Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Review: EA Sports MMA

The fastest growing sport in the world makes yet another appearance on the 360 and PS3 - and no, it's not another UFC Undisputed update... There's a new contender for the title of best mixed martial arts game and frankly, EA Sports MMA packs a pretty hefty punch!

Unlike its rival, EA's new fight sim lacks the big names that many of us may be familiar with as the THQ’s UFC game has the license for all of those guys... but it really doesn't matter. There are still plenty of famous faces from the sport in there - the roster of fighters including Shinya Aoki, the Shamrock brothers and Fedor Emelianenko - the uber-tough heavyweight who graces the box with MMA legend Randy Couture.

From the menu screen, there's the usual option to dive straight into a fight, where you can pick from the huge roster, arena types and rules – including Japanese, Vale Tudo, and Strikeforce. There’s also a quick tutorial or, should you feel a little more confident in your abilities, you can opt for the online multiplayer mode - a superb distraction with good matchmaking and no noticeable lag during bouts. Emerge from a fight victorious and XP is collected putting you within touching distance of a belt and that all important kudos.

Frank Shamrock and Mauro Ranallo provide the commentary, which is decent enough but a little odd on the occasions when Frank is actually slugging it out in the ring at the same time(!). Big John McCarthy is there as referee, while Jimmy Lennon Jr provides the fighter introductions before each event.

Fun though these options may be, it's the career mode - under the expert tutorage of fan favourite Bas Rutten - that really deals the competition a knockout blow. These lengthy campaigns can often be a bit of a slog but EA’s effort really reeled me in and I found myself sat in front of the screen until the early hours, trying to work my way up the professional rankings.

First step is to create a fighter and select his stance, style and swagger. How should your protege enter the ring and to what music? And after a win, how should he celebrate? Then there are the tattoos, shorts, facial features, hair styles and physique options to scroll through too - it's very comprehensive without being a chore.

Next up, it's all about learning the basics. Standup and grappling skills are first on the agenda, with a series of kicks, punches and takedowns explained through various mini games. Unlike the UFC titles, the controls are intuitive and reminiscent of EA's acclaimed Fight Night series, the buttons responsible for your fighter’s various limbs. Should you not take to the Total Strike Control, however, a simpler Classic variant is available too - either way, you’ll soon get to grips with the various manoeuvres.

A few bouts in and it's clear that this guy may look the part but his skills are seriously lacking. So it's off to one of the various training camps around the world to determine exactly what your fighter will be capable of. Each specialises in a different area from boxing to ju-jitsu. There are 16 special move slots available – which can be filled by performing a series of exercises of varying difficulty, often within a specified time limit. Achieve those and your chosen move is unlocked and added to your repertoire. All your favourites are available, such as the spinning kick, takedowns or the kimura submission. Your efforts in these mini games are graded from A to D, the higher the score rewarding your stats with a heftier boost. You can revisit these gyms before each fight to polish your skills and abilities. It’s a nice touch, allowing you to tailor your fighter to your strengths, be it the ground game or standup – and requires you to be tactically astute too as you don’t want to waste any of the available slots.

It's then a case of fighting your way through the various minor leagues to rise through the ranks and chase that sought-after belt. Rematches and titles defences add to the tension, allowing you to try out new tactics against former opponents and further hone your skills.

Regular news reports chart your successes and failures while Bas keeps in constant contact with emails and messages via your phone, choosing your next opponents and swamping you in his endless enthusiasm.

Button-mashing won’t help you much either as you’ll quickly see your stamina bar deplete making you more susceptible to strikes and less likely to recover. Instead, a more strategic take on the sport is supported and well-timed button presses and stick gestures will reap rewards.

Perhaps the area that really shines is the ground game, and specifically the submissions – a hugely infuriating aspect of the UFC titles. There’s an element of skill to pulling off the choke and limb submissions in the heat of battle, the former requiring gentle gesticulation of the stick until you hit that “sweet spot” that will force your opponent to tap out or pass out. The limb holds, meanwhile, need careful button presses and pacing to prevent your stamina from draining. A nice X-ray effect depicts the pressure inflicted on the bones and indicates how close you are to pulling off the move.

As you’d expect from the stable of EA, the presentation is spot on with great sounds and realistic character models, which perfectly mimic their real-life counterparts. Graphically, it looks fantastic – the blood, sweat and bruising effects a nice touch and becoming more obvious as each gruelling bout continues.

It's a shame that the sport, while growing rapidly, is still often overlooked but hopefully EA’s latest effort won’t be; it really is a fantastic game that perfectly captures the essence of the sport. There are few flaws – especially impressive seeing that this is the first in the series – and it provides plenty of replayability with the various career and online modes and customisation options. If I had to choose between the two excellent MMA titles – UFC Undisputed and EA Sports MMA – the latter would win it, by unanimous decision.

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