|System: Xbox One, PS4|
|Dev: EA Vancouver|
|Pub: EA Sport\’s|
|Release: August 14, 2020|
|Players: 1-2 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 1080p-4K||Blood, Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Violence|
by Benjamin Maltbie
The first game in the EA Sport\’s UFC series came out in 2014. Honestly, it was pretty lackluster but it was also the only big game in the genre. Leaps and bounds toward an unparalleled UFC experience were made with the second game. The third game came so close to nailing it, and was a very well-received entry. The hope was that EA Sports UFC 4 would be the game to finally get there.
Despite the excitement from fans, an hour into playing, I felt positive that EA Sports UFC 4 was going to be one of those rare cases of an excellent game that I absolutely hate playing. And it was for a little while but now I am able to claim that it is an excellent game and I love playing it. I’m glad, too, because that’s a concept that is, unlike the finer points of strategy in MMA, pretty easy to explain to people. I’m leading with this to encourage giving the game its fair shot even though it is very possible that the game will feel frustrating or intimidating to newcomers. Remember this when your character is on the ground taking a loud and bloody beating and you’re desperately trying to figure out how to make them punch back, cover their face, stand back up, or do basically anything other than bleed.
The game moves fast and you are immediately thrown into UFC 4’s “career mode” where you can, “fight your way from the amateurs to the UFC Hall of Fame.” The first thing you will see after a short cutscene is a character creation screen full of mechanical and cosmetic choices for you to make. It is in these menus, and only here, that you can begin dropping real life money for virtual currency. For reference, the Goku-esque “anime white,” accessory is priced between four and five dollars’ worth of currency. If you want to spend some real-life money, you can fully realize your aesthetic vision before you even start playing. As far as defining your character’s strengths and weaknesses, though, this is only the beginning. If you want to meticulously develop a fighter that is both fierce and fashionable, you have to progress the story a bit.
The story is more than serviceable for a sports game. The narrative is corny in the way sports movies can be corny but it is also uplifting in the way sports movies can be uplifting. It’s an underdog story. It’s a tale of someone with a big heart and a strong will who won’t give up until they’re triumphant. You’ve heard this story in many forms, and if you liked it those times, you’ll like it this time. The story is elevated by the presence of Coach Davis, a former fighter who became a coach in the wake of a career-ending injury. He is an exceptionally warm character and, somehow, manages to ease the frustration of losing. He also sets up your first few matches for you.
These matches are against skilled opponents and focus on different styles of play. This is because, in EA Sports UFC 4, there are basically three categories of combat. Stand-up game is pretty straightforward and is where most of the punching and kicking takes place. Ground game, meanwhile, is where players grapple, transition and execute a flurry of punishing blows through an option called “ground and pound.” Between these two types of gameplay is the clinch system. In it, standing fighters interlock to execute throws, take-downs, and combos. It is also great for controlling the ring, as the easiest way to escape a clinch is by backing up. If a fighter backs up too much, they won’t have anywhere to go which is, to put it mildly, a suboptimal position to be in.
Stand-up game has an undeniable feeling of finesse to it. You have a large, customizable arsenal of moves at your disposal and their effectiveness varies with distance, circumstance, and frequency of use. The right analog stick is for leaning which allows for dodging without the need to move out of fighting distance. You can lunge in and out of safety. You can block and break blocks. You can kick and catch kicks. Everything action has an effective counter, so it helps to be well-versed on what you can do but a strong handle on a smaller toolkit is more than adequate for most situations. Stand-up game is affected by how well the fighters can read and predict one another’s actions, which is an experience the AI actually manages to recreate.
Ground game, on the other hand, feels less refined. On the ground, players are given the ability to choose between options like “get up,” and “submit.” Selecting an option moves the character into a position that can better accomplish the player’s goals. You would expect a logic and flow to making these decisions but strategy is undermined by a unavoidable guesswork. Both fighters can interrupt transitions using the right and left trigger buttons. If a fighter matches the other players input during their transition, the transition is denied. Against a computer, an interface appears to lend you a hand. Online, you’re on your own. In a game about building skill and understanding, this kind of guesswork can undermine feelings of progress. This is especially true since there’s no clear indication of which one of many factors caused the denial.
To a lesser extent, submissions also involve guessing in the same way that “rock, paper, scissors,” involves guessing. When a joint submission is attempted, a meter appears that says “escape” and “submit.” A curved interface with two bars to represent the two fighters also appears. The dominant player needs to use the trigger buttons to move their bar along the curve to keep the other player’s bar covered. If that bar is covered, the submit meter fills. If it isn’t, the escape meter fills. A choke submission, meanwhile, brings up a meter that says “escape,” and “submit,” but the curved interface is replaced with a circular one and players need to use the analog stick to move their bars around its perimeter. They’re minigames that feel like a poor fit, but the ground game problem is a tricky one for the genre.
In the face of all there is to learn, it might be prudent to focus on the stamina meter. This meter is tied to practically every action you can take in the game and can make or break a fight. Managing stamina also encourages you to be deliberate with your actions, which is the other major thing to understand about playing this game. Deliberate, thoughtful strategies actually work. This message is present throughout UFC 4’s design.
Look for that message between fights. When you accept a match, you are given time to prepare for it. You can then spend time, which is represented as an in-game resource, to study tapes of your opponent to better formulate strategies. You can invite training partners to teach you new abilities, so long as you have a positive relationship with them. Sparring allows you to develop your character’s traits and an option called “hype” is used to build popularity. Navigating these menus between fights is almost important to the game as the fights themselves. If you feel like avoiding such minutiae, you can choose to simulate the training week instead and still gain resources for building your character. The fact that you can mechanically better your odds through actual planning helps fuel the reward system of the game’s story mode. Planning a character around your own weaknesses is an extension of this. Struggling with the ground game? Do as my friend did and just destroy them standing up. It’s all pretty cerebral for a game about pummeling people into oblivion.
I also want to be sure to mention that the main menu prominently displays accessibility options where players can enable a color-blind mode can choose between three different color palette modifications. The camera flashes that are included for superficial effect can be turned off here and a setting called “haptic feedback,” can be enabled to denote the nature of incoming High and Low strikes. These options were in the last game, too, but it’s worth acknowledging their presence because accessibility options like these still aren’t common enough and their presence isn’t a foregone conclusion.
Because it is practically the only game in the genre, EA Sports UFC 4 is the uncontested champion. The fact that it singlehandedly fills a nice isn’t the only reason to play it, though. Once you grasp the basics, EA Sports UFC 4 is a deep game that lets you engage with it on your own terms. You can get by on easy mode, or you can rely on skills and abilities to compensate. You can simulate training if you just want to fight. If you want to develop a mastery over the game, the training menus offer a wealth of information and practice mode is very accommodating. If you want to learn about optimal builds and “hit boxes,” there are already a variety of communities online who excitedly welcome the opportunity to geek out about the game’s technical side. That’s where I’ll be going to improve my ground game. A week ago, I couldn’t imagine saying such a thing.