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Hands-on: Is EA Sports UFC the pound for pound champ?

By Joel Snape on Monday 10th Feb 2014 at 5:00 PM UTC

Want to know what sports games are going to look like on this generation of consoles? Put it this way - in EA Sports UFC you will, we're told, be able to see the entire arena reflected in your fighter's retinas - if you can somehow get close enough.

At the same time, muscles flex underneath the fighters' skin, veins stand out when you strain for a submission hold, and - the producers were very keen for us to see this when we sat down with them - your fighter's toes spread *slightly apart* as he shifts his weight onto one foot. This is the future, people. We've gone beyond.

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Fight fans, of course, will be less concerned about what shape your toes make on the mat, and more about what they do when they make high-speed contact with another man's ribcage. This is EA's first go at the UFC license - taking over after three games by THQ - though it has got a track record at this sort of thing, thanks to the middling-to-popular EA MMA.

So first things first: the stick-flicking dynamics of EA MMA - originally ported over from the Fight Night series - have been ditched in favour of the more intuitive buttons-for-limbs dynamic that'll be familiar to players of Tekken and THQ's UFC games.

Shoulder-button modifers allow you to throw harder shots, and there are over 100 striking techniques in the game, many of them specific to the fighters who use them in real life. You can use head movement to slip punches, and parrying's surprisingly easy - rather than timing your button press to intercept an attack, you just hold down the button to auto-parry high or low.

"Takedowns and ground transitions have been simplified from the THQ series, but actually feel more intuitive."

This is where another of Fight Night's most memorable dynamics transfers across - a well-timed counter, say, lands palpably harder than a jab, and certain fighters punch noticeably 'harder' than others. Johnny Hendricks, for instance, has a sledgehammer of a left hook - GSP, not so much. And finally, yes, you will be able to launch off the cage for Matrix-esque aerial attacks - currently very much the fashion in the UFC, after Anthony Pettis stunned Benson Henderson with a flying off-the-chicken-mesh - kick.

Crucially, and differing from earlier builds, we're assured that this ability will be restricted to player-created fighters and characters who've done it in real life, so you won't be seeing any heavyweights launching themselves through the air. Takedowns and ground transitions have been simplified slightly from the THQ series, but actually now feel more intuitive.

Flick left on the stick while you're in your opponent's closed guard, for instance, and your fighter puts a hand on the other man's knee. At this point, twirling the stick in a hadouken-style quarter circle transitions into a guard pass, while your opponent can block the transition with a similar movement.

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Posturing up to throw heavy ground-n-pound is as simple as holding up on the stick, which makes much more sense than anything we've seen before. EA is also touting 'non-linear damage' - which, in practical terms, means that you can take twenty jabs to the face without much facial scuffing, while one nicely-angled elbow will slice your forehead open.

The most difficult thing for MMA games to get right, of course, is the submission system. In the real sport, armlocks and chokeholds can be slapped on and finished in a split second, or turn into a technical struggle that lasts for half a round of fractional adjustments in position.

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EA's system sits somewhere between those two extremes - actually going for a submission is as simple as pressing a button, but applying it requires victory in a minigame that's much more confusing to explain than it is to watch.

We'll give it a go anyway: basically, an Octagon pops up on-screen, divided into four segments, and the player defending the submission holds the right stick left, right, up or down to 'escape' in that direction, while the attacker watches what they do and tries to match - or 'block' - the escape with their right stick.

Occasionally a prompt will flash up for the attacker, at which point they have to flick the left stick in that direction to advance to the next 'stage' of the submission - getting the opponent's arm away from their body, say, or sliding the choke further under their chin.

It's trickier for the attacker than the defender - much like choking someone out for realsies - but if the attacker gets through two or three of these transitions, the submission goes on and the match is over.

At the moment, it feels a bit slow compared to the don't-blink action of the real thing, but we're assured that this'll be fixed - the speed of transitions and attack/defence will be determined by a myriad of factors including how tired/dazed both fighters are and how good their are at submissions, so it should be possible for, say, Demian Maia to slap a guillotine choke on almost as fast as he does it in real life.

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Also notable is that the game will feature 29 submissions - more than ever before - including the spine-contorting Twister (only used once in the UFC, by 'Korean Zombie' Chan Sung Jung), and the Ezekiel choke (nobody's ever managed it, although middleweight Chris Weidman gave it a good go against Anderson Silva).

What we didn't see in the code we played (post-alpha, pre-beta) was the MMAi mode - which promises that fighters will act more like their real-life counterparts, going for the knockout if they're behind on the scorecards or coasting if they're ahead - or any of the outside-the-Octagon play options.

There's also no confirmation of the final roster count, although it's set to be 'around 100 fighters', including a woman's division featuring the all-conquering Ronda Rousey. For right now, be content that it's going to borrow all the best bits of the THQ games, add the 'feel' of Fight Night, bolt on some EA Sports expertise and hopefully come up with a genuine title contender. The best fighters, of course, are nothing if not adaptable.

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