It's been eight years since the last good mixed martial arts game was released, and EA's latest release certainly doesn't change that.
If you read my recent column on why EA's UFC games suck you'd already know I had very little faith in EA's ability to right the sinking ship that is their attempt at mixed martial arts videogames.
After ten hours of playing the new game through EA Access, I can confidently say that EA Vancouver couldn't even live up to my incredibly low expectations.
What's immediately striking about EA UFC 4 is how little effort has been made in improving the core gameplay (something I largely expected given their past releases and the released gameplay footage).
Not only is the game at its core nearly identical to the last one, the few additions and changes they've made have somehow made things worse.
The series' pitiful grappling returns but with it an all new "Grapple Assist" feature that's enabled by default comes to make things easy for beginners or those that dislike grappling. Essentially, you just pick what you want to do on the ground (move to a ground and pound position, try to submit your opponent, or get up) and move the left stick in the chosen direction; the game does everything else for you.
Not only is it not fun whatsoever, but it's essentially EA Vancouver's way of saying the grappling is no fun - if you want to make it that incredibly simple and basic, why even include it at all?
Luckily you can simply switch to "legacy" controls to get back to somewhat reasonable controls, not that it really improves the mediocre grappling all that much.
The clinching that was so prominently featured as a massive upgrade is not much of an improvement, though transitioning to the clinch and vice versa is a lot more fluid than it used to be.
Changing the takedown controls to use face buttons? That's a much less welcome change that just feels off - previously (dating all the way back to the far superior UFC Undisputed series), the face buttons were for striking and the right stick was for grappling, and it worked well. Instead, EA changed it for no apparent reason.
The striking is largely the same as it was in EA UFC 3, but they have added more striking options by allowing a face button to be held to initiate a different strike than just tapping it.
For new players the plethora of modifiers (the left trigger and both bumpers, which can be held individually or in different combinations to achieve different strikes) may be confusing, but it eventually clicks and the addition of the button hold variations was a smart new feature - in theory.
In reality, just like how they changed takedowns to incorporate takedowns, now they've added kicks to the punch buttons.
In every prior MMA game the face buttons were mapped to specific limbs - on an Xbox controller for instance, A is for the lead leg, B is for the rear leg, X is for the lead hand, and Y is for the rear hand. No matter what modifiers you're using (such as LB to throw more powerful strikes) you know what you're going to be throwing by which face button you press.
Now with the ability to hold down a face button to initiate different strikes, EA has inexplicably mapped kicks to the buttons that are supposed to be for throwing punches/elbows. How on earth did anyone think that was a good idea?
EA has opted to not even bother attempting to improve the visuals for their latest title either, with it looking virtually identical to EA UFC 3, which wasn't exactly a looker when it came out over two years ago.
By today's standards the supposedly AAA sports game looks worse than many budget offerings and the animations are just as terrible as they've been in every EA UFC title.
While there aren't any game-breaking bugs like in some of their past releases (at least not that I encountered), there are still tons of visual bugs and clipping occurs frequently. Just watch the fighter's arms when you're too close to land a punch, or when two fighters throw strikes at the same time, or when your fighter is getting up - everything just appears sloppy and unpolished.
Not only that, but all the animations for the takedowns, strikes, etc. barring the few new moves that weren't in previous titles are all identical without any improvement, and knockouts still look incredibly bad and unsatisfying.
The fighter roster sports 232 fighters (which is incredibly two less than the last title; when you take so little effort in everything else, how can you justify at least not having more fighters?) and covers most of the notable names, but there are some notable omissions such as Calvin Kattar and several other top-15 ranked fighters.
Despite overlooking ranked UFC fighters, EA felt it necessary to throw in boxers Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua as bonus characters just to once again rub it in everyone's faces that we aren't getting a new Fight Night anytime soon. Thanks EA.
In terms of game modes EA UFC 4 is rather scarce - sadly the ability to play past or upcoming cards is gone from events mode (likely due to the increased craziness of the current UFC schedule and the use of so many new faces not in the game) unless you simply recreate the cards yourself.
EA's Ultimate Team mode (which never belonged in a UFC game in the first place) is also gone, which EA actually tried patting itself on the back for removing because it was "for the fans" - in reality, the mediocre mode and its greedy implementation of lootboxes were highly unsuccessful and thus there wasn't any financial incentive for EA to include it anymore.
The Career mode is the primary focus of the game (for single player at least) and it too is largely the same exact thing as it was in the last game. The addition of a dedicated coach for various cutscenes falls flat thanks to how generic it is and how little it's used outside of the first few bouts (not to mention the use of ugly in-engine cutscenes, which regularly focus on the extremely low quality character models of non-fighters), while increased social media "interaction" adds extremely little to the experience.
What is really confusing is how poorly done the learning segment of the Career is. The extended "tutorial" has the player taking an amateur fight after learning the bare essentials of each aspect of the sport, including boxing, muay thai, wrestling, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
That means for anyone unfamiliar with prior UFC games (which is who tutorials are supposed to be for, along with introducing new features to returning players) you'll literally be having regular fights without having learned how the clinch/grappling works whatsoever should the fight go there.
It's simply a bizarre decision from the developers especially considering how simple it should be - have a sparring session to learn the basic controls for each aspect, then have an amateur fight after to put it all together. How they managed to bungle this is beyond me.
The Career modes' attempt to create immersion is hampered at every step of the way by laziness and/or ignorance. Outside of the dreadful-looking cutscenes, the sparring sessions you'll partake in to earn points to level up your attributes have some extremely basic problems that will just make real MMA fans cringe.
The sparring sessions are separated into four different categories (plus a heavy bag session that simply has you throwing combinations) - boxing, muay thai, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu. The problem is not only can you use whatever you want without penalty (for instance, you can throw flying knees at your grappling partner) but the AI regularly doesn't seem to realize what they're supposed to be focused on; your wrestling partner will regularly throw punches on the feet and forget about even trying to take you down, your boxing partner will throw kicks or even attempt takedowns.
Not only that, but your sparring partners don't change for the entire career mode - there's no new bodies thrown in, no variance of styles to mix things up. And then there's the fact you're essentially encouraged to knock out your sparring partners regularly given that techniques level up dynamically simply by throwing and landing them, and they level up much faster when used to knock out an opponent (including your sparring partners).
If you do knock out your sparring partner, that type of sparring is locked for a week while the partner is injured, only for them to return the next week ready for more punishment. There's even a promotion option that allows you to "live stream" a sparring session to your fans and rewards you for knocking out your sparring partner - EA's views on the sport seem to be stuck in the early 2000's right beside their game engine.
For those that played EA UFC 3, career mode really doesn't offer anything new and although it has some minor tweaks, it follows the exact same formula - take a fight offer, spend your weekly allocated time by training (sparring or paying other fighters to learn new techniques and add them to your created fighter's move set), and perform media/sponsorship activities to increase fan interest in your fights which leads to more lucrative contracts.
The formula isn't so bad on its own but it does get old very quickly, especially if you've already played through the Career mode in the last game - there's very little in the way of additions and it gets extremely dry by the time you even get your first title.
EA hasn't even fixed one of the main complaints from the last Career mode in which later in your career you're stuck fighting mostly the same opponents who are now well into their forties (or older). The laziness found in a game that EA has had over two years to develop is just astounding.
The most interesting new mode is Kumite, which features an old-school martial arts movie-style arena complete with snake statues, custom fighter outfits, rope hand wraps rather than gloves, and even a background announcer ripped straight out of every 90's fighting game ever made.
The mode turns EA UFC 4 into a more traditional fighting game, complete with a health gauge leading to a knockout when it's depleted and the elimination of the ground game entirely.
Considering how terrible the ground game is, that's hardly a loss and it's easily the most fun way to play online matches, though it's still far from being able to compete with other traditional fighting games in that sense.
You can also compete in a backyard arena "inspired" by Kimbo Slice and Jorge Masvidal's famous Youtube fights, the UFC's Apex Arena, or an outdoor cage like the ones used by various smaller promotions over the years which at least changes up the mediocre visuals and atmosphere.
A new online mode called Blitz Battles is also a neat addition - the rulesets frequently change between these 64-player tournaments to spice things up and add new wrinkles to fights, but unfortunately with my EA Access trial I was unable to find any matches to compete in to test it out.
Considering the gameplay still sucks no matter what the rules change to, it's probably not a loss.
EA Vancouver has once again failed to deliver a competent mixed martial arts game even with an extended dev cycle. It's time for EA to make the studio go back to making Fight Night games and hand off the UFC to another developer.
+Kumite is a cool addition that's more fun than the normal modes
+Additional arenas and venues spice things up
+Solid sound design and commentary
-Same old mediocre striking with minimal improvements
-Garbage grappling mechanics
-Outdated graphics and terrible animations
-Career mode gets old quickly and frequently breaks immersion
-Very little improvement or additions compared to the last entry
The Final Score: 4 / 10