MMA is unabashedly obsessed with violence. Practised, controlled and precise violence, perhaps, but you only need listen to the riotous bellows of the audience when a heavy blow tears through a rival's skin to realise society is still trading on the pain and primal thrill of blood sports. While the content of MMA and its glitzy, elder brother boxing are hugely separated, both sports gleefully trade on the basic joy of dangerous, carnal competition.
The key to differentiating the sport is in the first M – mixed. Whereas boxing is pure pugilism, a round of MMA might start off with a few strikes before sprawling out on the floor with some Greco-Roman wrestling. Wearing your foe down blow by blow with your lightly-strapped fists is still a valid tactic, but kneeing him in the head from a Muay Thai clinch might bring a hastier, and more dangerous, conclusion to the proceedings. Organisers of advertisement-laden ticker tapes and clever product placement secretly hope each scuffle is drawn out for maximum product exposure – on an unrelated note, anyone for a can of Rockstar Energy Drink? – but the fans cry out for the many differing styles of violence, executed in the most brutal fashion the rules allow.
This poses its own problems for game designers. Physical damage, and EA Sports' MMA is certainly a vicious brawler, can be ramped up with a few sneaky sliders, but exactly how do you factor in, say, Sambo, Kickboxing and Brazillian Jui-jitsu without losing cohesion and overloading the engine with all sorts of buttons and rules?
For that, at least, EA owes a lot to THQ for reviving MMA video games with last year's UFC 2009 Undisputed. Like UFC, MMA has a logical control scheme that initially daunts but quickly offers up rewards for dedication; EA has opted to use the Total Punch Control system born from Fight Night Round 03, albeit with a few notable changes.
Strikes are mapped to the right stick, with modifiers on the shoulder buttons for kicks and low blows, but the most important difference when you're in the ring is in the change of control when on the ground or standing. Exchanging blows when standing is handled well, with Fight Night's heritage of wiggling the stick around to pummel each other senseless (before realising you need to conserve your stamina) in full effect – the real trick is to punch in dangerous bunches. Dodging and counter-attacking is well implemented, too, and catching your opponent off-guard can result in some opportunistic, and painful, flash knockouts.
The ground game, however, requires you to be careful and opportunistic in a bid to control physical territory. The transition from full guard to full mount is handled smoothly: the aggressor uses one button to advance their position, the defender uses another in attempt to block their progress. UFC's quarter-circle stick movements are eschewed to make way for a system prioritising occasional and careful button presses whenever you're not kneeing the other guy in the ribs.
Whatever tactic you prefer, managing your stamina is the key to success. Winding your opponent is almost always the best way to open him up for a flurry of devastating punches, and MMA displays its limb-based damage (head, torso and legs) with friendly and accessible on-screen bars. These also take the role of a flashing danger sign, so it'll almost always cause your opponent to immediately switch to defence whenever they take too many stray whacks to the noggin; on the other hand, this also gives the attacking player enough indication to force their attack.
Stamina is also the key commodity during submission mini-games, a currency exchanged to either tighten the grip on your opponent's limb or to force your way out of a potential defeat. Mash through it all at once and you'll be left with nothing, which almost always gives the other person all they need to secure victory. Submissions demand a tug-of-war approach, represented by an on-screen close-up of the limb in question and a seeping red stream of agony to represent the attacker's grip. Another mini-game, played out during choke holds, involves you moving the stick into various sweet spots but punishes you for spinning around aimlessly.