After laying down a clunky but promising foundation with their first UFC game in 2014, EA Vancouver has done a respectable job of iterating and improving on each new entry over the last six years. That tradition continues in EA Sports UFC 4. It focuses on making its many complex systems a little less intimidating for newcomers without ever taking away from the depth of its multi-layered combat, thanks to a new grapple assist system and a much improved career mode that does a better job of teaching the basics of the many facets of mixed martial arts. Some of the larger ambitions of career mode fall a bit flat and the ground game still feels like it could use some work, but all things considered, UFC 4 is a win for MMA fans.
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Unlike UFC 3, which dramatically revamped the entire striking system, UFC 4 is more about small but necessary adjustments as opposed to grand overhauls. The biggest difference this time around is the clinch game, which no longer just feels like a stand-up version of the ground gameplay. Instead of having to navigate through clinch positions just to get to a spot where you can escape, all you have to do to break a clinch is move away from your opponent. You’ll likely still eat a few shots, but as long as you have room to back up, breaking a clinch is much easier to do. That said, if you get caught in a clinch with your back against the fence, you’ll find yourself in a very tough spot, especially against a fighter that excels there.
It’s a smart change, as it makes the clinch game feel like a natural extension of the standup combat rather than its own separate minigame. With this new system you can very organically go from strike to clinch, and from there decide whether you want to attack the head, attack the body, push the opponent up against the cage, or, for some fighters, even go for a standing submission ala Jon Jones vs Lyoto Machida.
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The other big change this time around is with submissions, which has actually been split into two different types of minigames: one for chokes and one for joint submissions. Both minigames are essentially a race to be the first one to either fill up the submit meter or the escape meter. For chokes, the attacker must fill the submit meter by using the left stick to move a bar around a circle in an attempt to cover the defender’s bar. The defender, meanwhile, fills their escape meter automatically as long as they’re not covered by the attacker. For joints the concept is basically the same, except you use the triggers to move your respective bar left and right. The big challenge for the defender is that your bar increases in size the more you move, so just wildly spinning the control stick or spamming the shoulder buttons like a wild person doesn’t work. That rewards a more careful, cat and mouse-style mind game when compared to the much more erratic gate submission system of prior games.
Another really cool addition is that some fighters that are especially skilled on the ground can even gain opportunities to counter certain submissions with either a slam or even a counter-submission, like a Von Flue choke. Not only is this awesome because it’s very true to the actual UFC experience, but it also balances the risk/reward factor of going for a submission when you’re not in a dominant position somewhat.
Finally, EA Vancouver also introduced a grapple assist system for those that might not know their full guards from their half guards, their side controls from their mounts, or their rubber guards from their mouth guards. When using grapple assist, instead of transitioning to specific positions while on the ground, you can just choose to transition based on what it is you want to do. If you want to move to a position that allows you to get up, just keep on pressing up on the right stick until you’re able to get up. If you want to ground and pound, keep on pressing right to eventually transition to a position where you can do some ground and pound. And if you want to do a submission, just hold left and you’ll transition to a position that lets you perform a submission.
It’s not ideal, because sometimes you need that extra level of specificity to land better ground and pound or get access to better submissions, but for those who are just picking the game up for the first time, it’s a great shortcut to start having fun without having someone explain to them what all the different positions mean, which ones have submissions, and which ones you can get up from. Of course, there’s also the legacy control scheme along with a new hybrid control scheme that combines the two, allowing you to transition to specific positions with the right stick and use the more general assist transitions with the left stick, which is a nice compromise.
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Outside of those big changes and a couple of other small control adjustments, the gameplay in UFC 4 is largely the same, which for the most part is fine. UFC 3 already did a great job of revamping striking, but the ground game still feels largely unsatisfying in UFC 4. Ground and pound strikes still lack impact, despite having dis-proportionally loud sound effects; the guessing game of transitions and transition denials is still incredibly unintuitive without the guide arrows, which are removed in online play regardless of whether you’re playing casually or in ranked; and there’s still no feedback provided to let you know why you failed a transition, leaving you to guess as to whether it was because you were too slow, you hit the wrong direction, your opponent had grapple advantage, or any of the other factors it could be.
The Life of a Fighter
UFC 4 treats its career mode as an onboarding tool to get new players very quickly up to speed with the basics, and in that way, it’s very successful. After getting your ass kicked in your very first amateur fight, you’re taken under the wing of fictional former UFC fighter, Coach Davis. Davis serves as an extended tutorial that walks you through the various facets of MMA, and importantly, after every lesson you’ll have an amateur fight against an opponent that specializes in that discipline, allowing you to really soak in what he teaches you.
After you get through all of your amateur fights, UFC 4’s career mode settles into the familiar groove established in UFC 3’s career mode. You get a fight offer, you choose how to spend your 100 weekly points leading up to it, and then you fight. The best new change this year is in the fighter evolution system that allows you to improve specific moves simply by landing them in a fight or in training. The more you use a move, the better it will get, letting you craft a fighter that truly feels unique to you. Bumping a move up to the next level also awards you with evolution points that you can use to improve your overall stats and add powerful perks that further define your strengths.
There’s a lot of stat building and decision making that takes place in between fights, but thankfully it’s all good fun because you really do see the effects of your training paying off. It also helps that the training itself is fun since it’s mostly two-minute sparring matches – even if it’s a little too easy to knock your training partners out cold.
Less effective is the emphasis on player choice in the story, which feels a little half-baked. Occasionally throughout your career, you’ll be given opportunities to choose how you respond to certain social media posts from fighters, or how you react to certain events, such as a fighter pulling out of a fight due to injury. The idea is that these decisions create rivalries and storylines between you and other fighters, but because all interactions are handled through short social media posts in a submenu, I never really cared about any of them. There is a gameplay element to it all, in that, if you have a bad relationship with a fighter, you won’t be able to invite them to your gym and learn one of their signature moves, but the trade off is that when you potentially fight down the line, there will be more hype to it. None of that ever really made much of a difference for me though, because there are already so many other fighters to invite to your gym, and the fighters that I did start a beef with early on never resurfaced once I started climbing the ranks.
A big historical problem for the UFC series was the huge difficulty spikes once you got into title contention, which thankfully are no longer an issue this time around. You’re able to set your difficulty right from the start, which stays pretty consistent all throughout as long as you’re being diligent about upgrading your fighter, though the moderate difficulty AI seems to not quite understand how to escape from submissions. You are also able choose whether you want to retry a fight, or accept the consequences of the loss and continue on with a blemish on your record, which is a nice choice to have, especially since some of your ultimate “Greatest of All Time” goals are tied to getting consecutive wins.
Mixed Martial Modes
UFC 4 thankfully removes the sleazy Ultimate Team Mode of prior UFC games, and though it doesn’t replace it with anything nearly as substantial, there are at least a couple of fun new stages that are refreshingly different. There’s a new backyard arena that feels especially fitting for cover athlete Jorge Masvidal, along with a very Bloodsport inspired Kumite arena, complete with over the top sound effects and cheesy music.
There’s also a new Blitz Mode that serves as a fun little distraction for online play. In Blitz, the rules are constantly changing every few hours. One ruleset might involve only having one round that lasts for one minute, another might have you playing a best of three game of knockout mode. It’s a cool idea, and one that I wish I got to spend more time with, though unfortunately there just weren’t that many people playing in during the EA Access First Trial period.
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UFC 4 also introduces Daniel Cormier to the commentary team who does a wonderful job and serves as an excellent replacement for Joe Rogan, even though I could probably do without him and Coach Davis repeating the same line about fighting being chess instead of checkers over and over again.
Lastly, while UFC 4 still looks pretty good, it’s a little disappointing to see that so little has changed in the game’s looks over the last six years. While there are a few new animations added into the mix, these are largely the same takedowns, slams, and strikes that we’ve seen before. There’s a little bit more face deformation this time around during slow-mo replays, but knockouts are still lacking a certain magic that the Fight Night series captured a console generation ago.