It's quite odd to see an EA Sports game without the crutch of a major license. We're used to the publisher putting out releases with brands like FIFA, NBA and NHL attached to them, or with big names like Tiger Woods and Madden. As a Brit, and a fairly un-sporty one at that, I'm often a bit clueless about these acronyms; I still like to pretend that NASCAR is actually someone saying "nice car!" with a funny accent.
When it comes to mixed martial arts, however, I now understand the weight of the UFC name - and that's purely down to my experience with Yuke's and THQ's Undisputed games. By extension, I can also see that there's a big gap on the cover of EA MMA, one that can't be covered up by the hulking presence of Randy Couture and Fedor Emelianenko. And while the sport is undeniably on the rise - in the USA, here in the UK and elsewhere around the world - there's still only one truly iconic license at the moment, and this time EA doesn't have it.
For a while, it appeared that EA might be the underdog in this particular match-up. The first Undisputed was an excellent game that set the benchmark for MMA simulation, and at the start of this year it seemed that the inevitable follow-up would further cement THQ's position. But when Undisputed 2010 finally arrived, back at the end of May, it failed to deliver a knock-out blow. It was a damn good game, certainly, but one that couldn't quite match the impact of its unexpectedly great predecessor - and that means there's room for EA to potentially steal the limelight.
The lack of an easily-identifiable license still means that this won't be an easy task, but judging by my first hands-on experience the game's certainly going to put up a decent fight. The main stumbling block faced by any MMA game is the need to handle several different fighting styles - stand-up boxing and kick-boxing, clinch grappling, and down-on-the-floor pounding and limb-twisting - with a single, easy-to-use control scheme. MMA has been built using the Fight Night 4 engine, so it's hardly surprising to see we also get a tweaked version of that game's Total Punch Control system. All of your punches are mapped to swipes and arcs on the right analogue stick, and holding LT/L2 allows you to dish out kicks. The other three shoulder buttons let you guard, use low blows or even fake moves, resulting in a varied arsenal of attacks.
Since the right stick is taking care of all your punching and kicking needs, the face buttons are free to handle grappling. Rather than swamping the player with a huge list of combinations to remember, MMA leaves you with a set of four contextual commands. The A button (on a 360 pad) will advance your position to a more advantageous one, while B will attempt to counteract your opponent's movements; Y will always do something that will help you get back on your feet, and X will either perform a takedown (throwing or forcing a near-naked man to the floor) or initiate a submission (bending back a near-naked man's arm or leg, or attempting to choke a near-naked man so that they can't get any near-naked air into their near near-naked lungs).
As a result of this simplified approach, you don't need to worry so much about your position. If you don't like the stance you're stuck in, there's never any doubt about what you need to press to change your situation. Purists may miss the pedantic detail of Undisputed, where you had to learn the pros, cons and strategic options of each individual stance and hold, but everyone else will like the fact that it's far easier to use.