Way back in 2009, the UFC returned to the gaming sphere after a lengthy absence on consoles. For the next few years, fight fans were treated to an evolving franchise in THQ's UFC Undisputed; a series that, while flawed, captured the in-octagon action as best it could, giving would-be cage fighters a way to live vicariously through the sport. Eventually, Undisputed went the way of previous attempts, and we'd been without a proper UFC video game for the last two years. Now under the guiding hands of the EA Sports team that raised the Fight Night franchise to incredible heights, the UFC has a shot at becoming the landmark sports game series it was always meant to be. Though EA's first dip in the UFC waters is a bit shaky in spots, EA Sports UFC is a promising first effort, and one that should provide plenty of positives for fight fans.

As a game developed exclusively for the latest consoles, EA Sports UFC shines tremendously in the presentation department. Every single one of the licensed fighters looks absolutely remarkable in every way, even if a few of them don't have the proper tattoos. We've seen glimpses of what the Ignite engine is capable of with FIFA and Madden, but EA Sports UFC is the first game running on EA's proprietary sports hardware that truly feels like character models have been raised up to an uncanny level of realism. However, like many previous UFC video games, there's still something off about this virtual version of the sport once all the action begins.

It's not that action feels as flat-footed as it had in the past. Fighters actually feel more fluid and alive in EA Sports UFC than we've seen before. When not moving forward or evading, many fighters bounce around waiting for you to input the next command. It's a small touch that goes a long way into making what's happening in the digital octagon seem real. But for every tiny bit of nuance included, there seems to be one misstep on EA's behalf, too. There are no scrambling animations, and this is particularly jarring when a fighter gets knocked to the ground. If you've ever seen a real fight (or played any of THQ's UFC games), you know there are multiple ways attacking maulers can go after a downed opponent. EA Sports UFC offers merely one, and even that only happens in the perfect condition. If the opposing combatant gets knocked on his back, you can dive into mount and start raining blows down. There's no side attack. There's no back attack. It's got to be the right circumstance for you to even be allowed to dive onto another fighter.

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The same is true when it comes to definitive knockouts. Watch just one single fight in the UFC, and you'll see that when a fighter gets his bell rung and collapses to the ground, the damage dealing opponent leaps at him to ensure he doesn't get back up. The referee has to jump in to pull the fighter off. In EA Sports UFC, knockouts more closely resemble Punch-Out!, where the animations start and you just have to watch and wait. It's especially curious given the longer than average development time for this UFC title, and the fact that real UFC referees are fully rendered and animated for the game. As it stands, the refs are basically included along with Bruce Buffer as part of the fight's opening and closing presentations, and not much else.

The ground game is another area that's equal parts impressive and head-scratching. The stand-up is fairly straightforward, with punches and kicks mapped to the face buttons, and skill modifiers and blocking mapped to the shoulder buttons. While it can take some time to get acclimated to the timing of blocking and punching, this is basically the same combat engine you've seen in UFC games in the last five years. Though you could say the same for the grappling mechanics implemented, once again, EA's end results are just slightly off.

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Grappling is initiated by pushing the right analog stick towards an opposing fighter, or by holding in the left trigger and pushing the right stick to initiate a takedown attempt. You can stuff takedowns or standing clinch attempts by inputting the opposite commands, which works sometimes if you can time it correctly. In the numerous different matches we fought, the success rate was fairly consistent with real world results, even if the attempts per match rate against other human players online was slightly exaggerated. Of course, that's not taking into account the insane number of power grapples that result in suplexes and back-body drops the likes of which even the most avid UFC fans see only two or three times a year. EA Sports UFC would have you believe they happen two or three times a round. The frequency with which even the computer AI is able to pull off such amazing techniques is baffling, and the advantage these moves provides the aggressing fighter is too great for maneuvers this easy to complete.

Once on the ground, either on top or on bottom, improving positions (or in the clinch) is done by making quarter-circles with the right stick, and remains as intuitive as it was when introduced into the fold in THQ's games a few years ago. Where EA Sports UFC falters is in the struggle for control. Moving and defending someone else's advances is tied to trying to follow the attack pattern. If you see someone trying to move right, you can stop them by also moving right. There's a nice chess game of balance going on at all times, but the ground game is home to far too many reversals to be taken seriously. Not only that, but the reversals are identical every single time, and lead to players being put in incredibly disadvantageous positioning seemingly because there are no other animations built into the combat engine. Not every escape is identical. Not every escape leads to a fighter being flipped completely over. Sometimes, escaping is just escaping. It's just curious that with so much time and effort spent on creating competent fighters, models and animations, shortcuts like this appear so often.

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There's also an extreme lack of playable modes included in this first official UFC effort from EA. You can play online, in a career, in exhibition, or attempt a series of striking and grappling challenges to hone your skills. It's fairly rudimentary, which could have been perfectly acceptable had this been EA's first trip to the rodeo. It's not, and the lack of more playable options makes you wonder just what took this game so long to be developed. It's certainly not like very much time was put into the career mode, which offers a lengthy slog through dozens of no-name fake fighters before you can even sniff a legitimate UFC personality. The create-a-fighter is ridiculously bare-bones, and can only be used in offline matches. Considering how little there is to offer with CAF, the trademark worries EA had about made-up fighters seem a little strange. Still, you can attempt to make yourself, as long as you're not a woman. Despite the inclusion of female fighters in EA Sports UFC, you still can't create one of your own.

Once you do embark on a career all your own, you'll be treated to partaking in a randomized season of 'The Ultimate Fighter,' UFC's (once annual, now seemingly monthly) reality competition. While it's neat to see who the coaches of the show will be, they offer absolutely nothing to the equation other than name recognition. You don't get coached up, you just fight. And you have to win in order to progress. Failure is not an option. No, seriously, you have to win. You cannot advance in the career unless you beat the other tomato cans in your way. On one hand, we can understand the desire to make it clear just how important it is to earn that official UFC contract as the winner. On the other, plenty of non-winners have made it into the UFC. Winning or losing should have been more closely tied to your ranking in the career, rather than making winning an absolute condition for progressing.

Not that the ranking system matters much anyway. It's quite a joke, to be frank. Since there are only 100 real UFC fighters in the game, each weight class has around a dozen actual fighters. There are 40 ranked fighters in each class, and you can probably surmise the rank is filled out with a bunch of random MMA enthusiasts. That would be fine enough on its own. It makes some sense to fill out the game's career with some unknowns. What it doesn't make sense to do is force players to climb that ranking ladder inch by inch over the course of their careers. Over the course of the 22 fights it took to get a title shot (during the course of which we went 21-1), we fought real UFC talent just three times. Nineteen of our fights were against completely fabricated jiu-jitsu practitioners. Even worse is when we'd fight a jobber ranked higher than us, win the fight, and check the power rankings to find we'd moved up just one slot, while the guy we just beat remained ranked above us. The padding out of the career makes sense from EA's standpoint, given how little there is to do, but as a player, it's incredibly frustrating and boring to grind so much and waste your prime fighting years on a bunch of no-name filler.

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That said, a lot of the fights were legitimately interesting, and didn't result in first-round knockouts. We won some very tightly contested split-decisions, submitted others in the third round, and even had some very close calls in that department from the other side. We've been waiting for a long time for a competent submission system to appear in a UFC or MMA game, and while nobody has gotten it 100 percent right just yet, EA is on to something with the evolution of the chase system. There are four quadrants you'll fight for control of in the submission mini-game. As the defender, your job is to push the right stick up, down, left or right to push your escape bar to the limit of the boundary. Do that during any one of the four stages of the submission attempt, and you'll break free.

As the person attempting the submission, your job is to prevent that from happening. You can see which way the other person is trying to escape and block them by holding your stick in the same quadrant. Holding the escape off for a few seconds brings up a second prompt for you. When the left stick flashes, you just need to flick it quickly to secure a tighter hold on your opponent. This also resets the escape bars back to the start, making it that much harder to escape from again. However, you've got to do this a few times before the submission takes complete hold, and the guy trying to break free only needs to do so once during any single stage. Against the computer, it's challenging, but not out of the realm of possibility depending on your character's submission ratings. Against a human, the challenge is far more difficult as reaction times and the randomness of the patterns don't make things easy for you.

Improving your fighter during the career happens in one of two ways--your performance in the octagon and through pre-fight training. You'll be awarded some attribute points depending on how convincing your win was, and for winning. You'll get less for losing, but every fight in the UFC will net your some points. The allotments are consistent, and make good sense. If that sounds like a no-brainer, that's because the points awarded during training feel completely random. Before each fight, you'll take part in three different training exercises, but you don't get to pick what they are. It's all fairly simple stuff, too, like kicking pads with the proper combos, hitting the heavy bag with the proper combos, or working on ground game by hitting takedowns on a coach. It's very superfluous as it doesn't really teach you much about the way the fights or the career works. The challenges outside of the career do a much better job of detailing technique and control mastery. And don't get too excited when a legit fighter shows up to your camp to help you train. All that means is they'll hold your pads, not impart some knowledge in a respective area of expertise. However, no matter how you train, you can put any points earned towards whatever stats you want to bump up.

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New moves can also be purchased with these points, and if you're a fan of some of the more extravagant techniques many UFC fighters have made their respective signature moves, you'll want to buy at least a few. The same goes for defensive techniques and submissions. Not every fighter will have or use every option in the book, but it's nice to know you have a choice. But this comes with a downside as well. None of these concepts are explained whatsoever. Just because you buy a move doesn't mean you actually have it in your arsenal. You first must add it to your move list. On a different menu. On a different screen. Additionally, you'll find the option to create gameplans exists with special perks unlocked by fighting your way to the top. The career makes no mention of how or where to implement them, so you've got to do some digging to learn how gameplans work. They do add some nice strategy to each fight, but you can get by without them just fine, too. To call the progression system in EA Sports UFC unintuitive would be a gross understatement. We'd spend some time talking about popularity, sponsorships and banners, but they're absolutely meaningless, and contribute nothing to the game but customization options for your clothing.

Once you think you've conquered enough in the career, you might want to venture into the online arena to test your mettle. EA Sports UFC makes use of "seasons," which consist of ten fights per belt, and a few different tournaments as well. The ranking system is in place to ensure you're always battling against someone on your skill level, and works pretty well. You can move from white belt to black belt, provided you're good enough, though advancement and regression are tied to the number of fights. If you lose too many fights during a season, you'll find yourself demoted back down to a level you are likely more suited for. All weight classes are eligible, and you aren't committed to using one fighter or class. You can swap in and out of each division with every fight if you choose. However, almost every one of our fights were in the light heavyweight division for obvious reasons. Even though you might like to test out fighters who aren't Jon Jones or Anderson Silva, be prepared to face a lot of that duo over and over again. At least clone fights are possible, so you don't have to worry about being first to pick a fighter.

Despite the omissions of key features or animations seen in previous uses of the UFC license, EA Sports UFC is a rather competent and fun fighting simulation. Fights feel more real than they have in, well, ever, and the action in the virtual octagon is a close approximation of the real thing. As this is the first game for a new set of consoles and with a new development team, growing pains are expected. We just didn't expect them to revolve around concepts previously implemented in older titles. At its core though, EA Sports UFC is a great first step for the franchise. We just hope that over the course of development for the follow-up, many of these missteps are corrected.

This review is based on a purchased retail copy of EA Sports UFC for the PlayStation 4.

7.0 out of 10 arcade sushi rating