EA Vancouver has failed to deliver a single good UFC game in four attempts - it's time to cut the failed prospect and bring in a true contender
It's been eight years since Electronic Arts secured the UFC license, yet the virtual sports giant has failed to release a single good MMA game during that time.
With the fourth entry in EA's mediocre line of UFC titles just weeks away from release, the wait for another good mixed martial arts (or combat sports in general) videogame post-2012 will have to continue for at least another year or two.
Though a final verdict on EA UFC 4 can't be reached yet given the final product hasn't been released, it's abundantly clear through gameplay videos and the closed beta that EA has once again failed to deliver the game fans have been asking for.
The core grievances with the EA brand of UFC games have been, since EA Vancouver's very first failed attempt back in 2014, floaty physics and weak animations, the terrible ground game, and rather lackluster striking (though it's far superior to the grappling, but that's not saying much).
Instead of ever addressing those core issues, the team at EA Vancouver (developers of the beloved Fight Night boxing games) has doubled down on their shaky foundations, implementing minor improvements and changes in each installment and simply adding more content rather than fixing the broken fundamentals that remain the real problem.
The physics are still floaty and unsatisfying, the animations are amateurish and exagerrated to the point they often look more like a low budget action movie's attempt at selling fight scenes, the striking controls remain clunky, and they've somehow managed to make the grappling in each game uniquely terrible despite overhauling it with each iteration.
In truth, essentially all of these complaints were actually present before EA snagged the UFC license - their first attempt at an MMA videogame back in 2010 (which primarily featured StrikeForce and its stable of fighters) was EA's bid to create a rival to THQ's spectacular line of UFC games - it failed spectacularly.
While the odds were stacked against them from the start given they didn't have the all-powerful UFC license and THQ's UFC games were among the best sports games of their era, EA opted to try and reinvent the wheel when it came to representing mixed martial arts in videogame form and to say it didn't work well would be an understatement.
Despite some surprisingly solid reviews from videogame critics, EA Sports MMA was incredibly boring to play, the fighters looked like ugly clay models, and the mangled controls made fighting an absolute chore. Granted, if they had taken the same approach as the UFC Undisputed series they'd have surely gotten flack for copying their competitor, but they also didn't have to go so far in the other direction that it made their game nearly unplayable.
After THQ's mismanagement and financial woes forced them to sell off many of their licensing deals and intellectual property, EA purchased the licensing rights to the UFC in 2012.
The news was a massive blow to the fans that had been thoroughly enjoying THQ's UFC Undisputed titles since they brought MMA to the forefront of gaming back in 2009.
The latest release, UFC Undisputed 3, had honed the incredible foundations that Japanese developer Yuke's had created to near-perfection, with brilliant and responsive gameplay and a bevy of content and cool features (including an awesome PRIDE mode) - despite being a critical success with fans and reviewers alike, the struggling publisher let the license go just months after the game released.
When it was revealed that EA Vancouver's Fight Night team would be creating the new UFC game, it was met with a mixed response - on the one hand, the team had proven to be incredibly capable and had created some amazing boxing titles over the years, including 2011's superb Fight Night Champion; on the other hand, putting the Fight Night series on the shelf for an extended period meant combat sports aficianados were losing out on great future boxing titles.
Though EA Sports MMA didn't leave many with confidence that EA could create an MMA game on par with the Undisputed games, that title was actually created by a different studio (EA Tiburon) - surely with such a talented team taking over, one that had plenty of experience with combat sports already and had the benefit of being able to both learn from Tiburon's mistakes and take from the prior UFC titles' successes, EA Vancouver could deliver a great MMA experience?
While the team did fix up the controls to make it more closely resemble Yuke's titles than EA Sports MMA, most of the other problems found in EA's first mixed martial arts game still somehow persist in the modern EA UFC games despite being from different developers, from the off lighting to the poor animations and shit grappling.
The graphics and physics issues, given that they were around in EA Tiburon's outing as well (though not nearly as bad, which is really saying something), point to the game's engine being a possible culprit. That theory however quickly falters given that the series moved from EA's Ignite engine to Frostbite (which has powered some much better looking games) and that change in engines fixed virtually nothing and just introduced even more bugs.
The impact of strikes is something that many fans have complained about, even if many don't quite know how to explain the problem - the animations are floaty, the physicality of each movement appears off and the reactions the fighter models have to getting hit are often exaggerated, making the entire experience fall flat.
A possible cause is the team's reliance on motion capture; while in theory mocap should make the strikes being thrown look authentic, for whatever reason EA Vancouver's translation of those movements into their engine consistently fail to hold up to scrutiny. This is especially odd considering their prior Fight Night games had no such issue and featured superb animation.
The most obvious clue that the team is relying on mocap however is in the impact of the strikes - fighters embellish the effects of getting hit, often looking like stunt men pretending to get clocked in a bad action movie.
The limitations of using motion capture for the act of getting hit is inherently obvious and it just seems downright lazy that the team at EA Vancouver would rely on this rather than tweaking the animations to more accurately reflect actual fights, especially when they pride themselves on their "authenticity".
What makes EA's continued failings so infuriating is not only is there a fantastic blueprint for them to draw from, but it appears as though they have put in exactly zero effort to address gamer's complaints.
The UFC Undisputed releases showed exactly how a great MMA game should look - though the graphics and framerate may be a bit outdated now, the more authentic visual style and much more responsive striking remains leaps and bounds ahead of all four of EA's releases.
Strikes are crisp and look much more natural, and unlike the EA titles, feel significant and satisying to land, every shot feeling as if there's genuine weight behind it. The grappling mechanics are simple and intuitive while still allowing for plenty of variation, and transitions from the floor to the feet or vice versa flowed well without feeling as if you just stumbled into an entirely different game.
The proven blueprint for creating an amazing mixed martial arts videogame is out there; unfortunately it's one that EA pretends doesn't exist, and to make matters worse, their efforts to improve on their own crappy foundations are weak at best.
Now EA Sports already gets flack for churning out sports titles with limited improvements or changes given the extremely short dev cycle a yearly release allows for, but the UFC games have all had extended release cycles (from 18 months to 2 years) so a more considerable amount of improvement is more than reasonable.
Instead, while there have been a few new modes and gimmicks added, the core gameplay has not been changed much and the animations and graphics in the latest release look virtually identical to EA UFC 3.
Considering that the last title wasn't the best looking game to begin with, the fact that EA UFC 4 looks almost entirely the same 18 months after its predecessor is downright pathetic, especially for a talented developer like EA Vancouver.
The fluidity and graphical style of Fight Night Champion, their last game before they took over the UFC license, puts all four of their UFC titles to shame and it was on the previous generation of consoles.
The ground game is still a clusterfuck, the clinch has admittedly seen some improvement but isn't anything to get excited about, and the striking is still far from good - the fundamentals are simply not there, and instead of working on those aspects, EA continues to simply add in more fancy moves and not much else.
At this point, any confidence fans had in EA Vancouver to deliver a good MMA game is long past gone.
The series desperately needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, which should be a possibility given that the next generation of consoles is coming in just a few months and a new engine is desperately needed for many of EA's games, but given the utter incompetence EA's executives have shown in recent years, it's likely we'll see the same core mediocre gameplay with slightly better graphics on the Xbox Series X and PS5 in another 18 months.
Now to be fair, it isn't all terrible - EA UFC 3 did feature a surprisingly well-presented career mode that looks like it will be added to with the latest entry, and their live events mode which lets you predict fights on upcoming cards and play out those predictions to earn points if you're correct after the real event happens is pretty cool.
Besides that, pretty much everything about the EA UFC games is mediocre at best.
Unfortunately, given the current worldwide situation, EA UFC 4 may actually sell quite well. That is not in any way because of its quality, but because the world is absolutely starving for entertainment and a means of escape, with videogames being one of the main avenues of said escape (especially with the current lack of new movies and other live sports).
The UFC itself has enjoyed impressive viewership numbers and pay-per-view buyrates during the current hysteria and with a lack of other major game releases from now until later in the fall EA may do quite well for itself despite a clear lack of effort.
Rather than understanding the market conditions that led to their (possible) success, EA will undoubtedly take it as a sign that what they're doing is working and will encourage the once-beloved Fight Night team to continue down their path of mediocrity.
In a perfect world, EA Vancouver would pass the reins to the UFC to another developer and shift back into making Fight Night games, especially since boxing has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts in the years since their previous games.
If EA were smart, they would take a look to the east and realize they have a golden opportunity to give everyone what they want.
Yuke's, the developers behind the THQ-published UFC Undisputed titles, recently stopped developing WWE games after frustrations between themselves and former publisher 2K Games led to 2K shifting development of the franchise to an internal developer.
Now would be the perfect time for EA to approach the Japanese studio and strike up a deal to publish a Yuke's developed UFC game - or, since EA loves buying up smaller developers, they could always try to buy the entire company outright.
Yuke's has clearly shown they know how to make great mixed martial arts games and frankly, all they'd need to do to make a far superior UFC game than EA has managed would be to simply update UFC Undisputed 3 with modern graphics, smooth over the outdated edges and add all of the modern fighters.
Not only could Yuke's be trusted to deliver a great UFC experience, but a small team from EA Vancouver could assist (particularly in providing detailed 3D scans of all the fighters) while the rest of the Fight Night team goes back to working on something they're actually good at.
Until that happens though, it looks like combat sports fans will be left without any good mixed martial arts or boxing games for the foreseeable future.
Thanks EA, you never fail to disappoint.