Stepping into the mixed martial arts arena for the first time must be a daunting prospect for any newcomer, but you wouldn't know it looking at EA Sports MMA. A contender for the UFC Undisputed series' previously uncontested crown, EA Sports MMA steps into the ring with a swagger that belies its lack of experience, and gives a good account of itself at almost every opportunity. Its fighting style is so different from that of UFC Undisputed that there's no reason both games shouldn't be winners where your wallet is concerned, and although UFC Undisputed is ultimately the better fighter, EA Sports MMA doesn't disappoint and--assuming this game spawns a series--is definitely one to watch in the future.
EA Sports MMA makes a good first impression with responsive, mostly intuitive controls that are reminiscent of those in last year's Fight Night Round 4. You move with the left analog stick and throw punches with the right, and the shoulder buttons are used to modify those controls to target the body rather than the head, to throw kicks or fakes instead of punches, and to block. Face buttons are used for clinches, sprawls, takedowns, submissions, and ground position changes. The choke submission system involves rotating the right stick in search of a sweet spot and takes some getting used to, but like the rest of the default controls, it works well. There's an option to play with a completely different controller setup that uses face buttons for punches and kicks, but it doesn't afford you the same level of control, and because you'll almost certainly want to use the superior default controls at some point, it's not recommended. Even if you're not familiar with the controls in recent Fight Night games, there's an MMA 101 option accessible from EA Sports MMA's main menu that does an excellent job of teaching you the basics, and there are also ample opportunities to familiarize yourself with the stand-up, clinch, and ground controls when you start out in Career mode.
Depending on how narcissistic you are, you might be disappointed with the level of customization that's available when you create your career fighter. There's support for EA Sports' Game Face technology, but regardless of whether you use your console's camera or photos uploaded to the EA website to put yourself in the game, the results are disappointing. Furthermore, there are no options to manually tweak the physical properties of heads and faces in the game; if you don't use Game Face, you're limited to choosing one of around 50 premade heads. You can play around with different hairstyles, eye colors, skin tones, and tattoos, but even these options are limited compared to those offered in other EA Sports games. Licensed clothing options, on the other hand, are excessive, and picking out a shirt from the 245 that are available is hardly worth the effort given that your fighter only wears a shirt briefly before or after fights. Scrolling through 160 different pairs of shorts isn't much fun either, especially when you're prompted to choose not only a primary pair, but also an alternate pair that--even when you're matched up with an opponent wearing identical gear--never comes into play.
While creating your Career mode fighter you're also prompted to choose one of nine different specializations, all of which have key strengths and weaknesses. Play as a boxer, for example, and your kicks aren't nearly as effective as your punches. Specialize in judo, on the other hand, and your takedowns and ground skills are much more useful than your striking, and you have a glass jaw to boot. You can train in other styles by visiting different gyms once your career gets under way, but a kickboxer is never going to be great at submissions, and a sambo practitioner isn't likely to win many fights with powerful kicks. Once you settle on your look, your fighting style, and on the name that announcers will call you, you get to meet your trainer, retired MMA champion Bas Rutten.
After training with Bas and turning pro, the first thing you need to do is decide which of two fictional leagues you want to start your career in. EA Sports MMA features six different leagues, including the Strikeforce league that many of the game's licensed fighters compete in. The rules vary somewhat depending on which leagues you choose to fight in, but regardless of whether or not elbows and knees are allowed on the ground, the action plays out in much the same way. The most interesting fights tend to be those that pit two different fighters against each other, because then the two of you have very different agendas and force each other to adapt. Wrestlers want to take the fight to the ground at every opportunity, while Muay Thai guys stop at nothing to get their opponent into a clinch, for example. You can defend against both with a single well-timed button press, and blocking incoming strikes is just as easy. The ease with which you can defend, coupled with your fighter's finite amount of stamina, means that going on an all-out offensive is rarely a good idea, at least not against a skilled opponent. Sadly, there aren't a lot of those to be found in Career mode.
If you play Career mode on the default difficulty setting (there are two more-difficult options that improve things somewhat), the AI opponents don't always put up much of a fight, particularly early on. You can win fights simply by spamming jabs over and over again or, later on, by stacking your opponent and hitting him in the gut for minutes at a time while he pointlessly protects his face. It's not a satisfying way to win a fight, and it's unfortunate that you might spend far less time fighting than you do training early on, but things do improve as your career progresses. Regardless of where you are in your career, you're forced to spend eight weeks training in between fights. Most of the weekly training challenges take under a minute to complete and do a great job of forcing you to use different moves while simultaneously beefing up your fighter's stats. To improve your movement and range, you might be asked to survive for 60 seconds in a fight without the option to block or strike back, for example. Some of the training challenges can be completed very cheaply (at least one instance of the aforementioned example can be aced by circling an opponent who does nothing but try to circle you at the same time), but most pose a reasonable challenge and, appropriately, get easier as your stats improve.
One of the best things about the training in EA Sports MMA is that after completing a challenge, you gain the option to just push a button and simulate it anytime you want to reap its benefits. You're graded when training, so simulating a challenge that you scored only a D on isn't as effective as simulating one that you scored an A on, but it's great that once you get that A there's no reason to do the same thing over and over again. Another neat feature of the Career mode is that after getting your first few fights out of the way, you can travel to different gyms and complete challenges to learn new moves. You can learn one additional move before each fight, and although there are more than 25 moves available, you're limited to 16, so figuring out which moves to learn and when adds a welcome element of strategy to the proceedings.
The action inside the ring (or cage) also demands strategic thinking once the difficulty ramps up, particularly when you fight against human opposition locally or online. Not only must you always be aware of your stamina--which appears onscreen by default but can be turned off--but you also need to figure out your opponent's strengths and weaknesses and adjust your game plan accordingly. It's extremely satisfying to finish an opponent after taking a beating from him for the first several minutes of a fight, and by the same token, it's frustrating to suddenly lose against an opponent that you've been dominating. These changes of fortune rarely feel unrealistic, though, and the fact that they're quite common prevents you from becoming either complacent or completely disheartened during a fight. There might be times when your stamina is all gone and you feel helpless as your opponent forces you up against the cage, or when you seem unable to escape a string of submission attempts, but there's almost always a way out, and there's always a way to avoid finding yourself in that situation in the first place.
Sadly, if you choose to play EA Sports MMA with the stamina bar and the health indicators for head, torso, and legs turned off, it can be overly difficult to get a feel for how well you're doing. Punches and kicks don't always feel like they have much power behind them, and the use of realistic-looking blood is limited and, since it's possible to be dominating a fight and still look worse than your opponent, can be misleading. Another problem inside the ring is that often when fighters launch attacks simultaneously, they inexplicably manage to avoid making any contact with each other, instead anticlimactically returning to their original stances.
Unsurprisingly, the most satisfying fights are found online, where opponents are far less predictable than the AI. Players are already gravitating toward powerful fighters like Fedor Emelianenko and Randy Couture, but if you're good and you know how to play to your chosen fighter's strengths (which won't be a problem if you choose to use your Career mode fighter), nobody is unbeatable. Online play doesn't suffer from any noticeable lag, and it benefits from a number of options that go beyond the usual ranked matches and leaderboards. Every time you fight, you earn points toward new rankings and different-colored belts; you can create custom fight cards for groups of up to 10 players who watch and comment on each other's fights while waiting their turn; and there are regular leaderboard-based tournaments that culminate in live broadcast finals. Fights that appear during live broadcasts are commentated live by MMA experts and can be watched by anyone not participating either through the game or on the official EA Sports MMA website. This is a great feature that, even if you don't get to appear in one of the fights yourself, makes you feel like you're a part of something big.
Even outside of live broadcasts, EA Sports MMA does a good job of replicating the look and feel of a pay-per-view event. Great-looking fighters enter arenas accompanied by their chosen entrance music; the commentators do a solid if repetitious job of calling the action; and the crowd noise swells up at all the right moments. The ring announcer's lip-synching could use some work, and the camera occasionally appears to be torn between two locations and so sways frantically between both of them, but these are minor complaints. If you have even a passing interest in mixed martial arts, EA Sports MMA is unlikely to disappoint. The Career mode offers a lengthy and ultimately very rewarding challenge that you'll probably want to play through at least twice using different fighting styles, and both local and online multiplayer matches are a lot of fun. It's unfortunate that the AI isn't more convincing and that lengthy load times permeate every aspect of the game, but EA Sports MMA is deserving of a spot alongside UFC Undisputed 2010 in your collection even if it can't yet replace it.