
The worst part of the predecessor was undoubtedly the grappling system; it simply wasn't any good. Ahead of every match a prayer was uttered that the action would not go to the mat. Of all the hundreds of online fighters we came across a vast majority seemed to be of the same opinion and it meant the game of MMA often turned into kickboxing matches.
In UFC 2, EA Canada has teared up the entire grappling system and has redone everything from scratch. To fight for the optimal position or work to lock in a submission from either the top or bottom is nowadays based on a system that revolves around timing and reactions. You have to tilt the analog joysticks in the right direction when the markers show up inside a small octagon-shaped icon, and you have to do it quickly. Opponents do everything to disrupt your submission and it shows that EA wanted to capture the entire "human chess" element, which is often used as a description of the jiu-jitsu part of mixed martial arts.
The grappling in UFC 2 is complicated. It takes time to learn how the system works, and even longer to master it. It took us a full day of playing (seven hours) until we felt reasonably comfortable with securing slick armbar on an opponent, and even then it wasn't enough to secure a match ending tap more than perhaps one out of ten attempts. It's clear that EA wanted to approach this with more of a simulation view this time around, something that is both interesting and counterproductive.
As fanatical UFC fans we look forward to spending half a year mastering a super deep game system and ultimately reap the rewards online and make quick work of people who just blast away at the buttons without any finesse our thought behind it at all. But it might be counterproductive, as many UFC fans who would consider buying this game won't be as fanatical. The average fan probably wants to jump into an easily understandable, explosive and fast fighting game with basic, simple and entertaining game mechanics so they can knock their friends out for half an hour or so on Saturday night.
UFC 2 looks like it's going to try to be the fighting genre's equivalent to Assetto Corsa, but perhaps it would have been smarter on EA's part to make it to the MMA-version of Burnout. More speed, more responsiveness, more fluidity, explosiveness and intensity. For as it feels right now UFC 2 flows in slow motion. At least in part. The feeling of hitting, kicking and executing takedowns is as if you're fighting under water, something that remains from the first game, and that's a shame. It goes against the natural fluency the sport offers and where speedy and especially violent intensity is a staple that you can pretty much always expect to see inside the Octagon.
Strikes are slow, kicks lack weight and even though as we practiced combinations in the "practice mode" throughout the morning, we simply couldn't deliver a jab / jab / cross / hook without feeling as if BJ Penn has turned into Necroborg from Rise of the Robots. EA should be commended for having chosen to do even more striking-simulaton but at the same time, isn't it more important to make us feel like we are actually in the cage, fighting? To be fair though; it is easier to get in and out of the opponent's reach, easier to jab and then use the correct timing to follow up with straight punches when the opponent is still stunned.
It is more important than ever to keep track of the stamina meter, more important than ever to block the opponent's punches and kicks and the parry system is more prominent in UFC 2 than in its predecessor. Every time you block it is possible to utilise the fact that the opponent stretched out his arm or his leg, thus leaving an opening, block it, stepping over or to the side, and kick and punch. A bit like what Conor McGregor did against Jose Aldo at the end of 2015 in a fight that went down in the history books. It does not work perfectly here and sometimes it feels unpolished, but the idea is good.
In addition to the career mode (which was not part of the beta version we spent the last week with), Quick Fight, Practice Mode and the mandatory online element, the UFC Ultimate Team is the big news in terms of content. Longtime commentator Mike Goldberg presents it as an Ultimate Fighter-inspired story where you get the chance to build your own team and then mess around with all the fighters, scrape together points (UFC coins) and upgrade everything in terms of fighting skills and customise attributes (tattoos, hairstyles and so on).
It is noticeable that EA has taken to heart the player feedback regarding the lack of content. There are tons of settings and modes, and the career mode promises detail ranging from amateur matches and contract disputes. The final game will contain over 250 (!) fighters and these have been recreated faithfully according to their fighting styles, at least according to EA. We've been playing as BJ Penn, Johnny Hendricks, GSP, Robbie Lawler, Nick Diaz and Carlos Condit (among others), and all fighters have a very distinct style and the same recognisable set of special moves as in real life.
However, it wasn't easy to distinguish between say Robbie Lawler and BJ Penn in terms of tempo, timing, movement patterns and special attacks, something that feels a bit disappointing. We sincerely hope that EA Canada has time to look at this before release on March 17.
UFC 2 has a lot to prove. We want a game that either lets us immerse ourselves in a deep perfectly simulated game system that fairly and realistically portray the complexity of the sport. Or we perhaps want a fast, flexible, understandable and above all violent show of knockouts and brutal arm bars. Right now it doesn't feel like UFC 2 is going be either, but here's hoping the last month of polish will help elevate the experience.