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.
MMA has a more refined fighting engine than UFC 2010, and its overt emphasis on poise, pose and careful striking helps its simulated aggression stay taut and consistent. To put it simply, it's more fun than THQ's most recent offering. The impressive animations keep the fighting silky smooth, although the simulated moves lack the sense of raw brutality and impact inherent in the actual sport.
Still, the much-publicised absence of the UFC license does hurt the overall product. The bountiful roster - featuring at least 15 fighters in each of the game's five weight classes- is impressively extensive, but lacks the star power of the UFC. EA is clearly aware of the effect big-name fighters have on their product: heavyweights Randy Couture and Fedor Emelianenko are the two big-names on show, and EA makes sure to remind you of it every single chance it gets.
Dan Henderson is another recognisable face (his contract with the UFC expired at the end of last year) but, beyond that, EA is left doing the best with what it has. It's great to see MMA legend Bas Rutten, for instance, but also jarring to be fighting with someone who retired over a decade ago in a game otherwise stacked with contemporary fighters.
Career mode lets your own snarling create-a-fighter fly up the ranks of professional face-smashing, starting with 10-15 minutes spent choosing which short haircut takes your fancy and whether or not you want a flaming skull tattooed over your stomach, then progressing through amateur tournaments and, ultimately, becoming the next big fictional star of the second-to-UFC Strikeforce league. It's all punctuated by eight training exercises between each fight (relayed to you through your licensed HTC phone) to boost your stats and deepen your understanding of the game's mechanics. Each of the many training exercises is quick - there's a noticeable spring in its step compared to Fight Night and UFC 2010 - giving you 20-30 seconds of action, and once you've completed an exercise you can automatically train it in the future.
It's a shame, though, that comprehension of the game requires you to go through Career Mode's gradients of training. For those who are looking to get stuck into a bit of player-vs-player brawling there's an MMA 101 mode available from the main menu, but this tutorial is shoddy and does very little to help unravel MMA's threaded intricacies.
Redeem your Online Pass (EA's standard one-time use code included with new copies of the game) and you can duff up people over the internet, with a fairly extensive stats and progression system in place to record your lifetime rankings. I haven't had much of a chance to test multiplayer, mainly because whenever I tried to find an online opponent on the pre-release servers the game just twiddled its thumbs and then told me nobody else was playing, but the connection was stable in the few times I managed to get inside the ring.
Another point of interest is the Live Broadcast system, which is a bit of a misnomer seeing as it's rarely broadcast live. This plucks two online fighters from the masses and has them compete in public for (potential) prizes - kind of like 1 vs. 100 but with the ability to roundhouse kick someone in the head. EA has drafted its own in-house commentary team, as well as giving users the opportunity to create pre-match hype videos by uploading them through the game's website. There's no firm schedule, or a commitment to how long the service will run for, but former matches are archived and there's certainly potential within the mode.
While MMA might be the better game compared to UFC Undisputed 2010, it would be folly to ignore the void left by the lack of the UFC license. The Strikeforce league might be increasing in popularity, much like the sport in general, but it barely commands the weight of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Its branding is sorely missed, alongside Joe Rogan's and Mike Goldberg's industry-leading commentaries.
Still, it's also impossible to deny that EA has crafted a wise, deft implementation of the sport. It might not have the weight of the UFC license, but it's certainly got a fighter's spirit.