Yearly sports titles try to straddle a line separating accessibility for newcomers and familiarity for lifers.
This is all well and good. But when the game’s release cycle is longer than a year, what happens to the folks in between? I mean the apostates, who may have the last game in the series but may have not played it in a year, which describes my situation with EA Sports UFC 4.
I confess some frustration with the career mode of UFC 4, despite EA Vancouver’s third attempt at refining the grappling, along with the transitions to stronger positions or to submission holds. This connective tissue of mixed martial arts is critical to the sport, but over three different video game series, spanning more than a decade, it has been inscrutable to my only casually interested mind.
The new grappling/transition system UFC 4 implements is definitely simpler, but there’s still a lack of feedback, leaving me wondering at times if I’m purposefully leaning on my left stick, or just spamming an input in desperation to advance or break free from a hold.
Maybe I’m supposed to get my ass beaten badly (in a parking lot, no less) in the onboarding scenarios during the game’s single-player career. I seem to remember things going that way in EA Sports UFC 3, as the game starts you out in the lowest of three competitive tiers and gives you ample time to build your fighter into someone who can handle the big time.
After getting worked over, even by my sparring partners, in the game’s introduction to the fighting basics, I found my tried-and-true ground-and-pound game gaining traction in my fighter’s first few bouts. That’s a very basic approach to fighting in the UFC games, and with it, the new transition grappling system really does shine. Takedowns from the standing clinch position felt a lot easier, and consequently, a lot harder to defend against, even with both triggers held down as the game instructed.
Starting a clinch also felt a lot more purposeful, using a face button and bumper modifier. Going straight to a takedown (trigger and face button) is more viable. In UFC 3, where the command was a trigger and the right stick, even when I had backed up my opponent and had a good opportunity to go for the takedown, I often ended up matadored into the cage.
Once locked up, though, the simplified grappling worked with and against my intentions. On the plus side, now it only gives me the information I really need. UFC 3 and earlier games listed specific holds and postures for the player, and asked them to choose which one to attempt. Now, they get one of three choices, always the same (with the same directional commands) on the left stick: Get up, submit, or ground-and-pound. The game then contextually implements a grappling move that gets the player into better position for that goal. After completing enough of these holds in a sequence, the fighter gets to apply the chokehold or rain down the hammer fists.
It gets confusing, though. Partway through a sequence, I couldn’t tell if I was pressing or defending a transition, because defending a move is the same stick gesture as implementing it. Grappling is a timing game now, where you try to beat your opponent to the move you want, or apply its counter in enough time. But in some cases, early on, I’d been reversed without realizing it. I didn’t understand the game was telling me that my only option was defending against a submission move. It took me a lot of time to figure out where I was in the hold, and how I got there. It’s still better than it was in UFC 3; I can’t begin to tell you how I managed transition defense back then.
EA Vancouver has always discouraged players from spamming attacks and moves, but the stamina penalty this year seems larger than ever. This places a premium not only on picking your spots and keeping your guard up, but also on not trying to do too much once you’re in position. It’s also a good idea, in the career mode, to build up your stamina in the early training options, rather than going for strike power — despite the disproportionate effect a harder hit has against weaker AI opponents.
When I wasn’t paying attention to my stamina, I often found myself fully postured up, ready to hit my opponent, but with nothing behind the punch. That’s because I had spent all my energy trying to advance my hold leading into it. I remembered a fundamental lesson, from Bas Rutten in 2010’s EA Sports MMA, of all things: “Strike to pass, pass to strike.” In other words, use one to implement the other.
Relearning EA Sports UFC 4 is then a question of time more than ability. It seems every game, particularly in sports, wants to be the only one I play this year. So the question turns to what in the game makes that time worthwhile. The career mode is always a good start, but as a narrative it feels a little half-finished.
EA Vancouver introduces a mentor figure at the beginning of the mode, and supports that relationship with a loose origin story of how he discovered you. Once the professional career begins, however, Coach Davis completely disappears from view, which left me feeling I’d been fooled into playing a long tutorial mode.
The supporting activities of the career mode — mostly training and fight promotion — are as plentiful as in UFC 3, with cool additions here and there. My favorite was the sparring session, shown from the view of a mobile phone, based on an option to livestream your fight prep in the game’s world to promote the upcoming bout.
Microtransactions are still present, in the form of cosmetics and other customizations for your created fighter, but they seem optional and less intrusive. Ultimate Team is replaced by something called Blitz Battles, which is a series of fights against other users under different conditions each day. The Kumite (think Bloodsport and similar martial arts flicks) and Backyard arenas are appropriately outrageous, and were my one-off venues of choice over the dozen or so casinos/resorts/hotels where fights usually take place.
Players of EA Sports UFC 4 should come to it willing to make a strong commitment. I know I have to work on the dizzying list of strikes in practice modes or the career training, one by one, bout by bout, to develop muscle memory and make them more purposeful.
It’s just like working on my ball-handling moves in NBA 2K20. I have to go back to the gym, after a year of letting myself go to seed. But I’m not sure I have time for that right now.
EA Sports UFC is out now on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The game was played on Xbox One using a download code provided by Electronic Arts. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.