Developers of mixed-martial arts games with simulation aspirations always grapple (ha!) with the control setup for their fighters. After all, MMA athletes are permitted to strike most parts of an opponent with fists, feet, elbows, shoulders, and knees and more; clinch and wrestle in numerous positions; and perform submissions while standing, or on the ground. The sheer number of now-standard moves in the sport is mind-boggling, and every now and then someone invents something new.
Of course, fighters need to be able to defend all of these things as well, which all suggests that anything short of a Steel Battalion controller duct taped to a typewriter operated with dual Power Gloves will come up short button-wise. Even with a simple gamepad setup, controls in MMA games often feel convoluted and hopelessly abstract.
Thankfully, in UFC 2 EA Sports has come the closest any studio has to creating a control scheme that allows for an extremely wide range of player expression, while also providing inputs that align pretty well with what's happening onscreen. Its distillation of movements actually make some sense, even during complicated wrestling and ju-jitsu battles. All of that said, said scheme is still a hell of a thing to get your head around, and is possibly the game’s biggest impediment to enjoyment. Those hoping to pick up and play with mates or alone face a daunting uphill climb to semi-competence.
So far, so EA Sports, you might say. And yep, while the famed brand certainly knows how to complicate something as superficially simple as football (either flavour, they are both dumb), I've never felt quite as overwhelmed as I did with UFC 2. The game does a bad job at parcelling and presenting tutorial information clearly, and instead aims a firehose of information your way and expects you to catch it all neatly in a your out-turned trouser pockets.
That’s too bad, because once you get do the hang of things, the depth of UFC 2’s systems becomes apparent: it does an incredible job of replicating the UFC experience both on the feet and on the mat. Its wrestling, grappling, and submission mechanics are particularly impressive, but also difficult to convey clearly and concisely in writing. They involve a lot of watching to see where your opponent is moving to in order to deny that movement, but you must simultaneously set up your own transitions and submissions, keep an eye out for QTE-style prompts that can give either of you a brief advantage, manage your stamina meter, and dish out and/or block strikes.
It’s a bit like patting your head while rubbing your belly while riding a bike while reciting the alphabet backwards while dodging volleys of cricket balls, but when things do finally click, it’s immensely gratifying. Patience is key both in the learning and in the execution. Fortunately there is an optional grappling HUD that lays out all your available moves at every moment.
So much is possible here, too. Some animation wizardry allows both fighters to transition independently of each other, and you can do things like use your opponent’s momentum to pull off reversals, submit people from the clinch, and chain submission attempts to keep defenders guessing. With good enough timing, defenders can even trap an arm when a punch is thrown, then hit a sweep or move to an arm bar.
It's amazing just how much has been crammed in, the only thing seemingly missing being fighters falling unconscious in choke holds – everyone seems to tap before that point. Still, that many people playing online don't have much if any ground game speaks volumes about its accessibility.
Striking is equally comprehensive. Spacing, timing, your stamina meter, and your relevant striking stats are all important, but so too is the direction your opponent is moving at the time of impact. That means circling away from an opponent’s dominant hand or foot is advised, but you’ll have to make sure you won’t walk into one of the wide variety of unlockable strikes available. There are also leg kick TKOs, a Fight Night-style head movement system that allows for all manner of bobbing and weaving, and moves that utilise the cage a la Anthony Pettis. Fantastic.
However, the game feels a little off. Things are a somewhat sluggish, and often blows that devastate opponents often don’t look, feel, or sound particularly convincing. Slo-mo replays of knock-outs almost always make it look like someone is taking a dive. On the ground, there's no feeling of urgency. EA was obviously gunning for a slower, more methodical pace and that’s fine, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re playing with a little bit of input lag – fighting the controls as hard as you are fighting your opponent. It sucks the edge-of-your-seat excitement from what it one of the fastest, most unpredictable, and thrilling sports on the planet.
This feeling is particularly pronounced at the outset of the game’s Career mode, which gives a strong impression of fighting underwater. Things improve as your stats increase, but throwing leather or shin in UFC 2 rarely feels snappy. Also, spamming one move over and over results in reduced damage being dealt, which is pretty comical when your opponent simply wanders through multiple head kicks.
There are 26 attributes across the categories of stand-up, clinch, ground, and athleticism per fighter, and these are boosted in Career mode by training between fights. A dozen fairly tedious mini-games feature in total, some of which are frustratingly difficult to complete well thanks to a lack of useful feedback being given. Fortunately you can simulate your best result rather than go through the drudgery of completing each multiple times, so you only need to fluke a decent result once.
You can also improve your fighter by spending Evolution Points on new moves, on levelling up existing ones, or on Perks. The latter include things like “All Day”, which gives you a larger window to throw a counter after a successful parry, or “Body Snatcher”, which increases the chance of a critical body strike or body TKO. It’s exciting to debut a new move, and equally satisfying to level up an existing one so it's a go-to weapon. My advice is to level up the speed of your jab to Nate Diaz velocity, then pour points into your kicking power for highlight reel finishes.
Speaking of head kicks, the amount of damage you take accumulates over your career, and at a certain threshold, retirement is mandatory. The inevitable can be starved off somewhat by gathering fans (i.e. by winning matches in style), but even their adoration won’t prevent you from hitting the golf course – presumably with massive brain damage – at some point. It’s a cool mechanic but a bittersweet moment for your fighter, who in my first playthrough was the ugliest man alive – a truly grotesque light heavyweight with a large profanity-laden tattoo across his chest. (The character creator is super fun is what I’m sayin’.)
Beyond your own creations lie a generous helping of UFC combatants. There are approximately 30 fighters in each of the men’s eight weight classes including local heroes Mark Hunt and Robert Whittaker (though no James Te Huna, sadly). On the women's side of things there are 20 strawweight and 20 bantamweight fighters including all the big names and many you probably won't know. Chances are your favourite fighter will be there though, and while DLC fighters are available, I don't know who is dying to play as Bruce Lee, Mike Tyson, and Bas Rutten. I'm happy for them to be extras.
UFC fanatics will lose hours arguing over whose stats seem inflated or undercooked, and allowing Reebok the sole clothing licence remains one of the dumbest things the UFC has ever done, but the likenesses and animations of each fighter range from decent to excellent. The ring girls all look a bit Barbie-style plastic, though. Perhaps that’s a sly dig on the part of EA?
As is typical for an EA Sports title, there are a number of online modes here, but the best new feature is Title Chase. Available in Ranked mode and in the new and substantial Ultimate Team offering, it has you chase the title by fighting others of similar experience, stats, and record. You can even earn Ultimate Team currency by predicting the outcomes of fights in upcoming UFC events – I love this! These modes provide good incentives to keep playing beyond Career, with Ultimate Team a particularly generous and long-lasting mode that will no doubt be lucrative for EA.
Despite the recent failings of its cover stars, EA Sports UFC 2 is a formidable package. It’s actually EA’s third attempt at a mixed-martial arts game and it’s also the best of the lot, featuring a wealth of content, sharp presentation, and some thoughtfully crafted gameplay systems. Despite these things, it doesn’t feel amazing to play, and it’s hard yakka getting to a point of mere competence, but most elements are in place, and a few tweaks will no doubt see EA take the MMA sim championship. My only request is that next time EA includes an arcade-y WWF Superstars-style UFC brawler as a palette cleanser as well.