It's fair to say that UFC president Dana White hasn't always been EA's biggest fan. In 2010 the promoter launched into a tirade against the publisher, related to a dispute over one of his fighters appearing in EA's rival MMA game. Given that the two are now best buddies, this war of words feel a bit strange now. Or, at least it would, if I didn't know that White was savvy enough a businessman to know where best to take his brand.
EA UFC creative director Brian Hayes knows it as well. "To be honest, and you'll have to get [the full story] from Dana, I essentially think that back when there was the rivalry between EA MMA and THQ's UFC game, it seemed to me like he was treating that like a fight promotion.
"There's nothing more interesting to do than drum up interest in your game by trash-talking the other guy. Ever since this deal's been signed, the UFC has been a fantastic partner."
If EA UFC's hands-on demo is anything to go by, Dana's made the right (and probably only) choice siding with EA: this was an impressive (if limited: striking only, unfortunately, and pre-alpha) glimpse at the future of digital MMA.
EA's last effort was better than THQ's, by some way, and here it's better still. Graphically it's very, very accomplished, as you'd expect: audible gasps were heard from the people behind me when I landed or took a heavy punch, as faces crumpled or knees bent wrongly. The animation on the fighters themselves was simply excellent, a world away from the robotic nature of THQ's effort, and it makes it feel like you're moving with intent.
"By using the Ignite engine, [there's ] a really big focus on making sure the athlete is really grounded to their surface of play" said Hayes. "Before, we just said we're going to translate the character around the floor, simultaneously looking like he's walking to get there, but it won't be a one-to-one movement between him and his environment."
Here, it is, and there's a definite sense of weight that was lacking before. It means that there's more of a slow pace in the opening stages of a fight, as players feel out their opponents, knowing one good combo has the force to take them down. One of EA's goals this year is to make a fight feel like it actually would in the cage, and the team have made the striking game something both tactical and explosive, all jabs one minute and flying, face-busting knees the next.
At one point, I staggered my opponent, who wandered backwards like a drunk receding into an ally. Like Fight Night Round 3's impressive (for early this gen) visuals, it took me while to adjust to how, well, real it looked. My opponent regained his composure, and we fought to a standstill.
It's as good as I had expected, but questions still remain over the ground game, and if Hayes and co can fix the notoriously dull career modes MMA games often feature. ("We're not announcing anything feature wise, because we're so early in development...but we are definitely trying to take learnings from previous MMA and sports games in general", Hayes insists.) If they can, however, this could be the best representation of the sport yet.