Given that the EA Sports’ UFC titles do not follow the same format as most other sports games with annual releases, the exact release date of UFC 4 and what it might have to offer were left to speculation for quite some time. Finally revealed at UFC 251 over the summer with a surprising turnaround time to release, UFC 4 finally came to life on August 14.
Sports gaming fans often make the case for titles to take more time between releases, ostensibly to provide more time for polish and the addition of new features. Did UFC 4 benefit from this irregular schedule? Well, let’s talk about that.
UFC 4 Review: What I Like
When first stepping into the Octagon, one might feel that they accidentally loaded UFC 3 by how it immediately plays. Over time, however, the improvements start to become apparent in subtle ways. Due to the new rating system, which does away with an overall talent number and breaks skills into ratings of up to five stars, how each fighter performs the same move now feels different than before. This often results in unique animations for each level of star. Not every fighter will be able to perform a Wonderboy side kick with the same accuracy and speed.
The standing clinch has been overhauled, allowing for a more fluid interaction that can easily push fighters into the cage or be pulled into a bottom guard, emulating the real life battle for positioning and dominance. This is a wonderful change in that things feel much more physics-driven, and the changes provide more flow to both the clinching and striking.
That being said, the balance can feel off here at times. Stamina was tweaked in a recent patch (lowering it), but it’s still going to need further tweaks to give people more reason to not go full-on attack with things like the clinch and just spamming strikes. In short, right now there are not enough reasons to not go for clinches and takedowns, and since they’re easier to pull off now, it throws things a little out of whack in online environments. In other words, “a good defense is a good offense” has never been more true because defending against certain things is very challenging right now.
On the ground, EA sought to make the experience much more accessible than before. Transitions to the nearest possible submission, ground and pound or stand up are mapped to the left stick. This will result in the fighter automatically making the necessary transitions on the mat. While the player will still need to be defensively aware, there’s no doubt that the new system will increase the frequency and comfort factor of ground fighting, especially for beginners. Eventually, however, you may feel a need for more control and nuance and can revert back to the UFC 3 legacy ground controls from the menu.
Submissions are broken into two new mini-games, one using the back two shoulder triggers and the other using the left analog. In both variations, the goal is to either cover your opponent’s color, or avoid it if on the receiving side. Submissions are made even more exciting thanks to the possibility of chains into a different submission, providing an instant boost. Perhaps you need to strike your opponent to coax them into releasing their limb for an armbar or escape a hold from top position by standing up and slamming them back onto the mat. An impending heartbeat and visual effect complete an improved submission experience.
EA touted an expansion of UFC 3’s RPM (real-player motion) to the clinch and takedowns, and while there are some noticeable improvements in animation there are sometimes questionable moments with hit contact and how fighters sometimes pop off the mat back to a standing position. Still, most of the time the fluidity truly is satisfying to view and feel.
One aspect that is not as well defined comes with tutorials. There is a tutorials section within the game menu, but getting well adjusted to the new mechanics is still going to best come via online tutorials. EA does seem to be aware of this and will most likely continue to try and add more helpful guides in-game for those who don’t seek out tips and tutorials elsewhere.
Finally, UFC 4 introduces real-time injuries during a match, some minor and some more serious. In previous titles, damage to certain parts of the body were apparent, but this time around the risk runs much higher. Being checked on leg kicks can escalate from a small event and limping to a full meniscus tear, for example. If playing in career mode, this can pull your fighter out of action for several months and hurt longevity.
Injuries aren’t limited to just the Octagon, as training carries much of the same risk. This is a fantastic level of immersion, as I found myself much more cautious of fighting style in training rather than simply going through the motions. Real-life matches are often cancelled due to training injuries and this reality exists in UFC 4 as well.
You’re not only looking out for yourself, but your training partners as well. Training camp is split into various disciplines for sparring, and if you are not careful you run the risk of injuring these partners, making them (and that discipline) unavailable for the remainder of camp. In another aspect, other fighters can be paid to visit your camp and teach your fighter new moves. They too can be injured, actually causing a negative impact on your relationship with them.
These relationships are available to view with the rest of the roster and can primarily be improved (or damaged) by how you respond to messages on social media. The better your relationship, the less they charge for a camp visit.
Social media has been implemented in a number of sports titles, but generally serves as a mostly arbitrary background piece. Here, there is an attempt to provide opportunities to respond, and have those responses carry consequences.
Even so, it feels like a good idea that is so far under-served, and it would have benefited from being even more fleshed out to provide more branching possibilities. This also applies to attaining a rival, which adds an icon next to their name, but otherwise carries no real weight or impact on your journey.
Another idea that is disappointingly not carried further is the cinematic approach to career mode. Interactions with the coach that discovers you on Action Avenue soon fade away, and it’s easy to forget that the disembodied voice in the gym is the same guy who could have played a more active part in your rise. Rather, this relationship is largely boiled down to text messages asking if you would like to advance to the next promotion, from the World Fighting Alliance to Dana White’s Contender Series and, finally, the UFC.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of career mode is how your created fighter actually progresses. While using earned evolution points will raise chosen attributes in half-star intervals, your actual learned moves will progress alongside how you personally play. From jabs to wrestling transitions, the more you perform a technique in training or during a match, the faster it will level up. Playing to your strengths is truly rewarded in a meaningful way, though it isn’t wise to neglect other techniques. The right opponent will easily exploit a one-dimensional fighter.
One potential downside here relates to the AI fighters. They do seem to not always play to their strengths. Instead, you’ll run into non-wrestlers trying to wrestle you, and sometimes they will incessantly employ strategies like this throughout a fight. On top of that, an old “bug” is still here in that you’ll run into 50-year-old versions of fighters who should no longer be around and challenging you.
Other more minor changes to the career mode include the option to choose a contract incentive, sign sponsorships, scout opponents and customize training gear. Ultimately, the mode will feel like a familiar home with a new coat of paint. It’s a solid step forward but not the renovation it perhaps needs in some regards. However, if you did not play UFC 3, this mode will most likely have a better chance of capturing your attention.
The play now experience offers the traditional match, as well as Stand and Bang, and Knockout, with the option to customize your experience. As previously mentioned, Stand and Bang takes place in the backyard, inspired by street fighters like Kimbo Slice. The Knockout mode is the most intriguing by far, taking place in an underground Kumite arena and providing a vibe that is part Mortal Kombat, part Bloodsport.
The feel of the Kumite arena is so different that it’s almost like playing a different 2.5D fighting game, complete with a two out of three round setup and a deep and ominous overhead voice. The fact that it has such a different vibe makes it one of the more enjoyable aspects of the game and helps strengthen its replay value.
Rounding out the offline game modes are the options to create an entire UFC event or a tournament.
The online World Championship mode returns, which tasks the player with fighting several preliminary rounds before being placed into a division and chasing a championship, with the goal being to earn and defend it for as long as possible. The matches are intense and feel much more diverse, in no small part due to the changes in the clinch and ground game.
With Ultimate Team not making a return, the other online mode available is Blitz, which flashes back to the early tournament days of the UFC. In short, one-minute fights where online competitors make their way through the bracket to claim glory. It’s a fast and furious concept that radically changes the needed strategy to be successful.
UFC 4 Review: What I Don’t Like
A few noticeable changes have been attempted, such as the customizable training gear mentioned above. Using in-game currency gained from a new rotating list of challenges, there are a number of shorts, shirts, emotes and accessories available for purchase. This gear will appear for your fighter either in career training or the Stand and Bang play now mode, which takes place in a backyard cage.
While this gear can provide some level of personality, the choices are largely uninspired and too expensive, for instance, to acquire a complete set. Some designs carry animated versions, and while some are visually pleasing, their place in a simulation game comes across as iffy.
A visual cue has been added to health events during gameplay, turning your corner of the screen red when in danger of being knocked out, or blue when a limb is heavily damaged. If one finds the cues distracting, the option does exist to remove them in the menu, leaving the more traditional distortion of sound alone.
Overall, with presentation being one of the most important aspects of a sports title, UFC 4 falls short in offering something new and exciting. Watching entrance walk-ins from UFC 3 and 4 side by side will bear no discernible difference, and the pre-bell taunts feel gimmicky and out of place. Still, that isn’t to say that the old presentation was ever bad, but with UFC not being an annual title the hope was that more bases would be covered when a release did occur.
While mentioned previously that real player motion (RPM) does make several maneuvers feel fluid, the same cannot always be said for the fighter taking the hit. Whether or not the absence of ragdoll physics is to blame, the hit taking animations can at times feel particularly rigid, especially when a fighter is on their way to the ground.
Following up to strike a downed fighter never quite looks natural either, with each stage feeling slightly disjointed from the last. Once the transition is complete, the title tends to return to its more fluid ways. However, there are certain moments that feel less than organic, which is never a good sign in a simulation sport.
One of the most painful things that can happen to a game sequel is taking a step back, generally by removing features or members of the roster. While some major MMA names have been removed, such as Mirko Cro Cop and Travis Browne, others such as Weili Zhang, Ben Askren and Petr Yan have stepped in to fill the void.
Most other legends, such as Coleman, Severn, Rousey, St. Pierre and more also make their return alongside pre-order bonuses Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua. Pre-ordering the title via UFC 3 would also bring over Bruce Lee, and all three can be unlocked by simply completing the career mode as the greatest of all time.
That being said, there are quite a few fighters missing from the flyweight division (to name one) and it feels like the game hasn’t really taken a step forward as of now with the roster. If anything, it’s a step back since a good chunk of the roster feels outdated in some weight divisions.
All told, EA Sports did a decent job of trying to keep the roster relevant, but things like the newer women’s flyweight division are noticeably absent. That being said, I do have some hope for the future roster updates that should come to UFC 4, so I think this can still be turned into more of a strength in the long run.
UFC 4 Review: Bottom Line
UFC 4 had a lot of anticipation to live up to, and while it doesn’t hit the mark every time, it continues to be one of EA’s most solid overall sports titles. The career mode is structured in a more friendly way, the new backyard and Kumite arenas provide satisfaction for a quick match, and online competition is fierce — albeit still unbalanced and needing another patch or two to really hit the spot. There is also a purple screen glitch that is impacting some users and making it very hard/sometimes impossible to play online. I did not experience it during my time with the game, but it does appear to be somewhat widespread.
Ultimately, the question that always matters the most is how does it play? And that is where UFC 4 shines, bringing grappling up to snuff with striking to create a more complete fight experience. If you enjoyed UFC 3, or especially if you skipped the third iteration, UFC 4 is unlikely to disappoint in the same ways. If you’re on the fence, then just wait it out. This game should have some good sales in the near future, and it should also show up via EA Play at some point. On top of that, one of the best things you can say about the UFC developers is they generally don’t abandon the game. UFC 3 got some great updates even one-plus year later, and we should expect the same for UFC 4.