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.
There's a similar level of user-friendliness in the handling of submissions, too. When performing a Kimura or a similar limb-bending move, an X-Ray-like bone graphic will appear over the affected limb. Both the aggressor and the defender must then repeatedly tap a button in a bid to either complete the move, or to escape it entirely. However, rather than entering into a Track and Field-style mashing competition, the idea is to carefully time your actions. Each muscle-flex eats at your stamina, indicated by an on-screen bar, and completely depleting the bar will have severe consequences for either fighter. Winning is thus a matter of pacing yourself, and allowing your strength to recharge at brief intervals, while maintaining the pressure on your rival.
The choke-based submissions take a similar format, only with both players using the left analogue stick to search for "sweet spots", indicated by pad vibrations, while the camera takes on an iris effect to simulate the victim's departing consciousness. Both contests feel a lot game-ier, for want of a better word, than the equivalent struggles in Undisputed, which require players to rapidly rotate a thumbstick in circles (so much so that veteran players tend to develop circular calluses, ala Mario Party). While the on-screen indicators may hurt the immersion factor somewhat, there's no doubt that this is the more intuitive system.
As a result of the slightly-streamlined approach, and the fact that you don't need to spend so much time worrying about the nuances of your stance, MMA's matches tend to feel a bit faster and more dynamic than their Undisputed counterparts. The thing I like about this sport is that fights can turn around very quickly, segueing from stand-up brawling to high-tension wrestling and back again in the space of a few minutes. This game seems to replicate that feel very well, and it's pleasing to see that the action rarely gets bogged down in trudging, grapple-based stalemates. As you'd expect from a game that uses the Fight Night engine, the interactions between fighters are nigh-on perfect, with a thumping sense of physicality when a blow connects or when someone gets thrown to the floor.
It all looks very bright and colourful too, and as a result of the globe-trotting use of several smaller licenses, rather than one big one, it's more varied on a visual level. Rings come in a wealth of shapes and sizes, from tight circular arenas to full-size boxing rings; one Japanese venue places a giant sun-shaped graphic beneath your prancing feet. It's a shame that the actual movement of the fighters feels a bit floaty, with little sense of solid traction, because in all other areas the animation seems spot-on.
It's also a bit concerning that the PS3 version seems to suffering from a fair bit of slowdown when things get hectic; we can't be too judgemental about a preview build, but given how close the final release is, it's a definite worry. Beyond this, the only real problem facing EA Sports MMA is the relative lack of star power. Existing MMA enthusiasts may well find plenty of familiar faces among the generous line-up of bruisers, but for anyone who walked in the door via UFC, the assembled names may not cause much of a stir. Still, the important thing is that there's marked difference in the way they each play, and since the game isn't bound to a single promoter, there'll be the option to fight under several different rulesets - including 20-minute vale tudo matches.
Will all of this be enough to win over the public? I don't know, as the comparatively low sales of Undisputed 2010 could be interpreted in a number of ways. I certainly had a lot of fun with EA Sports MMA, and judging by the frequent whoops and cheers among the other journalists at this week's event, I wasn't the only one. Come the end of next month, we'll know whether the game has what it takes to be a serious contender.
EA Sports MMA will be released on PS3 and Xbox 360 on October 22.