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EA Sports UFC 2 is easier to learn because it teaches you how to fight

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Step up your game and step into the Octagon

Neither of us could take much more punishment. Our bodies battered, our faces bloodied, we slowed things down and began circling each other in the Octagon.

Knowing that we both had one hit point left, I leaped toward my opponent for a superman punch. But alas, he caught me with a spinning heel kick while I was in midair, and I fell unconscious to the mat, landing on my head.

"We clearly couldn't have mo-capped a knockout for that situation," said the victor of the bout, EA Sports UFC 2 creative director Brian Hayes, after wincing with an "oh my God, your neck" as we watched a replay. "It used to be an impossible problem to solve."

Knockout Mode, one of many new elements in EA Sports UFC 2, serves a twofold purpose. It's meant to be played in a more casual setting than the game's standard fights, like a party where you and your friends pass the controller around while drinking some beers. It's also designed to show off the considerable work that developer EA Canada has put into the EA Sports UFC 2 physics engine, into making every jab, spinning elbow and roundhouse look more painful than ever.

If you don't feel like engaging in a proper fight, Knockout Mode is a great alternative for its faster pace, but that doesn't mean it doesn't impart some important skills to take with you. When you go into Knockout Mode, you can set the matches to sudden death, a best of three or a best of five. The mode also lets you adjust each combatant's health up or down, if you want to shorten or lengthen fights (or give one person a handicap).

Each time somebody lands a strike, their opponent loses a hit point. (Basic strikes like jabs and leg kicks don't count.) You can make the bout more strategic by enabling parry recovery, which will allow a fighter to regain a hit point if they successfully parry an attack. When you get down to one segment of your health bar, the next attack will knock you out. These bouts go quickly, so it's easy to keep going with rematches or even new combatants. The game will track wins for player one and player two as long as you don't exit the mode, making for a fun way to compete with your buddies for bragging rights.

"oh my God, your neck"

It's easy to assume that the Knockout Mode environment would result in quick fights where both combatants simply rush each other and mash buttons. But even in my first bout against Hayes, the pace came to a standstill once we got down to each of us having one hit point left. We spent the next 30 seconds feeling each other out, spending more time blocking and dodging than actually throwing punches.

"It actually teaches you how to fight with some pace and a measured approach, because the stakes are so high," said Hayes. In addition to Knockout Mode's inherent teaching elements, UFC 2 also keeps track of what you're doing (or failing to do) in the Octagon, and will give you simple feedback to help you out. If you take a bunch of hits to the body, you might see a pop-up that reminds you how to block low (R2/RT). This is important, since one of the big complaints about the previous game was its complicated control scheme.

Knockout Mode is also a ton of fun: Hayes and I were playing on a PlayStation 4 in a quiet office, but we got increasingly animated — and loud — over the course of three fights.

Next, we headed into UFC 2's revamped career mode. Ronda Rousey is on the game's cover, and she's represented in the career mode, where it's possible for the first time to play as a woman. You can create a male or female combatant, or play as a real UFC fighter like Rousey or her co-cover star, Conor McGregor.

The career mode has a complex structure, but it's still easy to break down and understand. Between fights, you'll spend your time training; you'll usually have three sessions before each bout. Training is for attribute progression, while fighting in the Octagon will earn you Evolution Points. That's an in-game currency that you spend to unlock new moves and "perks" for your fighter. (UFC 2 does not allow you to purchase EP with microtransactions.)

injuries can be pretty severe

Training is split into three disciplines — stand-up, clinch and ground — so you can only train one of them at a time. Within those fields, you'll see a variety of training minigames that will affect different skills. For example, the Defense minigame in the stand-up section improves your movement and speed attributes. You'll see a "camp quality" meter at the top of the screen, which will indicate your progress toward levels of attribute boosts (e.g., chin +3, chin +5).

In order to reach higher levels of those boosts, you'll have to train harder and score better in the minigames. Training intensity is a risk/reward mechanic — the higher the intensity of your workout, the higher the chance you'll suffer an injury that will reduce an attribute or two. This can be pretty severe: Hayes went for a +5 leg boost and ended up getting hurt to the tune of -15 blocking. Injuries only last through your next fight, but you'll also get a separate kind of attribute reduction called "wear and tear," which is permanent, and which you'll see more of as your fighter gets older.

What's great about the training minigames is that you won't have to repeat them endlessly. EA Canada is aware that they're not exactly fun on their own, and that they will inevitably become repetitive over a long career — "at some point — whether it's the third, or the eighth, or the 12th time you've played the Heavy Bag game — it [...] doesn't stay vibrant and new and exciting," Hayes acknowledged. So once you've completed a training minigame with a particular grade, you can simulate it from that point forward and automatically get that grade. (You'll still be risking injury, of course, depending on the intensity.)

Winning fights is the best way to stay young, in effect. The better you perform, the more fans you pick up. As your popularity reaches new levels, it will push back your retirement. EA Canada also spices things up with random pop-ups, which will present you with opportunities like short-notice fight offers — fewer training sessions, but a bigger popularity boost if you win — and setbacks (example: a pipe burst and flooded your gym, so you can only train twice instead of three times).

You'll also receive "fight challenges" for bouts with UFC stars. Inspired by the career mode in EA Canada's Fight Night Champion, these challenges will give you side objectives for the fight. For instance, you might be asked to land a certain number of leg kicks and body punches, and knock out the other man within five rounds. If you complete all those objectives, you'll get a popularity bonus.

"It makes the fights a little bit more interesting than just saying, 'I'm going to go in here and beat this guy as fast as I can,'" said Hayes.

The career mode seems much deeper and more interesting than the one in EA Sports UFC, although the prevalence of injuries is concerning. We'll have to see if EA Canada balances that element of the mode toward challenge rather than frustration. Hayes said that because the studio was able to build a much more full-featured game this time around, the developers aren't as worried about having to shore up UFC 2's foundation with post-launch content updates. Instead, he noted, the team is ready to fine-tune gameplay balance and other features with patches.

EA Sports UFC 2 is set for release March 15 on PS4 and Xbox One.