Is there anything more entertaining as the classic combination of sweaty, near-naked men and ultra-violence? Well, yes, there probably is - but that's besides the point. Earlier this year THQ and Yuke's reminded us that it can be a winning formula, with the superlative UFC: Undisputed. Now EA has stepped up to offer its own take on Mixed Martial Arts, and given the effort the developer has put into recent Fight Nights, there's every reason to be excited.
While Undisputed and its inevitable sequel will no doubt be a major point of comparison, EA says that its new game will take a different approach to its rival. For a start, it obviously won't be featuring any famous faces from the US-based UFC brand; instead the new game will focus on MMA competitions throughout the world. This means we should get fighters from Japan and Europe, among other places, as well as those from Brazil and the States - the usual MMA hotbeds. Randy Couture and Frank Shamrock are two early confirmations; hopefully we'll also get Stinky Gavin - the legendary grappler rumoured to live off the deer in Richmond Park... although this seems unlikely, as I only just made him up.
The other big difference, according to EA, will lie with fighting styles. All of Undisputed's brawlers used two martial arts from a total list of six; each character had different stats, and a few had special signature moves, but on the whole they all handled in a similar manner. With MMA, things will work a little differently. Though it sounds somewhat incredible, EA claims that every fighter in the game will have their own animations. Why? Because, as one of the dev team puts it, "style makes fights".
The example bout we were shown, during EA's showcase last week, featured Fedor Emelianenko taking on Brett Rogers. If you're not familiar with these two gentleman, you should know that Fedor is a six foot tall Russian who's broken more faces than you've had lukewarm lunches; Brett Rogers, on the other hand, is a former mechanic from Chicago who's only been doing Mixed Martial Arts for about three years. Rogers is certainly no slouch, mind: he's won every fight he's ever been in - or at least he had done, right up until he lost to Fedor last weekend.
In the demo, the contrast between the two fighters was immediately evident - and not just because of their different looks. In the ring, Rogers adopts a flat-footed stance that gives him lots of stability, while his arms tend to lie low across his stomach in a defensive manner. Meanwhile Feydor stands high on the balls of his feet, with his fists raised like a boxer - a more flexible pose that helps him to dart about quickly. Feydor is the more experienced fighter, and his posture reflects this.
Both men will also react differently in their approach to certain moves. If you parry an incoming kick with Feydor, he might grab his opponent's leg and force them to the ground - at this point he'll probably start to re-arrange their limbs, as if they were a Mr Potatohead. Mr Rogers, on the other hand, prefers to stick to stand-up fighting. When a leg comes his way, he's more likely to bat it out of the way - at this point he'll probably try to push a fist through his opponent's face.
The whole concept of parrying is something that was largely missing from UFC: Undisputed, and EA reckons its inclusion will greatly add to the authenticity of the fights. Naturally there remains the whole question of how this mechanic will be handled. There are an awful lot of bases that need to be covered by the controls for any MMA game: movement, punches and kicks, takedowns - and then all the myriad of moves for grapples on the ground. I thought that Undisputed did a pretty bang-up job of mapping all these options to sensible commands, so it'll be interesting to see what approach EA takes - especially since we'll supposedly be given a choice between a button-based system, and stick controls a la Fight Night Round 4.
Regardless of whatever the developer comes up with, it's clear that MMA will be just as visually impressive as FNR4, if not more so. The term "photo-realistic" is often used without true justification, but in the case of MMA the character models really do look incredibly close to life. The developers at last week's launch were especially keen to show off the detail that has gone into Feydor's digital likeness - from the faded scar he picked up while fighting Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, to the raised dimples on a tattoo he had done just before the developers captured his image. Aside from the two fighters, the rest of the game was looking a bit bare-bones - just an empty ring with little in the way of a background - but with any luck the final product should look pretty saucy.
Nice graphics aside, there's plenty to be optimistic about with this project. MMA is a complex sport to convey in a video game, but Undisputed has already shown that there are rich rewards to be had if you handle things the right way. EA has the capital to make a great MMA title, and having spoken to some of the dev team, it's clear that they've got the passion to match. There won't be any UFC license to fall back on, but the game will be able to pluck fighters from other competitions, like the Strikeforce brand. Furthermore, this wider focus on the sport will allow the game to explore things like geographical rule variations and cage matches. Naturally, THQ and Yuke's are sure to have another UFC game out next year, but there's nothing wrong with a bit of healthy competition. After all, a little bit of pain never hurt anybody... if you know what I mean.
EA Sports MMA will be released on the PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2010.