Dana White’s sudden appearance onstage at EA’s 2012 E3 press conference seemed to catch the assembled media entirely by surprise. Product announcements may be the fundamental fuel that fires the E3 hype machine, but it’s rare that one of them is so jarring as to cause a cascade of whispers to ripple across the crowd. The UFC president's presence onstage at the Orpheum Theatre did just that.

In an industry with messaging that’s always tightly controlled and often slightly contrived, Dana White’s passionate ad hoc tirades are the kind of salacious stuff that spreads like wildfire. When EA was the recipient of one particularly colourful and memorable lambast, it was duly and widely reported. Many in the theatre could recall White declaring himself to be “at war” with EA. At the time he claimed the publisher was “disgusted” by mixed martial arts, and didn’t consider it to be a “real sport”. White even went so far as to threaten excommunication for any fighter signing up for the EA MMA roster.

Swagger and bluster is one thing, but what for many had truly sealed the unlikelihood of a partnership between the UFC and EA was the runaway success of the UFC’s latest licensed video game. Released just five months earlier by THQ, UFC Undisputed 3 had been a critical and commercial home-run for both the rival publisher and White’s UFC.

EA Sports UFC preview

The about-face was so total and so unexpected, rumours quickly spread that THQ only learned of their loss when White jovially jogged on-stage to shake the hand of then-EA Sports boss Andrew Wilson.

In reality, THQ’s dire financial position had forced it to relinquish the license. It had also put its UFC Undisputed series on an 18-month development rotation, presumably because it lacked the kind of bandwidth EA Sports has to deliver quality entries on an annual basis. Still, the fact the rumours persisted goes some small way to indicating how astonishing this turn of events actually was.

Since then, little has been heard about the fruits of that spectacular coup, EA Sports UFC. Last week, Gameplanet travelled to EA’s Redwood Shores headquarters to get a first look at EA Sports’ new-gen-exclusive mixed martial arts title.

Brian Hayes looks like he’d be at home inside the octagon. Broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, he has a supremely easy banter of the kind that would be propped considerably by a long neck beer bottle.

EA Sports UFC preview
EA Sports UFC preview

“I got my gig on Fight Night 2004 because I was one of the few people up at EA Canada who was fanatical about boxing,” says Hayes. “They were looking for junior designers, I was walking to my desk at QA with a bloody nose and pair of boxing gloves, and they were like, ‘What about that guy? He clearly knows about getting punched in the face!’”

Much of the years-old silence around EA Sports UFC can be attributed to its new-gen exclusivity. While that exclusivity means that there are no rudimentary building blocks to work from, it also means the game is not chained to old-gen specifications, and can implement a range of features that would be impossible on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

Hayes claims EA Sports is building the most realistic athletes ever seen in a video game, and what we saw certainly gives current champion NBA 2K14 a run for its money. Every fighter’s head has been captured in “our crazy, hi-res, multi-camera head capture tent,” says Hayes. “We did body reference shots so that their proportions are correct and their tattoos look totally dope.”

That’s just the beginning. Hayes goes on to wax about something called sub-surface scattering. What we see when we look at one another under lights is a reflection of light penetrating a couple of layers of skin before bouncing off subcutaneous structures and then reflecting. Hayes says EA Sports UFC has successfully modelled this effect.

There’s even a reflection of the environment on the cornea of the fighters’ eyeballs. “That sounds kind of crazy, but if you look at my eyes right now, you can probably see that there’s a blue square being reflected from this monitor in my eyeball, and that’s one of the reasons why you’re not freaked out by what my eyes look like,” says Hayes. “If they looked like [an old-gen] videogame character’s eyes, there’d be none of that reflection.”

EA Sports UFC preview

That’s half the equation. The other half is the lighting itself. For the first time in an EA Sports title, real-time dynamic lighting affects in the entire environment and all the characters. In the past, dynamic lighting only hit the characters themselves, and environment lighting was hard baked, meaning the athletes and the scene in which they operated were intrinsically separated. No more.

Even the lighting rigs and effects in the game are totally authentic. “There’s a program that runs all the lighting choreography for every UFC event,” says Hayes of the unique lighting that accompanies fighter walk-outs and other events. “One of our engineers said, ‘So hey, if they’re using one of those, I can probably just write a script that will read that and run our lights in the game.’”

These two elements, lighting and its effect on characters, are important, but what brings a digital character to life is the way it moves - or as Hayes elegantly puts it, “Life means motion.”

“When you see Jon Jones or Alexander Gustafsson bouncing up and down or jogging around the ring, you’ll see the flesh moving on their bodies in a believable way. It’s not like a static action figure.”

The toes on the fighters’ feet splay as they shift their weight from the front foot to back, and even the wrinkles in the back of Jones’ neck are dynamic.

EA Sports UFC preview
EA Sports UFC preview
EA Sports UFC preview
EA Sports UFC preview

An additional benefit of new-gen exclusive development is the increased number of characters that can be rendered on-screen. In the past, any more than four character characters would’ve caused noticeable performance issues. Here, both fighters along with Bruce Buffer, Mario Yamasaki, six corner men, two octagon girls, Dana White, and Joe Rogan are all present and rendered.

“We’ve put in some higher resolution crowd guys along the outside of the walk-out there,” enthuses Hayes. “So when we do the walk-outs, you’ll have morons trying to get in front of the camera just like they do on real TV.”

There’s no question that EA Sports UFC is stunning to behold. Hayes and his team already have a product that is sure to delight fighting fans who’ve made an early investment in new-gen hardware. But it’s all for naught if it doesn’t play well. Mixed martial arts is a deeply complex sport, and the natural inclination is to simulate that complexity. On the other hand, the most memorable fighting games are those with the most arcadey controls. EA Sports UFC appears to have struck a fine balance between the two.

Fighters have four limbs, and there are four face buttons, one for each. So far so good. L1 is a short power strike, and R1 is a dynamic or acrobatic strike modifier. How useful that acrobatic strike is will depend on on which UFC fighter the player is controlling. It’s unlikely to be of much use to players controlling Roy Nelson, for example, but it’ll be in high rotation for players controlling Anthony Pettis.

Pettis' infamous cage strikes make an appearance in EA Sports UFC as well. There are only a handful in the game so far, but more will be added if the lightweight increases his repertoire.

Right trigger is the defense modifier. Simply holding it down will block 50 to 60 percent of all incoming blows, says Hayes, but by holding either a punch or kick button, players can parry and check all high or low blows.

“Something we established back in Fight Night 2004 is that it’s always better to make your opponent miss and then make them pay, than it is to just both stand in front of each other and pound each other into paste,” says Hayes. “Creating an opening through skilled defense is where you’re going to see more pay-off.”

EA Sports UFC preview

EA Sports UFC has a minimalist user interface. Each fighter has a stamina bar that’s diminished by attacking and blocking, and a silhouette to represent the condition of each. As different areas of the body take damage, their corresponding area on the silhouette turns red. Once this reaches a critical stage it triggers a “health event”. For example, if one fighter chops a leg enough, his opponent will limp, and his ability to kick with that limb will be suspended. If a fighter works an opponent’s torso enough, his opponent won’t be able to guard up high.

Hayes points to a particularly memorable fight between Scott Smith and Pete Sell in 2011. Sell hit Smith with a body shot that caused his opponent to double over. When he moved in unguarded do deliver the knock-out blow, Smith threw a final vicious right to take the fight by surprise. “That was the inspiration for that entire health event. Let’s have a thing where you get hurt to the body, but you can still throw haymakers to the head.”

“That’s the game you’re playing: trying to maximise your chances for causing big damage with a single strike over the course of a fight.”

Just as the striking game is mapped to the face buttons, the grappling and submission game is all bound to the right stick. Once a fight goes to ground, the attacking player uses the right stick to move from full guard to half guard and side control. The defending player moves in the same direction to block it.

EA Sports UFC preview

Hayes pauses. “I totally understand what every other team who has ever made a mixed martial arts game must’ve gone through trying to come up with a submission game that is interesting and compelling and representative of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

“The team at EA Canada, a select few of them – no longer including myself – have been training jiu-jitsu for over a year and a half now. Even in the brief time that I did it, we discovered, unsurprisingly, that it’s not as easy as pressing a button and hey I’ve got you in a full submission hold where I’m now squeezing or pulling on something.

“There’s a lot of technique in getting your opponent into a submission position, and all along the way they have no interest in letting you do that. They know jiu-jitsu too, and they understand what you’re trying to do.

“So there’s a battle between the offensive and defensive player, and for the defensive player, all you care about is not letting the offensive player do what they want to do. On the offensive side it’s about tightening up as well as using the right timing to advance the submission and sink it in deeper.”

The result is a simple minigame that represents that frenetic struggle between two competitors. Submissions are initiated through the right stick with the R1 modifier. Once initiated, the pinned player must move and hold the right stick in any direction until a corresponding indicator moves far enough to the edge to break the submission. The player instigating the submission can check the other player’s progress by pressing in the same direction, and will occasionally be given the fleeting chance to sink the submission deeper.

“I should think of different examples, but I keep going to Pat Barry. Pat Barry isn’t the most skilled jiu-jitsu practitioner, whereas [Antônio Rodrigo "Minotauro"] Nogueira is a black belt. If Nogueira was to throw a submission on Pat Barry, you would expect his transition windows to come up a lot quicker because he’s strong in jiu-jitsu, and you would expect Pat Barry’s escape progress to move slower. So if Pat Barry is fighting Nogueira, he should try to keep the fight on his feet.”

There are a lot of ways to bring variety to the basic principles of the submission game as well, says Hayes. For example, if a fighter has sustained injuries or health events earlier in match, these might have a knock-on effect whereby submissions are advanced faster or thrown off more easily.

It’s early days yet for EA Sports UFC. The game is out of alpha but not yet in beta, and numerous quirks and bugs will be duly squashed and buffed out. But even now it’s clear that EA Sports will deliver a quality product.

The game isn’t as bloated with features as Undisputed 3 – there’s no Pride league, for example – but that’s to be expected for a first jab. It’s clear that Hayes and team wish to bolt down the fundamentals of a new-gen exclusive that will be elaborated upon in years to come.

Its reveal may have been turbulent, but no one ought to be surprised if EA Sports UFC delivers a knock-out this autumn on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.