Anecdotally speaking, it’s been tough to maintain constant enthusiasm for EA Sports’ UFC franchise. Not because I don’t enjoy it — I think EA Vancouver has done a solid job with their virtual takes on MMA, and each entry has been at least worth checking out. However, the general landscape of the sport doesn’t change as often as other sports do, which partly explains why the series is on a two-year schedule to begin with. The third entry was good enough, but I struggled to get invested in it. Perhaps due to the fact I spent so little time with that one, though, I was pretty hyped when EA Sports UFC 4 was unveiled.
Even more than the fighting engine, EA Vancouver has done a significant overhaul on the modes present in EA Sports UFC 4. For starters, the garbage Ultimate Team mode has been completely dumped. It never felt like a good fit for the sport, so good riddance there. Replacing it in the multiplayer world are Online World Championships and Blitz Battles, which are both immensely better. Knockout Mode and Stand and Bang also return but with unique presentations this time around. And for the more single-minded player, the career mode has also been completely revamped.
Of the two major online modes, Blitz Battles appealed to me most. The concept is a series of fast-paced fights utilizing a rotating set of rules and weight classes. For example, the one that was active pre-release was one-minute women’s flyweight fights. Not only does the time limit force me to switch up my normal fight strategies, but the focus on different weight classes pushes me to find new fighters to use. And when or if you lose, you can immediately jump into a new series of fights. I don’t necessarily have the time to devote to a fully-fledged online career, so this more bite-sized mode is right up my alley.
If you’re looking for a more straight-forward fight, though, the Knockout Mode has basically been turned into a traditional fighter. Taking cues from Bloodsport and Mortal Kombat, the action can take place in a new Kumite arena. Each player has their own health bar, and cheesy sound effects are peppered throughout the action. It’s all very silly, but a fun change of pace from a traditional MMA fight. Stand and Bang Mode has its own unique location: the backyard of some random person. It may sound silly, but the venue works as a perfect tribute to both cover star Jorge Masvidal and cult star Kimbo Slice.
The revamped career mode serves as an excellent introduction to the world of EA Sports UFC 4. You start on the amateur circuit, and in my case, getting brutally finished. However, your performance catches the eye of Coach Davis, a fictional former UFC fighter-turned-trainer. From there, you begin to work through the amateurs, while also getting drilled on the specific components of the fight game. From BJJ to boxing, you get a crash course in the disciplines needed to thrive. Once you get that out of the way, it’s onto the minor leagues, before theoretically, making it big in the UFC. How you get there, either through dominating the WFA or getting noticed on Dana White’s Contender Series, is up to you.
Career mode has typically been solid, if unspectacular, and that pattern continues here. To be fair, I’ll never get tired of working my way up to contendership. Rising from prospect to champion, and all of the bloody brawls along the way is a highlight of the series. However, I’m not the biggest fan of either the relentless training or half-baked promotional gimmicks. Training is important, and obviously it has to be included in any career mode. The drills offer little variation, though, and the training partners you get stuck with are as much prone to getting knocked out as they are to following your direction. And the option to bad-mouth fellow fighters is a fun touch, but I’m not sure the benefits of doing so outweigh the cons. It’s easy enough to build hype without resorting to Twitter beef, and if your relationship with a fighter sours, then you may lock yourself out of learning certain moves. If there was more sizzle to the feuds, like we’ve seen in modern UFC, then I might have been more inclined to be aggressive.
Things get significantly better once you actually step into the Octagon, however. The stand-up game keeps things the same for the most part, outside of some smaller changes. The striking is more fast-paced than your typical UFC fight, but this was pretty much necessary in order to create an entertaining game. It can take some time to learn all of the unique strikes in a fighter’s arsenal, as the button combination can get pretty complicated, but give it time, and you should be able to get adjusted. My one qualm, for now, is that fighters seem to have way too much stamina. Standing and banging is entertaining, but there should be a greater emphasis on the toll that takes on your energy.
The changes on the feet actually come from the grappling aspects of a contest. Both the clinch and takedown systems have been tweaked to provide a more realistic experience. The difficulty in getting out of a clinch has been lowered, which no longer means that every fighter is Anderson Silva level in there. It feels more fluid and natural now. The takedown controls seem like they have potential too, but some tweaks need to be made. It’s far easier to do different kinds of takedowns, whether it’s a double-leg, single-leg, or a trip, than it has been. However, the window for blocking takedowns seems almost impossible to time correctly. I can count on one hand the number of times I was able to stop one, despite sometimes holding a significant wrestling advantage over my opponent. This is an easy fix, but for now, it’s a glaring issue.
I’m also decidedly mixed on the ground game of EA Sports UFC 4. To start with the positive, I think EA Vancouver has done an excellent job with the submission system. It has been completely overhauled into two different, but similar games, depending on what kind of sub you are shooting for. Both of them are variations of a game where the person attempting the sub has to keep their colored bar on top of the person in the subs colored bar. You need to be careful and cautious with your movements, though, as erratic movements will mess with the size of your bar. It’s a simplistic system, but both fun and a major improvement on what has been used in the past.
While the grappling is a major highlight, the ground and pound is as bad as it ever has been. Much like striking on the feet, it’s not much different than it was in the last entry. And while that was a good thing for the stand-up, it’s not much of a positive here. The big issue is that these strikes lack any kind of impact. It feels like you’re not hitting anything, which is completely the opposite of how it is in real life. In a real fight, ground and pound is brutal and loud. There’s nothing here, though. Even when you knock someone out, you’re left wondering how. It’s a real disappointment, especially considering how well done the other portion of the ground was for this entry.
Presentation has always been a strong point for the series, and EA Sports UFC 4 manages to raise the bar even higher. I’ll go out on a limb and say that this may just be the best-looking title in the EA Sports oeuvre. The fighter models are full of detail and look pretty darn accurate to their real counterparts. Most of the environments are simple arenas, but both the Kumite arena and the back yard look great as well. On the commentary side, the new team of former champ Daniel Cormier and Jon Anik is a step up from the days of Goldberg and Rogan. They do a solid job of calling the action, and the repetition of certain phrases never seems too egregious.
Although it doesn’t take a full step forward in all areas, EA Sports UFC 4 is the best entry in the series yet. Smart tweaks to both the stand-up and submission system not only make the title easier to learn but also a more enjoyable experience overall. EA Vancouver has also improved the multiplayer modes found in the brawler. Both Blitz Battles and Online World Championships provide their own fun takes on the sport. However, the lackluster ground and pound and dull career mode still need improvements to get on the same level of quality. The studio is on the right track, though, and hopefully, in another two years, the series can continue to improve.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the title. A copy was provided to us by Electronic Arts.