I'm just as much of a video game nerd as I am a technique nerd. So this will be my 3rd fanpost, a similarly obsessive and nitpicky review of a piece of MMA minutia that's important to me. Narcissism. It is also very, very long, so I've split it up into 2 parts. This one will focus on the gameplay and production values/miscellaneous.
I'm writing the review now as opposed to just after the game came out because 1. Grad school, 2. It took me some time to get used to the game and get a feel for it, 3. Grad school, 4. I wanted to play through the career mode a few times to get a fair picture of the whole game, and 5. Prison time. Wait, no, grad school.
Yes I'm going to make the inevitable comparisons to Undisputed 2010 and a few to FN Round 4, but I'm not going to give numbers of anything. Just kind of a general rambling diatribe on what I liked and disliked about the game, how it compares to what's out there already, and where it should go for 2012 (hooray for that happening!). Short version: I enjoyed it more than Undisputed, think it's currently better than anything else out there, and am pretty satisfied with it. But it wouldn't be me writing this without a lot of nitpicking about what to improve on. This review is done on the PS3 version.
Note: Before I even begin, there's one feature of MMA that makes it my favorite MMA game so far, hands down, bar none: NO SPED-UP CLOCK. Thank you, EA, for giving us the full 15 minutes of our 3 5-minute rounds. Seriously THQ, what's the deal with that?
Accessibility: EA MMA can have a fairly steep learning curve. Partly, this is because the "MMA 101" Tutorial is absolute garbage. It helpfully tells you what buttons do what-after you've already pressed them. Pressing X (on PS3) for a takedown results in a pop-up that says "Press X to attempt a takedown." Thanks, pop-up! The true tutorial are the training mini-games in career mode, and it can take until a few fights into your career for you to be really comfortable with all the aspects of MMA. Another part of the learning curve is muscle memory. Maybe you're different, but my initial career mode kickboxer had a tough time staying on his feet through his first 10 fights, given that my natural reaction to a shot was to frantically push backwards on the right analog stick. The transition from Undisputed to MMA may be tough with the default controls (I haven't tried the "classic" control option the game offers). The last part of the learning curve is just that there's lots to get through. Striking in particular feels very clunky for the first few hours. Uppercuts and front kicks are this laborious back-and-forth motion across the whole right analog stick, and throwing a roundhouse body kick requires 3 different shoulder button modifiers plus a flick of the right analog. Eventually it becomes second nature, but it takes a damn long time. The career mode training games help, and eventually you'll be putting combos together like Hoost.
Striking: I had the same complaints that many did about the previews before MMA was released, the stand-up game looked incredibly awkward. Fighters glided around the ring, some techniques looked sped up and others looked like they were being thrown underwater, a flying knee somehow covered half the distance of the ring or cage. While all these complaints still apply to how the game looks, the weird thing is, it feels right. Even though a left hook may look like it's being thrown in slow motion, when you're actually playing the game, the speed of techniques and how they fit together feels just about right. It's an odd phenomenon, but it's the same feeling I had about Fight Night Round 4. Looking at that game, once the fighters start to exchange, they look strange...like rock 'em sock 'em robots, oddly stiff and jerky. When you're playing though, you don't notice it at all, and it feels exactly right. Maybe with MMA it's a balance issue in how fast a cross travels versus a hook or uppercut, but by the time you've acclimated yourself to the controls, the striking feels very natural. Again, all the visual problems I mentioned are still there, but when you're playing, you don't notice that your fighter is gliding on air rather than stepping back and forth on the canvas. The insane reach of certain techniques turns out to be a necessary evil. Even though some of them are just flat-out crazy (looking at you, superman punch), given that the game lacks a "run" button, as opposed to Undisputed, without a few techniques that cover a lot of ground, it would be much harder to catch a retreating opponent. The long distance that some regular techniques cover has actually been implemented in a pretty cool way. Your fighter has a "punch range" and "kick range" statistic, which determines just how much ground you cover each time you throw a technique from range. It's a pretty cool way of having a measure of footwork technique in the striking. After all, any boxing or kickboxing coach will tell you that good footwork can make up a reach disadvantage, but before now it's not really been do-able in MMA games.
Although I said the striking "feels" right, this is true only to a point. Yes, the awkward animation speeds and such feel natural when playing. It's obvious that the FNR4 engine has been heavily modified, though, in its use here. While FNR4 had a revolutionary physics-based approach to how strikes landed or missed, collided or clipped, MMA has tweaked it in some not-so-great ways. Physics plays a large part in how much damage a strike does or how clean it lands (if at all), and this is pretty great. Landing a leg kick as your opponent steps forward into a jab from far away will stop him dead in his tracks and do more damage than if he took it while stationary. The problem is that there is a very, very obvious priority heirarchy in command input. It works out to kind of a rock-paper-scissors in the striking, you learn that certain strikes will always land over certain other strikes. This is somewhat dependent on timing, yes, but not so much that priority in striking is obvious. For example, body kicks will pretty much always take priority over any straight punch, and a punch thrown in the middle of a combo will usually take precedence over a singular punch thrown at the same time. Some of it's excusable for balance or realism-good roundhouse kick technique will indeed take your head off the line of a straight punch. It gets really annoying though, to be incapable of interrupting a punch combo because your opponent's punches keep stopping you in your tracks. Undisputed has a better system here; it's more similar to FNR4 proper in that when two punches are thrown at the same time, the physics of how and when they're thrown (combined with how hard and fast each fighter can throw), determines how each lands. It makes for a more realistic experience when two fighters can trade at the same time instead of a your-turn-my-turn affair. The priority certain inputs have is most obvious in transitioning to the clinch or ground game, should your opponent attempt a takedown or clinch at the same time you try to strike, theirs will always, always, always take priority. Kind of annoying.
One thing I really appreciate as opposed to Undisputed, is that there seems to be a good balance in that you have plenty of tools with which to KO your opponent, but that it's by no means a given. I remember going through career more in Undisputed as a created Igor Vovchanchyn, and being literally incapable of making it to a decision. This is not a commentary on how badly I played the game (though I wasn't great...Chael Sonnen outboxed me twice), even when I was dominating my opponent and trying to let them survive to a decision, the striking game was so overpowered that I ended up KOing opponents by accident in the last round. EA may have swung a bit too far on the flash knockout continuum, as they happen very infrequently (almost as infrequently as FNR4, which was basically never), but getting TKOs feels just right. You have the tools to make it happen if you're a good striker, but it's seldom easy.
Final note: Teeps are WAY overpowered. Getting hit with one in real life usually does not result in staggering several steps back and spraying sweat everywhere.
Clinch: The clinch game is pretty decent, if a little simplified. There's a good use of rock-paper-scissors here (similar to the grappling game) with strikes, faked strikes and grappling attempts. Basically, the controller rumbles each time you get hit or when your opponent is attempting a grappling move. If you're quick enough, you can button press to deny the grapple, but holding the block button hurts your ability to do this. So, it boils down to a balance between striking in the clinch, either for damage or as a distraction, faking strikes with a shoulder button to bait your opponent into blocking so you can take them down or hit them high while they're blocking low, and improving your position while denying your opponent the same. It's simple, but fairly deep. The thai clinch is appropriately dangerous without being overpowered, and having your opponent against the cage gives you a big advantage. Again, my only complaints about the clinch game are that the strike and takedown options are a little limited. You only have one takedown option from any clinch position (exceptions: none when your back is to the cage, which makes sense, and the 2 options from the plum; pulling guard or dropping for a double-leg) and they're the same no matter what style your fighter prefers. Usually it's a double-leg from a dominant position, a judo or greco throw from a disadvantaged spot, and a trip takedown when it's more even. Strikes are limited too. From the muay thai clinch you have your distracting tap to the head, elbow to the head, knee to the head and knee to the body. That's it. It'd be nice to be able to throw an uppercut/uppercut elbow, body punch, or pull back and fire a leg kick. Your strike options are even more limited if your opponent has the plum on you, but that makes more sense.
Grappling: This is where MMA gets it most right. Similar to the clinch game, your have to balance a rock-paper-scissors of striking, faking strikes and improving your position/attempting subs to win the grappling game. Stamina maintenance (which I should've mentioned before) is important in all aspects of EA MMA, but especially in the ground game, which adds another dimension. Very true to life, if you've had the opportunity to grapple before. Anyway, the system seems too simple on it's face, one button for positional improvements, one button to stand up, one button for submission attempts; it works better than the analog-based system in Undisputed though. This is where MMA's visuals and animations stand out as well. You notice how weird the standup looks, even though it doesn't hurt the feel of the game; on the ground animations look incredibly fluid and it adds to the experience. EA clear made sure to properly motion capture denial of positional improvements rather than just having the fighter abort the attempt halfway through, and it makes you feel like it's a real grappling battle. Strikes tend not to be very powerful in the ground game, they exist mostly to open up the passing game and submissions. Guard and mount top seem to be the best positions to strike from since they give you more room to punch, so wrestlers rejoice! Relatedly, though I mentioned there's only 1 button to advance, the additional "stand-up" button gives a lot of depth in that you can grapple to a personal style. A grappler more adept at passing guard and submitting opponents will likely want to improve position on top, eventually ending in mount or backmount, and on the bottom they'll try to work back to guard in order to either sweep or attempt a submission. Obvious, right? There's another option, that starting from guard, if you're a wrestler, means you can use the stand-up button to posture up (instead of disengaging) and rain down strikes rather than trying to pass the guard if your skills lie in ground 'n pound and not guard passing. Similarly, if your opponent has side control and you have no interest in reclaiming guard, pressing the standup button will cause your fighter to try for an underhook, which he'll use to stand up. The crucial part is that these are different skills (though related, training one in career mode usually gives a smaller bonus to a related skill): guard passing is separate from grapple defense, which is separate from submission skills, which are separate from your ability to stand back up. It's a stroke of genius, and gives much more individuality to the fighters you'll face and make in the game. I don't know if Chuck Liddell can pass a guard, but he's great at standing back up from his back...this game will let that happen.
Submissions are also well-implemented. One of the most common complaints about Undisputed was how difficult submissions were to finish. They feel just about right in MMA, similar to knockouts: possible, but not easy. The key is to wear down your opponent with strikes and denying their escapes to drain their stamina, but you also need to be judicious about when and what kind of submission you apply. Unlike Undisputed, or any MMA game that includes a struggle system as far as I know, you can deny the submission attempt or escape from it once it's been applied. Again, this allows for individualization in the grappling. You may have terrible submission skills, but if your grapple defense is high, your opponent may never get the chance to slap one on. It functions as a realism proxy to smart positioning; a good wrestler may not know the first thing about triangle chokes, but if his posture and base are good, he'll never be in a position that's vulnerable to one. Adding more depth is the split of submission skills into 3 categories: chokes, arm submissions and leg submissions. You can see why this is a good idea. MMA offers a few options for leg locks, and they really come into their own because, as a reflection of reality, leglock proficiency isn't exactly widespread in north american MMA in particular. Similarly, being good at armbars doesn't necessarily guarantee you'll apply a rear naked choke particularly well, and the producers at EA have done their research. The upshot is that there are more opportunities to find weakness in your opponents, which makes the game more interesting. My career mode kickboxer was able to win and defend his championship twice against better wrestlers and strikers by heel hooking them. The minigame for submissions differs from chokes to joint locks as well. My hands and PS3 controller are both thankful for the setup as opposed to the frantic shine-or-mash choice Undisputed gives you. The joint lock method is indeed button-mash-based, but each press of the button decreases your stamina. You have to manage keeping your opponent from escaping while trying to rest and recover stamina in order to make a quick, mashy run at finishing the sub. Your skill at the joint lock you're attempting affects how much stamina it costs per button press, and how much close that press gets you to finishing/escaping. Chokes involve a "find the spot" game where you rotate the analog stick around a ring to find the zone that gets you closer to finishing. Similar to joint locks, pressing the stick in any direction costs stamina, while resting allows your opponent the opportunity to come closer to escaping, and your choke skill affects how easy the minigame is. Both systems are excellent, both in balancing gameplay, and as a decent visual representation of each submission type. Joint locks show an x-ray of the bone in question, with red color creeping up from either end of the joint as the sub comes closer to being finished. The choke game's ring goes smaller and smaller as the choke gets tighter, and the edges of the screen start to turn dark. It's a nice touch that puts you closer to the feeling of getting choked yourself.
Rosters: We all know that not having the UFC brand hurt MMA's sales. I didn't expect this to be a huge deal for me in terms of who I could use in-ring; my interest was more in the career mode. The bright side is that EA's robust fighter share (and the wayyy better create-a-fighter system) allows you to download plenty of ready-made UFC stars out there. The thin roster does hurt the game in the career mode though, depending on the division and org you choose for your fighter to end up in (Strikeforce or "Mystic," a fictional Japanese org and obvious PRIDE expy), you might end up fighting the same lame generic stand-ins again and again. For example, my second career dude, a mish-mash of Aoki and Sakuraba, ended up in Mystic's middleweight division. Little did I realize that the only middleweight fighter exclusive to a Japanese promotion (and thus fighting in Mystic and not Strikeforce) in the entire game was Kazuo Misaki. The Grabaka Hitman is great and all, but after the 3rd fight, it got old. The actual licensed fighters tend to be much more skilled and well-rounded than the generics as well, so this makes a big difference. The head-scratcher is why the game doesn't let you import downloaded or created fighters to career mode as FNR4 did. It'd solve that problem almost entirely.
Commentary: What can I say, it's Frank and Mauro. At least Gus isn't there. To be fair, the commentary isn't SO terrible. Frank says dumb things, Mauro occasionally screeches hyperbole, but they get repetitive quickly, and this is actually a bonus because I was more able to tune them out. The most bothersome thing I found is that they're very slow to react to a finish, whether sub or KO.
Presentation: Fight presentation is fairly good, but it's not a focus. Ring entrances and introductions are very short, similar to FNR4. It lets you get right to the action, but takes away from the spectacle a little bit, particularly in a game with Mayhem Miller and King Mo. Referees in different orgs speak their appropriate languages (or accents) and Lenne Hardt is there for the Mystic introductions. It'd be nice if the crowd was more involved, I tended to forget the crowd noise was there. It seems to me there's great opportunity for contrast in having near-silent Japanese crowds explode at a submission attempt...I still miss PRIDE. Differing rulesets are represented faithfully here, from full Vale Tudo (sorta...no headbutts or groin strikes, but you know what I mean) to Strikeforce's wussy no-having-fun rules. Knees to the head on the ground are a sometimes thing (finishing a TKO or from the sprawl, but not side control), and soccer kicks and head stomps are, sadly, only for finishing off an opponent you've knocked down, but they're still a whole ton of fun. The only negative, rule-wise, is that you can't mix and match specific rules, rather you have to chose a certain rule set. If you want elbows to the head and stomps to the head on the ground? You're going to have soccer kicks, knees to the head and only one 20-minute round as well. Want 3 5-minute rounds in your fight? Guess you won't be having soccer kicks, huh? It keeps things simple, but it's still too bad.
Part 2 here.