August 17, 2020
Since taking up a martial art, more than four years ago, I have an appreciation of what it must take to fight in the UFC. Taking even a single punch to the mouth is bloody horrible (especially if you stupidly forget to put in your gum shield), so the thought of eating flurries of kicks and punches to the head isn't particularly appealing. EA Sports UFC 4 does a fantastic job in simulating what it feels like to deliver (and take) strikes during a competitive bout, and I'd know, because I took a punch to the face and had a hurty shin one time. Okay, maybe not.
Ever since acquiring the UFC licence and releasing the first entry in the series, back in 2014, each iteration has effectively built upon what came before it, with meaningful refinements and features that bolster both its realism and accessibility without ever diluting the experience. And EA Sports UFC 4 is 'the best one yet,' as often tends to be the case with new entries in a sports game franchise. The Career Mode, in particular, proves simultaneously straightforward, deep, and involving.
The nuts and bolts of the thing have been resolutely oiled and tinkered with, too, simplifying the previously annoying submission mechanics, while giving fans of the original stick-twiddling version the 'legacy controls' option to play with. Grappling and ground work is much easier now, too, with three options on the left stick to choose from to get your opponent into ground and pound position, grapple into a submission, or get up from the canvas. Few stones have been left unturned for UFC 4, while developer EA Vancouver has stripped away the gimmicks, like Snoop Dogg commentary and the largely redundant Ultimate Team mode (more at home in FIFA, Madden, and NHL where there are actual teams), to really zone in on polishing the best bits and ensuring they stand out. The result is a tighter, far more focused experience, free of fripperies.
As it should do, Career Mode is at the centre of UFC 4, enabling you to take your custom fighter (or one of the existing fighters from the roster) from obscurity to burgeoning UFC contender, and ultimately to the hallowed ranks of 'GOAT'. The cycle of accepting fights against challengers, then subsequently training for the main event, allocating time to promotion, sponsorships, and sharpening your skills, proves endlessly compelling. Once you're into the whole thing, it becomes quite difficult to hit the 'quit career' button to take a break – you'll feel fully invested in your fighter and their journey.
That's due to UFC 4's Career Mode being a marked improvement upon what's gone before, with new abilities learned by inviting other fighters to spar with you, moves levelled-up gradually the more you use them, and the ability to watch tapes revealing a rival opponent's 'gameplan' – showing their rating, fighting style, and other salient details that help give you an edge. How you allocate your time between fights is entirely down to you, and if you push too hard during training, you run the risk of going from peak fitness to incurring an injury that will take time and costly therapy to fix.
It's striking that balance between generating hype for each fight, maintaining fitness, and evolving your fighter that provides Career Mode's hook. Achieving certain milestones grants 'Evolution Points' that can then be spent on boosting your fighter's core attributes, be it enhancing the speed and power of kicks and punches, or your fighter's resilience and stamina. Career Mode is undoubtedly layered and all-encompassing, then, without being overly complicated or stuffed with extraneous extras.
Outside of Career Mode, UFC 4 also introduces a new version of the series' staple Knockout Mode, taking a leaf out of the book of classic arcade fighting games like Street Fighter and their ilk, with standard health bars and the backdrop of an underground Kumite – just like Van Damme classic, Bloodsport. Or you can have a fight in the backyard, if you fancy throwing down in the suburbs. Like Stand & Bang (which also makes a comeback here), Knockout Mode is a toe-to-toe bout, perfect for a competitive couch multiplayer tourney, while the game's online offerings – while not exactly offering a slew of modes – are more than ample.
The Online World Championship offers masses of replay value, as you vie to acquire a rank and battle to become the ultimate fighting champ, whereas Blitz Battles are short, punchy 'one minute to win it' elimination matches, in which you attempt to climb a tower of opponents and achieve the 'Ultimate Victory'. Quick Fights are for anyone seeking instant gratification against an online foe, and across the board, the online experience is fairly slick and (at least in our experience) almost entirely lag-free.
In the Octagon itself, the minute-to-minute action is smooth and immediate, EA Vancouver clearly making a concerted effort to balance accessibility and depth, and it works brilliantly. Every strike has real heft and impact, but knockouts now feel much more hard-fought, demanding you wear down your opponent. Not that it isn't still possible to KO your rival with a perfectly placed uppercut to the jaw or roundhouse to the temple – it's just a lot more challenging to do that now, and it doesn't feel completely arbitrary.
A loving ode to the punching of faces and kicking of shins (and, y'know, mixed martial arts and that), EA Sports UFC 4 delivers the most intuitive and rewarding rendition of MMA to date, with superior takedown moves, more control in a clinch, and a welcome simplification to the ground game. Colourfully, exuberantly presented, there's very little not to like here, apart from the times you're pressed against the wall of the Octagon being pummelled or lying on the canvas being hammered in the face. Otherwise, EA Sports UFC 4 is a triumphant new entry.
We can't say that Joe Rogan's commentary is missed – I'd completely forgotten that it wasn't in the game anymore. The atmosphere of a UFC event is present and correct as always, and the licensed soundtrack fits the bill.
Arenas and fighter models alike are nice and detailed, with all of the blood and bruises you'd expect. Special mention should go to the colourful and energetic presentation, too, lending UFC 4 some extra personality.
The series' core fighting mechanics have been tightened up and refined, while some of the muddier aspects of the sim have been simplified. Submission mini-games are far easier to master, while fans of the original can stick with legacy controls.
Ultimate Team may be gone, but its absence isn't a blow – the deep and engaging Career Mode more than makes up for it. Solo and local multiplayer Stand & Bang and Knockout Mode remain consistently fun, while there's enough to jump into online.
A smaller list than usual, this is a selection of focused tasks that covers all the bases. Considering there are only 27 trophies, you don't get the sense that anything is missing – although four trophies dedicated to your player card is a bit daft.
Trimming away the fat to reveal a lean and mean sequel, EA Sports UFC 4 puts Career Mode in the spotlight, turns Knockout Mode into an arcade-style one-on one, and throws in backyard bouts for good measure. And while it's a gross oversight that Jean-Claude Van Damme and the soundtrack to Bloodsport are missing from KO Mode's Kumite, EA Sports UFC 4 is nonetheless a worthwhile new entry. We're just surprised there's no Fight Island.