MMA and the UFC have always been a difficult subject for EA. They passed up the chance to use the UFC licence in the mid-2000s, but when THQ acquired it, and made a success of UFC: Undisputed, EA suddenly got very interested in the world of mixed martial arts. So much so that they took the unusual step of creating an unofficial game, in the form of 2010’s okay-ish EA Sports MMA. When THQ went bust they picked up the official licence and this is the third attempt to make good use of it. The UFC games are made by the same team behind boxing series Fight Night, and they share a lot in common with those games. Most obviously the incredible graphics, and what is one of the most realistic portrayals of the human body in video games – right down to the horrible sweaty feet. But visuals are rarely a problem in EA games, and like its predecessors UFC 3 is a bit of a lightweight when it comes to the more important areas of the sport.
They might be based on a real sport but the UFC games are still one-on-one beat ‘em-ups at heart. And that immediately makes them interesting because most recent fighting games have tended to have strictly 2D gameplay, with even Tekken 7 de-emphasising its 3D movement. But UFC 3 has no option but to go all in, if it is to claim to be a realistic simulation. And it’s that which makes the game interesting, because what results is a surprisingly deep fighting game with a lot of unusual features. What EA’s MMA games have always got right is the striking. No doubt the Fight Night legacy has helped, but moving around the octagon, ducking and diving with your opponent, looks and feels incredibly realistic. The strikes feel like they have real weight behind them, and the knocks and bruises they produce will have you wincing in sympathy even when it’s just your opponent. Targeting a specific limb or body part, particularly if you know it’s vulnerable before the match starts, is a key tactic, as you whittle down the health of your target and try and get a KO. But you have to pace yourself, and making sure you don’t run out of stamina, even as you sense your opponent is about to fall, adds a great deal of tension to every fight. Unfortunately, an unwanted source of worry is always present anyway because the controls are never entirely reliable. The response times are very slow compared to a regular fighting game, which we think is on purpose and meant to be realistic, but it’s especially frustrating given how so many of the moves are context sensitive and the game seems to think it knows better than you what move to perform.
The series’ biggest problem, though, has always been the ground game – and it’s still a mess here. UFC 3 has tried to streamline things to a degree, but it still involves playing a strange mini-game, completely divorced from the striking, that is never properly explained and always looks faintly silly in terms of the animation and interface. As the two combatants roll around like angry bear cubs the sluggish controls make it almost impossible to tell what you’re doing and victory or defeat seems to come almost at random. UFC 3 doesn’t manage to improve any of the fundamental problems with the series, but there are a few worthwhile changes here and there, such as the new career mode called G.O.A.T. Here you have to complete eight out of 12 different career achievements to be named the Greatest of all Time. This ensures a good amount of variety, but the initially promising presentation (including the option to play video games with pretend fans on pretend streaming services) can’t hide the fact that all the important stuff happens via boring menu options. There’s also a new offline Tournament mode; the unfortunately named Stand and Bang, which is actually very good as it focuses on striking; and Submission Showdown, which is the opposite and an absolute nightmare. And then of course there is the online modes and Ultimate Team… the loot box-filled equivalent to FUT from FIFA.
Ultimate Team is just as cynical and manipulative as you’d expect from an EA Sports title, as you try to build up a portfolio of real world fighters from different weight classes. The game actively encourages you to spend real money on new loot boxes that include new moves or rare fighters, to the point where even relatively mundane moves are locked away by default. Even if you had all the money in the world it’s a chore to work though and just makes you feel dirty to even participate in it. But if you ignore Ultimate Team and just play the rest of the game there is enough here to entertain fans. But the game could easily be so much more.
If only it would sort out the ground game and tighten up the controls this would be a uniquely entertaining and terrifyingly brutal fighting game. As it is it’s merely adequate, and still feels inferior to THQ’s games.