EA Sports UFC 4 Video Game Review
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 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 career mode ambitions 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.
Unlike UFC 3, which dramatically revamped the entire striking system, UFC 4 is more about small but necessary adjustments instead of grand overhauls. This time around, the most significant difference is the clinching game, which no longer feels like a stand-up version of the ground gameplay. Instead of navigating through clinch positions 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 clinching game feel like a natural extension of the standup combat rather than its 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.
The other significant change this time around is with submissions, which have been split into two different types of minigames: one for chokes and one for joint proposals. 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. Meanwhile, the defender fills their escape meter automatically as long as the attacker does not cover them. The concept is the same for joints, 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 than the much more erratic gate submission system of previous games.
Another cool addition is that some fighters that are exceptionally skilled on the ground can even gain opportunities to counter specific 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 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, you can choose to transition based on what you want to do instead of transitioning to specific positions while on the ground. If you’re going to move to a place that allows you to get up, 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’re going to submit, hold left, and you’ll transition to a place 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. Still, 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 post, which is a nice compromise.
Outside of those significant changes and a couple of other small control adjustments, the gameplay in UFC 4 is mostly the same, which for the most part, is acceptable. UFC 3 already did a great job of revamping striking, but the ground game still feels largely unsatisfying in UFC 4. Ground and pound strike 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. 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 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. Notably, after every lesson, you’ll have an amateur fight against an opponent that specializes in that discipline, allowing you to 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, choose how to spend your 100 weekly points leading up to it, and then fight. The best new change is in the fighter evolution system that allows you to improve specific moves by merely landing them in a fight or training. The more you use an action, the better it will get, letting you craft a fighter that genuinely 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 do see the effects of your training paying off. It also helps that the practice 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 convincing 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 individual social media posts from fighters or react to specific 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 soldiers. Still, 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 terrible 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 warriors that I did start beef with early on never resurfaced once I started climbing the ranks.
A significant historical problem for the UFC series was the substantial difficulty spikes once you got into title contention, which thankfully is no longer an issue this time around. You’re able to set your difficulty right from the start, which stays pretty consistent throughout as long as you’re being diligent about upgrading your fighter. However, the moderate difficulty AI seems not quite to understand how to escape from submissions. You are also able to choose whether you want to retry a fight or accept the consequences of the loss and continue with a blemish on your record, which is an excellent 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 previous UFC games. Though it doesn’t replace it with anything nearly as substantial, at least a couple of fun new stages 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.
UFC 4 also introduces Daniel Cormier to the commentary team, who does a beautiful 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 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 primarily the same takedowns, slams, and strikes that we’ve seen before. There’s a little more face deformation this time around during slow-mo replays, but knockouts still lack certain magic that the Fight Night series captured a console generation ago.