A lot of competitors can talk a good game, but the true test of a fighter is how he performs in the ring. We have heard a lot about EA Sports MMA, from the developer’s goals when crafting the game to detailed descriptions about the controls, but it wasn’t until yesterday at the EA3 event that we were able to take the Xbox 360 controller and step into the ring. Read on for our impressions of how the controls feel, as well as more details on how submissions are handled (hint: frantic button mashers need not apply).
As described in our updated impressions, the controls are extrapolated from those of Fight Night Round 4. Strikes are mapped to the right analog stick: flick forward for a jab, pop out to the side and rotate a quarter-circle forward for a hook, and tap two opposite diagonal directions (back and forward) for an uppercut. If you hold the left trigger, all strikes become kicks. Jabs are leg kicks, hooks become body shots, and uppercuts turn into roundhouses. Of course, all these strikes are subject to slight variation given your individual fighter, but they are easy to pull off and they animate well. Whipping out quick combos of punches and kicks will come naturally to anyone who has played recent Fight Night games, and newcomers need only quick thumbs to make themselves a force to be reckoned with.
The left trigger is just one of the modifiers in play. Holding the left shoulder button turns any strike into a feint, allowing you to work some deception into your repertoire. Holding the right trigger brings up your guard, significantly reducing the damage you take from any punches or kicks. If you want to be more active in your defensive strategy, you can flick the right stick left or right while your guard is up to parry a blow on the left or right side of your body. Successful parries give you an opening to counterattack, which might be as brief as an arm lingering just out of position or as significant as a stumble. Moving the left stick while blocking allows you to lean your torso to avoid strikes, a move Fight Night veterans will be very familiar with.
Using our index and middle fingers to activate these modifiers while moving, striking, and blocking with our thumbs came quite naturally. The control scheme is straightforward, allowing a diverse range of maneuvers while remaining relatively uncomplicated. While tougher hits landed with significant audible and visual impact, fighters often appeared unfazed by quicker, lighter blows. This could be meant to reflect the fighters' discipline and focus, but we couldn't help but wish that hits landed with a little more oomph. Of course, the game is still in development and the build we played was far from finished, so there's no telling how a punch will sound down the road. We were impressed by the character models, who, in addition to looking quite like their real-life counterparts, had well-animated musculature that made it seem like powerful forces were at work.
Yet even the most formidable fighting abilities are governed by stamina, an element that plays a huge role in EA Sports MMA. Throwing (and taking) punches and kicks will wear down your stamina, especially if you are on the receiving end of an unblocked strike. Putting your guard up drastically decreases the stamina you lose, and avoiding the action for a few moments can give you a window to recharge. While your stamina does regenerate, your meter can decrease over time, especially if you take too many body blows. Diminished stamina doesn't necessarily put you at greater risk for a knockout, as damage is measured separately in three different areas: head, gut, and legs. However, low stamina means you can't strike as effectively, and it puts you at even greater risk when the fight goes to ground.
A simple tap of the A button is all you need to take your opponent to the mat. Press A again and you'll advance to a more advantageous position on top of your opponent. That is, if your opponent doesn't rebuff your attempt. A timely press of the B button is all your foe needs to resist your maneuver, but it isn't as easy as that. The defender's timing depends on his response, a telltale controller rumble that mimics the attacker tensing his muscles to make a move. However, if the defender is busy blocking or trying to make a move of his own, he may not be able to respond in time. This system relies heavily on timing, and in the middle of heated bouts it was tricky to get a handle on all the factors at play. The relatively simple building blocks made it easy to know how to perform moves, but mastering the timing is another challenge altogether.
Timing is also key when you are trying to submit your opponent. By tapping the X button you can attempt a submission, and you'll soon see an X-ray silhouette of the joint in question. As you tap a button and apply pressure to, say, your opponent’s shoulder, the bones grow red, indicating that a submission is near. Meanwhile, your opponent is tapping a button to resist, causing the image to grow whiter and fainter the closer he gets to freedom. Once again, the key is stamina. Each button press takes stamina, and if your meter runs out first, you will be powerless to resist or press the submission. Tap the button frantically, and you’ll soon exhaust your stamina pool. These struggles play out at a brisk yet strategic pace, as both players try to maximize their stamina use to achieve their goals.
Chokehold submissions play out slightly differently. Rather than button prompts, a large circle appears in the center of the screen. You then tilt your analog stick in the direction of the moving prompt, hoping to match its position better than your opponent and emerge victorious. Nimble thumbs and quick reflexes will win the day here, though stamina plays a part as well, allowing tougher players to hang in longer.
Both submission systems seemed geared toward timing rather than speed, meaning that your fate on the mat is not tied to your brute twitching strength. These different challenges create their own kind of tension, and by the end of our session we had weathered some fraught contests. EA Sports MMA is endeavoring to lay down relatively simple fundamentals that nonetheless allow for subtlety and eventual mastery, and so far things are looking good. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more big news from this fresh entry in the MMA ring.