If you ask any UFC champion how they compare to their former self, they're likely to bring up the term "evolution." Fighters are constantly in pursuit of knowledge and improvement as they seek to not only become the best in the world, but continue to build their legacy as among the greatest to ever do it. As the only UFC-licensed video game in town, EA Sports UFC 4 doesn't need to worry about outpacing the competition, but rather demonstrating that it still deserves to be the de facto champion. EA Sports UFC 4 looks to evolve the areas that worked with UFC 3, while completely revamping the areas that didn't to create a game worthy of carrying the franchise forward.
Making a Career of It
As players fire up UFC 4, they have several options of where to go if they want to step into the Octagon. However, analytics showed the team of EA Vancouver that career mode has long been the most popular mode for players, so in order to get players right into the action, the first time you turn on the game, you start by creating your own fighter and working through your amateur career.
Once you're into the meat of career mode, your goal is, once again, to become known as the greatest of all time (GOAT). Much like in UFC 3's career mode, to become the GOAT, you must complete a combination of performance and promotional goals before you retire. However, while the ultimate goal is the same as it was in the most recent iteration, the way in which you progress your fighter is completely different. "Our big focus this year this year is really making sure that the players had lots of choices and that those choices matter," creative director Brian Hayes says. "That comes down to the choice of literally every move you make inside training or inside the Octagon"
Through a new Fighter Evolution system, your attributes level up based on how much you use those moves in fights and sparring. To get a leg up on your fighter's progression, you can now invite other UFC fighters to your camp to help you train certain things; the higher profile you are, the wider the selection of fighters that will be willing to come train with you is. Fighters you invite not only help you improve your skills, but also help teach you new moves through sparring drills. Unlocked moves are initially appear as one-star moves, but the more you train and use a given move, the more it will develop and level up.
When you're not training, you can develop relationships and rivalries with other fighters through improved social media mechanics, contemplate which fight you want to accept (or decline), or even study film of your next opponent. If you develop a negative relationship with a fighter through social media trash talk, they're less likely to join you in your training camps if you invite them. Just like with UFC 3, you can also use your finite time to take part in promotional activities. If you invest a ton of points into scouting your upcoming opponent through watching tape, you can learn information like their overall rating, their fighting styles, or their best moves.
All of these systems culminate in giving you more ways to (hopefully) achieve your goal of becoming the UFC GOAT. As someone who played through the UFC 3 career mode four times, I'm excited to see how different the experience truly feels, with particular attention paid to the training camp experience – that became especially stale after repeated playthroughs. Hopefully these new progression methods and camp activities will allow for better interactivity, more dynamic situations, and more replayability. However, while EA anticipates that career mode will continue to serve as the centerpiece of the experience, it's far from the only offering, as players have a ton of different ways to get into the Octagon.
In addition to career, EA Sports UFC 4 continues to deliver a large suite of other modes for players to fight their way through. The mainstays of past games are well represented, with standard Fight Now, Stand & Bang (no grappling), Knockout mode (set health bar), and custom fights available for local play. When you're selecting your fighter, the new selection screen features animated character models, new UI, and combined weight class settings for even more matchups available across different divisions.
For a bit more structure, you can create your own custom event, which lets you set up your own fantasy fight card down to choosing the fighters, bout order, and more. UFC 4 also brings back tournaments featuring either 8 or 16 fighters with progressive damage from match to match. Those who want to hone their skills can also jump into the franchise's practice mode.
If you want to expand your competition to the online pool, Online World Championships serves as the ranked multiplayer, letting you compete using either licensed or created fighters in skill-based matchmaking. Based on your performance, you experience division progression and regression. This time around, rather than asking you which weight class you want to compete it, the division rotates, giving you a fresh roster of fighters to choose from.
EA Sports UFC 4 also introduces Blitz Battles, a new 64-player online tournament mode that operates under special rules to get you through the matches quickly. The matches within these tournaments rotate their rulesets; some operate under traditional MMA rules, while others use the Stand & Bang or Knockout mode. These matches also feature shorter rounds to not only expedite the fights within the tournament, but also encourage the action to be a little higher paced. To come out on top, you need to win six fights in a row, and if you lose, you can quickly join another tournament if you want.
If you don't want to play either of those new or revamped modes, you can still jump into Quick Fights, which doesn't use skill-based matchmaking, but does offer standard, Stand & Bang, and Knockout modes, plus online leaderboards for wins and finishes. And, of course, you can always invite your friend to join you in the Octagon over PlayStation Network or Xbox Live.
While forging your skills in the flame of online competition is alluring to many, looking good is just as important to others. Thankfully, EA Sports UFC 4 takes the Create-a-Fighter customization to a whole new level.
Looking Good, Fighting Good
Over the last several years, the UFC fightkits have been largely homogenized due to the apparel deal with Reebok. While the real-life licensed fighters in UFC 4 stick to the strict uniform code of the UFC, EA Sports is having a little fun with the Create-a-Fighter options. In past games, you could create a fighter to add to your roster alongside the officially licensed athletes, but outside of custom tattoos and a limited selection of hairstyles and facial options, you couldn't really get too creative.
With UFC 4, EA Vancouver is giving you more ways to customize your fighter than ever before. From additional hairstyles, facial hair, and tattoo options to a ton of over-the-top vanity items that help your created fighter stand out in unprecedented ways, it's safe to say your personalized fighter can be the most unique fighter on the UFC roster. These vanity items let you equip shorts, tops, gloves, accessories, and even animal heads to your fighter to really go wild. These items are purely cosmetic; they offer no effect on gameplay, and are only available to equip on created fighters. You can also equip pre-fight, post-fight, and in-fight emotes for your fighter to perform.
Rather than giving you complete control over your created fighters' attributes like in previous years, UFC 4 gives you several archetypes to choose from. "There are 12 Create-a-Fighter fighting archetypes that you get to choose," Hayes says. "Those are meant to be competitively balanced ... fair and balanced against all the other licensed fighters in the game and all other created fighter archetypes so we won't have to worry about players going into Create-a-Fighter and creating what is essentially just a roided-out, 100 overall, level 5 every single move Create-a-Fighter that is totally O.P. in online competitive gameplay."
This year's title also allows you to create one Universal Avatar. This created fighter is pretty much set as your main custom fighter and follows you up and down to different weight classes, so you can always choose them when you're setting up a fight regardless of mode or division. Every other fighter you create, however, adheres to traditional weight classes.
While you can take your created fighters all over the globe to compete in various arenas that real-world UFC fighters throw down in, players can also venture into four new venues. While the UFC Apex (where Dana White's Contender Series and all pandemic-era UFC cards in Las Vegas take place) and a fictional amateur fight promotion called Action Avenue, where the cage is under a tent, lead the charge, the EA Vancouver team is carrying its "let's have some fun" mentality into the other offerings. To play off cover athlete Jorge Masvidal's well-documented past as a backyard brawler, players can choose to duke it out in a yard full of barbecuing spectators and crude chain fences. Additionally, you can take to the underground arena and compete in a special Kumite venue, complete with torches and a special presentation suite.
Of course, all these upgrades would mean little if the gameplay doesn't offer new and exciting upgrades as well. While I thoroughly enjoyed the fighting of UFC 3, EA Vancouver recognized several places for improvement and turned those notes into action by revamping several key areas of the in-the-Octagon gameplay.
Improving on the Fundamentals
With the studio having a little fun with the customization, you may think the team is taking the series in a more arcade-style direction or not focusing on the style of gameplay players have come to expect from the series. However, EA Vancouver overhauled several aspects of the gameplay to deliver more realistic exchanges between the two combatants. UFC 3 featured solid striking, but the ground and clinch games still felt robotic. By further implementing EA Sports' Real-Player Motion technology, UFC 4 hopes to deliver the changes fans have been wanting from the series.
Every round starts on the feet, so while the UFC 3 striking was good, EA Vancouver wasn't satisfied. New dynamic striking introduces a tap/hold system that lets you determine if you want to throw a quick strike or a more powerful one based on how long you hold the button. Hayes says this new system was designed to be less complicated for players and should be more intuitive when trying to throw a variety of strikes.
In UFC 3, the clinch game felt more like an extension of the ground game than an extension of the stand-up competition. With UFC 4, that changes; a new fluid clinch system that uses the same Real-Player Motion tech now takes into account locomotion in addition to positioning, attributes, and timing when deciding how a clinch exchange plays out. This also means players can use movement and momentum to not only escape the clinch, but also press their opponent and deepen their clinch.
Takedowns also now use Real-Player Motion technology, with locomotion determining the outcome and success of a takedown attempt. Because of this, a fighter can drive a struggling opponent into the cage, while the defending fighter can use their footwork to escape the attempt. In the course of a takedown defense, a fighter can also get the upper hand by using throws or trips.
Once on the ground fighters have several new options, including new postured combos for the top fighter and new defensive measures like head movement and counters for the fighter on the bottom. The annoying submission minigame from UFC games past is now gone, replaced by two simpler minigames that activate depending on if you're going for a choke or a joint-manipulation submission. On top of that, fighters can now strike one another during submission struggles to soften up the target, while defending fighters can utilize slams to escape some submission attempts.
For those who have always struggled with the grappling game, UFC 4 adds a new Grapple Assist mode, which gives you more approachable controls using the left stick to get up, submit, and perform ground and pound. Players can choose from three styles of grappling controls: Grapple Assist, hybrid, and legacy.
The most exciting moments of any fight come when one of the athletes connects with a high-amplitude combination or a big strike that wobbles their opponent. For these moments, UFC 4 delivers new presentation elements to further highlight the moment. In addition to better facial and body ripple effects to better showcase the impact of the strike, a new red border appears around the screen to indicate a hurt fighter and the sound temporarily gives off an echo effect. If you are able to finish the fight, an improved instant replay system shows off your handiwork at the conclusion of the match.
While all of these new gameplay elements and improvements give fans plenty to look forward to, EA Vancouver hopes to improve the experience through removing certain elements in the name of adding others.
Addition By Subtraction
Many of the upgrades present in EA Sports UFC 4 are improvements, evolutions, and iterations over what was in UFC 3, but by stripping out one of the mainstay EA Sports modes, developer EA Vancouver was able to add a new way to reward players for engaging with the game how they want. For UFC 4, EA Sports removed Ultimate Team, the card-collection mode that lets players earn or purchase packs of virtual cards to build your team or, in the case of UFC 3, your fighters. EA Sports noticed lower-than-desired engagement for that mode, so the team reallocated resources to implement a new way to incentivize you to keep playing: Connected Player Profile.
"It's just not something that ever really jelled well in a 1v1 fighting game quite as much," Hayes says. "We decided to take the resources that we would have invested in trying to keep building and altering the experience and a lot of those shifted to the Connected Player Profile, earning rewards there and leveling up your global player profile. There's also a challenge system with daily challenges and mode-specific challenges. There's always something I can go in and do like, 'complete a gameplay challenge in career, Blitz Battles, Fight Now' ... and by completing challenges, you earn more XP for your profile and earn more in-game rewards. That's opposed to having Ultimate Team, which is like a walled garden where there's progression there that only applies to Ultimate Team. We tried to create a system where there is a progression system across the entire game that rewards every user no matter what mode they're playing."
With Connected Player Profile, UFC 4 enables players to spend time in whatever game mode they want, while the daily challenges nudge them to branch out a little bit to earn some extra experience points. By earning this profile experience, you level up your profile to unlock things like vanity items for your created fighters, profile items like backgrounds, icons, and flair, and premium coins to use for buying in-game items like fighter customization options.
Ultimate Team wasn't the only thing removed from the series in order to provide a better experience; longtime UFC commentator and world-famous podcast host Joe Rogan has also been removed for this iteration. Rogan was unable to record new voiceover for UFC 3, so the team had to rely heavily on play-by-play man Jon Anik for that title, while any new Rogan commentary had to be harvested from actual UFC broadcasts. However, for EA Sports UFC 4, Rogan has been removed entirely. Instead, former two-division UFC champion and color commentator Daniel Cormier steps into the role. Not only did this change give UFC 4's commentary a fresh feel, but Cormier's ability and willingness to record alongside Anik in the voiceover booth gives the series more fluid commentary.
"This has allowed us for the first time in this entire franchise to do two-man recording sessions," Hayes says. "Without getting into the reasons why that was not possible previously, being able to do it now allows us to get a lot more organic, a lot better chemistry between both commentators. So the reaction to big moments that happen in gameplay is that much more realistic, authentic, and immersive for the gameplay."
Challenging For Its Own Belt
While EA Sports UFC 3 was arguably the greatest licensed UFC game of all time (I personally think it finally dethroned THQ's UFC Undisputed 3), EA Vancouver looks to one-up itself with UFC 4. While the upgrades in UFC 4 don't seem to be as dramatic as the jump from the second entry to the third, the iteration and overhauls the team has implemented appear to be meaningful ones. However, the true determination of how successful UFC 4 is will lie in the execution of these ideas. Thankfully, we don't have long to wait to see how these changes and improvements affect the overall product, as EA Sports UFC 4 launches on August 14 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.