Learning My Way Around the Octagon and Punching My Way to the Top in EA UFC 2
As the fight enters into the championship rounds, Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald look like they've already been through hell. Their faces each carrying massive battle scars in the making, their bodies weakening by the second due to the high volume of punishment taken. Neither combatant looks like he can take much more, but both will gut it out for the gold and reverie awaiting at the conclusion of this historic and memorable night. The respective teams leave the Octagon and the referee summons both fighters to the center of the cage. The normally excited Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg are tentatively speaking about the carnage that's about to ensue.
This is how EA UFC 2 introduces players to the action. Taking a cue from sister franchise Madden NFL, EA's second attempt at bring the intensity of the UFC to gamers starts things off with a historic retelling of one of greatest bouts in recent (if not all) Ultimate Fighting history. The setup is cinematic and given the kind of flair and bravado the actual UFC might use to create a promo reel hyping a major fight. You can feel the emotion in the arena, and you can taste the blood and sweat pouring off "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler and Rory "Red King" MacDonald. It's a hell of an introduction.
Taking control of Robbie Lawler, I come out and touch gloves with the AI Rory Mac as he approaches. Prompts appear indicating the button commands, which is nice because I need a refresher on how EA UFC controls. This sequel adds plenty of new wrinkles to the existing base created with the first entry, but most of the basics remain the same. Since Robbie hasn't been known to focus too much on his ground game in recent bouts, that works to my advantage. When I'm just getting the feel for a game like EA UFC 2, I want to come out swinging. There are few better, more devastating fighters in the promotion than Robbie Lawler to do just that.
The only problem is Rory is much faster. He bobs and sways in and out of range, seemingly taunting my stout pugilist with his frequent evasions. It isn't long until he actually catches me with a counter, knocking me back and reminding me that this is a one-way street, and we're in each other's way. Lawler may be a little slower to start, but when he gets moving and a punch connects, it carries with it the power of an artillery shell. Even just landing a quick combo to Rory Mac's body sends him backpedaling away. There's blood in the water... and on the canvas and all over Rory's face.
To be fair, it's all over me too, but soon, that won't matter. All that matters is the belt will be around my waist once more thanks to a few flashes of leather.
Being eased back into things with EA UFC 2 feels good. This follow-up has a lot more going on that its predecessor, which is great for longtime fight fans, but it also brings a lot more to the table for less devoted followers. Even as someone who watches just about every event he can, the intricacies of jiu jitsu still escape me. Punches and kicks are something everyone can see and understand. EA knows this, and went to some pretty great lengths this time around to create a deeper teaching system so that players could better understand what's happening in a fight, and apply that knowledge to their own playstyles.
While I didn't spend much time in the practice gym, where EA UFC 2 will expound upon the fight game though a series of tutorials and challenges to help you beef up your MMA know-how, what I did see was a huge step forward from last year's effort. Compared to other sports titles, the first EA UFC was fairly barebones. To the dev team's credit, the title was supported with lots of free content and constant tuning updates to improve the experience. There was just a lack of modes for fans to enjoy. Teaching was just not something that made the cut beyond the rudimentary controls explanations. That there's now a full-featured mode just to help players not just how to play, but how to understand what's happening in a given moment in a fight is a testament to how much time and attention was put into making EA UFC 2 more accessible and engaging.
This year's game features a litany of modes including career and practice, as well as things like Ultimate Team, custom event maker and Live Events. I didn't get a look at Ultimate Team or Live Events, which require an online connection, but the custom event maker is a welcome addition, particularly for those of us who make a big night out of pay-per views. By allowing players the opportunity to create UFC events with their favorite fighters to challenge the computer or friends for bragging rights, there's now a reason to show up early at a friend's house before the main event. Better than that though is the new Knockout mode.
One of EA UFC 2's mantras for this iteration was "Finish the Fight." A whole new physics system was implemented to create a range of body reactions to more realistically react to being punched or kicked. It also means there are a lot of new ways to knock someone out cold. In the last EA UFC, knockouts looked good, but after a while, you started to see repeating animations for fighters having their lights go out. With the new physics system, knockouts can happen anywhere at any time, and the crumbling fighter will react accordingly. This is most apparent in the wonderfully accessible new Knockouts mode.
All you have at your disposal in Knockouts are punches and kicks. There's no grappling, submissions or takedowns. While more involved fans might scoff at the idea of taking out 50% of the MMA fight, Knockouts mode gives you a quick, clear glimpse at some of the most exciting moments in the UFC. What's more, it doesn't prevent friends who aren't all that adept at the game, but love the UFC, from enjoying it with you. Fighters have a set number of special blows they can take (jabs and leg kicks don't diminish health here, but they can help you set up the big swing) before they're in the danger zone. You hit an opposing fighter when they're out of punches to take, and it's a one-way ticket to LaLa Land.
I tested out the mode with EA UFC 2's director Brian Hayes. I'd get smashed to pieces if I played Brian in a regular fight in any of UFC's other modes. Knockout mode levels the playing field a bit, though it did take his adjusting the health of my Chris Weidman to make it a truly "fair" fight. While his Luke Rockhold was a formidable opponent, having a few extra punches to take certainly gave me an edge. One I was more than willing to capitalize on.
Let me tell you, when the fist connects with the face for a flash KO, there is no better feeling in the world. That's doubly true when you can connect with someone trying to Superman punch you from a short distance away. Mid-air knockouts almost never happened in the first EA UFC, but managing to secure one here wasn't just thrilling, it was great to watch unfold. The physics system really conveys a sense of deflated momentum, and Rockhold's collapse to the canvas couldn't have happened any more true-to-life if you acted it out yourself. With the added benefit of the fights taking just minutes, even in the best-of-five format, you can easily throw this on during UFC on Fox fights to occupy yourself during the prolonged commercial breaks.
Though I didn't get to see all of EA UFC 2's new modes in action, what I did see holds a lot of promise for this sequel. Playing felt great, and the new physics give added weight and impact to strikes, while also offering some instantly memorable knockouts to boot. I look forward to diving deeper into career mode (now with female create-a-fighter as well), and seeing just how all the tutorials work out beyond my limited time with them. The longer layoff between sequels has definitely worked to EA UFC 2's favor, and there's reason to be excited about all the potential.
EA UFC 2 will be available on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on March 15.