EA Sports UFC 2 Review (PS4)
When EA purchased the UFC game license a few years back, it almost seemed like more of a knee-jerk reaction rather than a tactical move. To be sure, EA likely realized that there was an opportunity to ride the upward trajectory of the Las Vegas–based fight promotion. Fight Night had started to flag in sales, and it was time to give something else a try, especially considering the success THQ had with the UFC products they released.
The first EA Sports UFC felt like a positive initial step, but I was aware when reviewing it that the game had a limited development cycle and budget when compared to the bread-winners at EA such as FIFA or Madden. Regardless, I felt the gameplay was relatively satisfying, with striking that provided for some varied wars, as well as a ground and clinch component that allowed for some interesting transitions and work along the cage. But that doesn't mean there weren't some drawbacks. Strike-spamming, stamina issues and a lack of modes were instantly noticeable, but some of those were offset by the game's rock-solid online play and steady stream of updated content and gameplay systems. Eventually, the patches refined the gameplay quite substantially, adding extra animations and "finish the fight" sequences, as well as a strike-chaining and combo system.
"...the content on offer in EA Sports UFC 2 is certainly a meaningful upgrade."
These title updates seem to have paved the way for EA Sports UFC 2, the follow-up that's releasing about 21 months after the first game. The extended development cycle (an eternity compared to other EA Sports games) has proved mostly successful, allowing for upgrades to the roster, presentation, gameplay, modes and overall experience in the menus. After a first year that seemed a bit lean on modes and extras, EA Sports UFC 2 gets most of those things right. I question whether EA has done enough to entice casuals to enter the Octagon, and the lack of a meaningful career offering remains a bugbear, but the content on offer in EA Sports UFC 2 is certainly a meaningful upgrade.
Now, I'll be the first to say that the move selection was off for many fighters, and the ability of many high-level characters (Jones, GSP, Silva) to spam certain moves with minimal stamina penalty was maddening. A lot of this was addressed with the patches. These changes have carried over to EA Sports UFC 2 — and then some. Striking now has a much crisper flow, with improved animation work and the ability to chain strikes together. There's also full 360-degree head sway, giving you the opportunity to avoid strikes by bobbing and weaving to your heart's content. This is one of the "easy to use, hard to master" features that many high-level players will love.
"Striking now has a much crisper flow, with improved animation work and the ability to chain strikes together."
Defense now requires you to block high or low on separate buttons, which is a nice change for those who were frustrated by other players just holding the main block button to mitigate incoming strikes. The parry system works about as it did before, which isn't ideal, but it does still allow for some exciting counter opportunities. The ability to step and lunge in and out of danger remains viable, but it does still use up considerable stamina. The ideal method is to mix in occasional blocks and parries with strong footwork, as you really want to avoid staying in the pocket for long.
The big difference in the gameplay now comes from the clinch and ground game, where both users can simultaneously enter inputs, and visual descriptors explain what's going on. This is sort of a continuation of EA's philosophy from NHL 16, where the visual trainer attempted to help users understand a lot of the finer details of gameplay. For EA Sports UFC 2, the clinch and ground game have ditched the quarter- and half-circles of last year. You basically still advance or move in one of the four directions, but the visual indicator on the screen tells you what each direction does. And that is all you have to do — press in a direction. If you fill your meter first, you'll be successful in your guard pass. Denials of transitions still work with a direction flick while holding the right-trigger, but these can no longer be pre-loaded, meaning you'll be penalized for just holding a denial (the controller rumbles). Timing is pretty key here.
I'll be honest and say that this system initially caught me off guard (ha!), as I yearned for the circle inputs of the previous game. But once I started to put some time in with the system, I found the struggle of simultaneous inputs fairly compelling, as you can interrupt transitions with a strike, and you can modify for advanced techniques by holding the left bumper (if your fighter has them). It's definitely hard to posture up and land big strikes for long periods, but frankly, that's the case in real MMA. The shorter window to act has also been softened somewhat by an increase damage value from the beta of EA Sports UFC 2, where it was hard to really do much with ground and pound. Now two or three shots can do a lot. Overall, I've come to like the clinch and ground game in this second game, but there will still be some fighter and stamina match-ups that will make this area of the game frustrating for players who panic.
Not panicking remains paramount for the submission system as well, which feels familiar if you've played the first game. You can now enter submissions from a few new positions, and there are occasional opportunities to chain submissions (with a stick flick) into a deeper stage of a different submission. You're still trying to fill one side of the octagon minigame in order to escape, and the attacker is trying deny that direction — and advance to the next gate when the prompt arrives. Personally, I find the submissions tuned about right, as they can be a threat if stamina comes into play, but videogame MMA shouldn't have submissions happening all that often. They can still be pulled off, but it's rare to be caught if you know what you are doing.
"But once I started to put some time in with the system, I found the struggle of simultaneous inputs fairly compelling..."
Putting everything together, I've had some really fun wars, both offline and online. There are new knockout animations on display quite frequently, and you'll see fighters wobble, stumble or crumble from devastating wheel kicks, uppercuts and liver shots. Even leg-kick TKOs are now possible, but I have found some of the damage recovery for certain body parts to be a bit spotty. Even the "death rock" of last game has been mitigated somewhat, as you are able to try a right stick in a direction as you recover, possibly escaping to a sprawl so that the fight can continue. One fight I had as Rory MacDonald (against Robbie Lawler) online was one of the best I've ever had over the two games, with lots of drama and dynamism. Conversely, I was stunned by an opponent online who used Anderson Silva, as a flying knee sent me to the canvass within seconds. Crazy stuff.
But again, the combat lends itself to some entertaining exchanges and back-and-forth moments. The ability to jump on an opponent to try and finish the fight is now a constant fixture of the engine, and there are a variety of ways to put the hurt on an opponent. The struggles on the ground are actually a struggle, and I found the advantageous positions to be even more threatening than the strikes sometimes, which, in a way, they should be.
The overall look and feel of EA Sports UFC 2 is fantastic, with increased detail in all of the fighters. The damage modelling is even more impressive than before, with swelling, cuts, bleeding and bruising that really sells the pain of the shots you're throwing and absorbing. Hair is noticeably better as well, with even short hair slightly moving when you're pounding on another fighter's dome. It's not just the fighters either, as the arenas themselves have improved lighting and crowd depth, and UFC production overlays and camera angles have been updated to their current real-life standard. Even title fights get spotlights in the arena to highlight the two combatants. The animations work is equally strong, with new moves and strikes flowing nicely in combination. There's a tiny bit of clipping and wonky animation now and again, but I really haven't seen much in the way of major jank.
The audio package is just fine as well, with corner banter, crowd noise and plenty of licensed and unlicensed music tracks. The menu music is definitely better this time around, and even the commentary from Rogan and Goldberg has a few new lines and bits of emotion. Again, they don't really break any new ground with the commentary, but it provides a nice stream of consciousness and background noise for some of the fights.
Career Mode / Ultimate Team
It's unfortunate that most players will probably start with the career mode, as that mode has seen very little change from the previous version in EA Sports UFC. This doesn't mean it's bad, per se, but it's just sort of a standard offering, as far as career modes go. I will say that the menus are a lot more streamlined, and I found the training sequences (which are derived from the same activities as before) to be relatively quick and painless. You can now play with female fighters, which is cool, and the evolution points you unlock can be put towards your moves or your perks. The perks are all available at the outset, and it's up to you to "level up" these perks with the evolution points. So something like "razor elbows" starts at a lower tier when you first unlock it, but you can put the points in it to make it better. Or you can spend your points on new moves. Getting in and out of menus is quicker this year, too, which helps keep the mode relatively breezy.
"The adaptive AI setting probably makes sense for most people, as you'll crush your way up the rankings at first but then get slowed by actual UFC veterans near the end."
Ultimate Team is available is now part of the game too, and if you've played it anywhere else in EA's portfolio, you'll feel at home here. You pick a stable of up to five fighters, and you send them up against other Ultimate Team players, either in online fights or in single-player matches (against their AI ghosts). Even when you're not online, your AI fighters will earn you coins, and you can use said coins to unlock move upgrades and temporary boosts to help out your fighter(s). The presentation and features of the mode feel in sync with what EA has offered in its other sports products, and I suspect this will remain a focus of the series going forward. Either you like Ultimate Team or don't engage with it, and this version in EA Sports UFC 2 won't change that dynamic.
The online suite of EA Sports UFC 2 remains strong, with basic quick fights, rivalries against friends, and the division/championship mode. Ultimate Team is primarily played online too, obviously. The main difference for the division/championship is that you aren't playing in the "seasons" concept, and wins are just worth a certain number of points, depending on what fighter you used and how the match played out. It's a smart way to get people to not focus on wins and losses, as you ultimately want to acquire points to get promoted to the next division. Another neat wrinkle is that there is a rotating stable of fighters that are each worth bonus points if you use them. You only have so many hours to "claim" them. I found it to be a clever way to get people to pick some of the non-elite fighters, but I think EA will need to tweak how many points you get for picking them to encourage that behaviour even more.
The title chase aspect of championship mode is also cool, where you have something of an independent goal of stringing together a few "prospect" wins in order to get a contender fight. If you can manage to then win your contender fight and the title, it then becomes a game of defending that title. You want to keep climbing divisions and defending titles, and it's a nice touch that they even have the proper presentation and drama for title fights (no matter who your opponent is).
All of this wouldn't matter if the online didn't play well, but from my experience, it's still incredibly smooth. There's the very occasional match that has a touch of lag or some hitching, but as before, it's likely when you're being matched up with someone quite far away. Overall, the game plays great online. Also, the matchmaking and menus are much faster than before, resulting in quicker entries into a match and exits out of one.
The Knockout Mode is kind of the wacky addition this year, and the basic conceit is that you put a couple of fighters in the ring and let them slug it out — no takedowns, no time limit. Each character is given a few health cubes, and one hard shot from another player will take one away. It basically becomes a game of who can land the first few good shots, and then the other player has to play carefully to avoid the kill shot. This mode nicely showcases the KO animations that have been added this year, and some of these do look particularly devastating. It's s a simple idea that's designed with couch co-op in mind, and I had a lot of fun with it. The only flaw is that you can't play it online, which seems like a puzzling oversight.
The practice and skills-training modes remain relatively untouched from before. You can still spar with a CPU opponent, which gives you an opportunity to work on various scenarios. The CPU behaviour can be altered to make it more aggressive or passive, or you can have it just sit there and absorb damage. The various skills-training scenarios work as they did before, allowing you a chance to work on your strike timing, clinch defence, submission offense and so on. This is an area where the developers still need to find a way to better explain what's going on to casuals, but the new ground HUD does communicate some of these concept a bit more, so it's a start.
While I would hope for future games to explore more context for casual users and provide a better career option, I can't say I'm displeased with how the time was spent for this follow-up. I'm a fan of what they've done to the overall feel of the strikes as well as the ground game. The title chase and revised division concept gives people a new way to compete online, and Ultimate Team is there for those who want to scratch that itch. I actually had fun with Knockout Mode, and the presentation is pushed even further than before. There's a lot to like in EA Sports UFC 2, and existing fans should be pleased. Casual players might have a bit of a time getting into it all, but the new modes and visual training at least give them something to grapple with.
Score: 8 (Great)