I sat down and played the EA MMA demo for Xbox 360 for about an hour today. The demo comes with four playable characters - Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem, Bobby Lashley, Jason "Mayhem" Miller, and Jake Shields, a Fight Now mode, and an "MMA 101" tutorial. My thoughts below.
- The character models are excellent. The four playable characters (Overeem, Lashley, Miller, and Shields) and two non-playable characters ("Big" John McCarthy and Jimmy Lennon Jr.) look fantastic. All the faces are recognizable, the body types are correct, and the textures have a lot of detail.
Basic striking with the right stick is fluid. I played a fair bit of the Fight Night series, so this wasn't completely jarring for me. Kicks are performed by using the left trigger as a modifier. Putting together combos felt natural. Everything felt intuitive, so while I by no means have mastered the striking system, I feel comfortable with it.
Grappling still sucks. Another MMA game, another disappointing grappling engine. The grappling system is simple: press "A" to improve position, press "B" to prevent your opponent from improving, press "X" to attempt a submission, and press "Y" to try disengage. While THQ's series uses the right stick for positional advancement, grappling ends up as the same back-and-forth improve/deny position game in EA MMA as well. Never mind that this isn't an accurate representation of real-life grappling, it just feels clunky and disjointed. I'm beginning to worry that a fun, fluid, and simple grappling system is out of reach.
- The tutorial is worthless. The in-game tutorial pits you as Jason Miller against Jake Shields in a Japanese ring. Every so often, notifications pop up telling you what you can do. A lot of the notifications popped up after I already figured out how to pull something off (whether on my own or looking it up under the "Controls" menu in the pause screen). You're better off just jumping in headfirst and figuring out the game on your own.
- Special striking was not responsive. I kept trying to throw a flying knee with Alistair Overeem, which is accomplished, according to the menu, by pressing forward on the left stick and holding the left trigger while hitting up-diagonal forward on the right stick. Intuitively, to me, this means that I should be able to press and hold forward on the left stick and then perform the second part of the move. Instead, you have to flick forward on the left stick, which makes it very difficult to perform with any sort of consistency.
Movement looks unnatural. Fighters move their legs while they move, but they don't feel like they're actually taking steps.
- I'm not sure what to make of the submission system. There are actually two different systems. Chokes use something of a modified "Shine" system. Instead of twirling a stick in a circle (in this case, the left stick), you're trying to find the "sweet spot," which you identify by controller vibration. Arm and leg locks involve repetitive button pressing. I gather that you want to keep pace with the rhythm on screen. It's a better effort than the grappling system, though it still doesn't feel right. It's also difficult to judge without playing against another human being.
Overall, it was a fun little demo, but I'm not exactly rushing to find out the release date. I predominantly fought as Overeem against Lashley and the fights ended up taking a familiar path: Lashley dives for a takedown, Overeem sprawls, strike from the front headlock position, Lashley tries to escape, I block, rinse, repeat. Sometimes I would transition to the back, put my hooks in, and work from there. Sometimes, rarely, Lashley would escape. Striking on the feet became worthless because it became apparent that I could just sit back and wait to counter Lashley's shot.
That said, it seems like a good, ambitious first effort. I'm not sure how committed EA is to the game or the series, but it's a nice little foundation to start on in any case.