If you based quality strictly on appearance, EA Sports UFC could be a lock for the top spot, because EA Canada's first crack at a mixed martial arts project captures the atmosphere of a real event. Hard liver shots mirror a pebble being thrown into a still pond, the impact causing skin to ripple across the body. Bruises and cuts form and worsen over the course of a fight, and veins bulge as fighters desperately work to break out of tight guillotine chokes.
It's beautiful violence, but once you grab a controller, the wonder of the gorgeous character models and stomach-churning thuds of punches and kicks quickly wears off. That's because one of the most essential elements of the sport is almost nonexistent inside this virtual Octagon: tension. Where THQ's UFC series allowed each moment of a fight to seem equally dangerous for both combatants, EA Sports UFC's poor balancing makes the moment-to-moment action feel too safe, too often. Vicious knees that would send even the most granite-chinned veteran tumbling to the canvas often land without much effect, and while a fully mounted position on the ground tends to result in either a stoppage or easily won round in real MMA, single-button escapes cause dominant positions to feel flimsy.
Each fight in EA Sports UFC starts on the feet, and for the most part, that's where they stay. The stand-up game--despite its preference for flash over finishing power--is the best way to play. Jumping off the cage and landing flush with a flying knee is devilishly satisfying, while parrying a jab and answering with a devastating overhand-right is enough to get you out of your seat. It can take quite a bit of work to end a fight, but individual animations, whether you're throwing bombs standing up or transitioning on the ground, look natural. If all you want to do is meet in the center of the Octagon, bite down on your mouthpiece, and swing until someone's lights go out, you're at least rewarded with proper hit detection and satisfying contact.
Frankly, it's just about the only way the AI and most online players care to engage. That's because there's no venom in a strong wrestling-based attack. A real fighter rarely flips his opponent over while pinned on his back to land into a prevailing mount, but it happens frequently in EA Sports UFC. Reversing someone who just worked hard to drag you to the mat and trap you in a bad spot shouldn't come from a few swift rotations of the right stick, and while I'd love to be able to move into side control and dig a few well-placed knees in the midsection of another fighter, it's often too difficult to hold anyone down long enough to produce any significant offense.
The grappling game is muted for the most part, but submissions can be a viable option. If you can reach and maintain a dominant position, grabbing a limb or your opponent's neck leads to a minigame that determines the success of a technique. A giant octagon appears on the screen as the defending fighter looks to push one of the four corners far enough to break the hold, while the jiu-jitsu practitioner fights to hyperextend the limb to force a tap. Stamina, along with the individual fighter's skill with a particular move, determines each scramble's success, and if you can actually stay on the ground long enough to find an opening, submissions are a valuable weapon.
Baffling design decisions aren't exclusive to the offensive side of the game, either. Players can slip and parry punches, but when it comes to blocking strikes, holding a single button stops high, middle, and low blows. Fighters can't regain stamina when in a defensive stance, making it unwise to continually hold your hands up to defend your noggin. Yet the lack of multiple levels of blocking reduces the effectiveness of intelligent combinations. Throwing a flurry of low kicks, digging into the body, and then surprising your foe with a fight-ending head kick is a strategy that often works in both real MMA and THQ's Undisputed series, but unless your dance partner decides to let go of the block button, all of these strikes in UFC are too easily blocked.
A real fighter rarely flips his opponent over while pinned on his back to land into a prevailing mount, but it happens constantly in EA Sports UFC.
The AI isn't exactly defense-minded, so standing and banging is an almost surefire method for success. I managed to capture the lightweight title by knocking out each contender in the first round while playing through the game's career mode, which throws your customized character into the Ultimate Fighter reality series and follows him to the end of his career. Without fail, I walked to the center of the cage, blocked incoming strikes, threw heavy leather whenever there was an opening, and ended the fight without the need for judges. I never lost a single fight, and this was all on the game's hard mode.
Starting as an untested prospect and fighting your way to the top might sound like an appealing single-player offering, but unfortunately, climbing the ladder is a slog. Training camps between individual fights are padded with dull training exercises and awkward video clips from real-life fighters. Current stars of the UFC patting you on the back in between fights comes off as both gimmicky and unnecessary, and while it can be fun to improve both your stats and your stockpile of techniques, the tutorial-esque drilling sessions are an uninspired chore.
Online play is your best bet for competitive, interesting matches. I experienced only brief periods of lag over the course of more than 30 fights, and while I still rarely saw opposition shoot in for a takedown, there was at least a bit more diversity inside the cage. The career and online modes are the meat and potatoes of the experience, and it's not exactly a filling dish.
The graphical foundation is in place, but there are too many flawed combat systems to call this a strong debut for what's sure to be an annualized series. EA Sports UFC manages to make only certain aspects of MMA both fun and functional, forcing most fights to play out in a familiar, brawling fashion. Even if you do enjoy swinging for the fences, there's just not enough content here to justify the full retail price. It might look the part of a world champion, but EA Sports UFC will need a great deal of fine-tuning before it's up to snuff.