In my first bout in EA Sports UFC 2, I came out swinging. Punches, kicks, flying knees to the face--it was awesome. Then my opponent grabbed me and took me to the ground. Suddenly, instead of striking the other player, I was struggling on the ground in an attempt to return to punching and kicking them in the face. I eventually did get back on my feet, but the grappling session had been more arduous than fun, and I wasn't looking forward to the next time it would happen.
I played the upcoming MMA game at an EA Canada preview event recently, spending around four hours fighting in the Octagon. UFC 2 looks incredible, and at times it can seem like you're watching the real Paddy Holohan, Chris Cariaso, or any of the other fighters--even the in-game announcer, Bruce Buffer, looks good. I was particularly impressed by the game's hair physics; watching Conor McGregor's hair bounce as he moves around the Octagon is oddly striking, and seeing hair react to a well-placed knockout kick is especially enjoyable.
The stand-up game--kicking and punching--is UFC 2 at its best. The hits have a tactile impact and feel as good as they sound; when you land a good solid strike, it looks like it hurts. It's also the most exciting part of the combat--going in for a potentially devastating blow without getting caught by one yourself is satisfying to execute.
The fighting, however, grinded to a halt when I got into the grappling and submission ground game. I talked to creative director Brian Hayes, and he told me that a lot of the players he talked to had made house rules for the first UFC game: if the fight was taken to the ground, they'd let both players stand up before continuing the fight. To try and make the grappling more enjoyable, Hayes and the team at EA Canada made a system that's a lot easier to understand.
The newly-added HUD tells you which positions you can transition to, and both players can try to switch positions at the same time--one player might try to gain control with a high mount, while the other slips out of it before getting trapped. It seems like a more flexible system that I hope becomes more engaging as you learn its intricacies. There's strategy to the positions you should take, but it seems like you'll have to learn what each position can do for you to fully take advantage of it. It didn't inspire me to try and make my opponent submit any time soon, but I don't feel like I'll need to avoid it when I play the full game.
One of the new additions to UFC 2 actually removes the grappling but adds a health bar, a system similar to what you'd find in an arcade fighting game. Knockout Mode is a best-of-three competitive match that has each player with an adjustable life bar of up to 10 squares--each unblocked hit to the body or head removes one, and you lose the round when all of them are gone. Because of this, fighter stats like punch strength don't matter; however, it doesn't level the playing field completely. Fighter speed and stamina are still relevant, making it more difficult to beat higher-skilled fighters like Georges St-Pierre as someone with a considerably lower rating like CM Punk.
Knockout is where I had the most fun during the preview event. It simplifies the gameplay formula and makes for a faster, more exciting experience. To add to its arcade-y nature, EA Canada jacked up the knockout physics; during a match, I punched my opponent in the back of the head, and he went flying face first into the mat. The hits look extra painful, and the physics can make for some hilarious, almost cartoonish knockouts.
This mode also feels like a good starting point for players learning how to master UFC 2's stand-up game. The matches are faster than regular modes, and I felt like I was becoming better at blocking, dodging, and switching up where I was aiming my strikes.
UFC 2 had me at odds by the end of my time with it. I loved how the stand-up fighting looked and felt, but the grappling posed an obstacle I'll need to overcome when the game releases in March. As a mixed martial arts game, you can specialize created characters and your in-game fighting towards striking--though that won't stop your opponents from trying to take you to the ground. Whether the ground game can be as exciting as the on-foot fighting is yet to be determined. But it did become easier to grapple with as I learned the systems, so I have hope. And I'm definitely looking forward to playing more of the game's excellent new Knockout Mode.