EA Sports UFC 4 Review — A Paper Champion
UFC 4 brings some great new ideas to created fighters, online play, and clinch gameplay, but can't live up to its full potential with the end product.
In the mainstream sports video game scene, the UFC series occupies a wholly different space than its contemporaries. Whereas games like FIFA, Madden, and NBA 2K have to churn out annual releases, the UFC team gets a two-year gap to work in. In theory, this means the development team should use the opportunity to introduce more important changes than the iterative updates most sports franchises receive from year-to-year. Unfortunately, UFC 4 reveals that, even with two years, those iterative changes are all you should expect.
Now, to be clear, UFC 4 is not a terrible game by any stretch of the imagination. The updated career mode, on its own, has buckets of potential. However, with two years to work with, I was hoping for more than this.
Let’s talk first about career mode. It certainly is one of the points of focus for EA Canada. The aim of the changes is all about giving players more control over their narrative. Through things like social media interactions, you’ll create rivalries and friendships with different fighters and then use those relationships to generate hype for your next fight.
On paper, that sounds cool. However, in my journey toward being the G.O.A.T., the system was pretty bland. Sure, it’s a more natural way of building your personal story, but that doesn’t make it interesting. A more curated career mode that sets you up with actual antagonists would be so much more effective.
And, it definitely seems like the team considered going in this direction at some point. Your career mode begins with you taking part in amateur fights. There, you meet your coach who serves as a tutorial. I was expecting him to play a major part in my career. However, after the initial series of fights, I didn’t see him again until I won the UFC Championship 15 fights later.
Take a character like your coach and actually integrate him into your career and you might have a story worth playing through. As it stands, UFC 4’s career mode is just a flashier version of UFC 3, which is a shame.
On top of that, the mode suffers from some weird forms of slowdown in odd places. For instance, after every fight, you have to watch highlights of your victory or defeat on a fake iPad. Then, after you watch around 30 seconds of footage from the fight you just played, the game starts to load and you watch fake highlights from other fights. Why they can’t load while you’re watching your highlight is a mystery to me. The end result is you staring at a screen for a minute or two after every fight.
Those weird loads are all over the place. You’ll just stare at a tip screen for a decent chunk of time and then it’s like the game remembers it’s supposed to be loading. It’s really weird. I can’t explain why it happens because I’m not a video game developer, but it slows everything down. If I wasn’t reviewing the game, I probably would’ve stopped playing the mode just because this became so frustrating when trying to get to the next fight. Hopefully, it’s something the team can iron out with a patch down the line.
It’s not all bad on the career mode front though. I absolutely love the new way the team has you building out your fighter. Instead of training under different fighters to learn different ranks of your skills, you’ll rank up moves as you do them. So, if you want to build a versatile strike game, you’ll do so by banging heads with your sparring partners and opponents.
It’s a fluid system that makes much more sense than past games. You can bring in fighters from your division to learn completely new skills, but those start at rank one and have to be leveled up. I never would’ve guessed that using Morrowind for the basis of UFC’s career mode would work, but it does expertly well.
While the stats system of your fighter is my favorite part of the game, the customization side of things is, to put it charitably, not my bag. Look, I won’t shame you if you want your fighter to have a man’s body and a tiger’s head, I’m just not into it. Outside of the basic options, everything here is flashy in a way that would work in a WWE game because it’s not a real sport but feels out of place in the UFC.
Sure, there are new arenas where coming into the octagon with glowing text scrawling “WARNING” across the waistband doesn’t stand out too much. But, for me, it feels like that Steve Buschemi “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme as a feature.
Fortunately, while you can spend real money on making your UFC fighter into Cheetara masquerading as a character from Tron, there don’t appear to be purchasable loot boxes. You do get randomized rewards as you work your way through the objectives in the new player hub. However, you can also either outright buy or earn through achievements all of the gear. So, while you can spend real-world money on buying cosmetics, at least you know what you’re getting.
Outside of the updated career mode and increased focus on building your avatar across all game modes, the EA Canada team has put a big emphasis on multiplayer. Ultimate Team is gone and Blitz Battles are the new talk of the town. These give players a new way to quickly hop into a series of fights under rotating rules. Of course, the standard ranked play returns, which culminates in a world title if you’re good enough. However, I think, outside of the hardcore crowd, Blitz Battles will be what most people play.
Even in the early stages, there’s quite a bit of variety in Blitz. The rotating rulesets force you to improve your fight game in all kinds of ways. Plus, the matches happen fast, meaning you can get in and out in a timely manner. I can see this becoming something you pop in every night after dinner to get a few games in.
Of course, it’s hard to give a final verdict of the online aspect in the early access period. Kinks are still being worked out and the player base is still relatively small. It never took unbearably long to get into a match, but several of my opponents’ connections dropped. I won’t be mad about the free wins. They just don’t feel as rewarding.
That said, I think the team found a solid replacement for Ultimate Team. I mean, no one was playing that mode anyway, but Blitz adds something that injects a bit of fun into how you play UFC 4.
None of that really matters if the game isn’t fun to play. With confidence, I can say that, if you liked UFC 3’s gameplay, you’ll probably like UFC 4. They’ve changed a few things. Some good. Some bad. But, for the most part, it feels like its predecessor.
Striking continues to be my favorite part of the UFC franchise. I know there are some who don’t love how the team handles it, but, I love the simplicity of each face button corresponding to a different limb. For me, it feels intuitive and lets me pretend like I’m playing the Fight Night reboot we deserve. Expect, in this case, I can kick a dude’s head off with a roundhouse.
Outside of striking, EA has overhauled the clinch and submission systems. As alluded to before, I prefer to focus on the stand-up game. It’s just more exciting to pop someone in the mouth than it is to lay on them for three minutes before locking in a choke.
That said, from the minimal grappling I did employ, the clinch definitely feels more fluid and natural. I felt more in control of where and when my attacks happened. It’s far from perfect, as some things still feel kind of random, but, from my novice perspective, the clinch feels more realistic.
My one caveat is that single- and double-leg takedowns feel very hard to stuff. It’s entirely possible that I just didn’t wrap my head around the controls. However, it felt like if someone went for it, they were scoring that takedown more times than not.
Once things do get to the ground, I think most players will find mixed results. For submissions, the team appears to have taken a page out of the WWE games’ book in hopes of making the system easier. You’re sliding a bar around a circle to lock in a choke or switching between RT or LT to catch your opponent in a chokehold. It’s certainly easier than last year, but I think veteran fans will find it less rewarding.
You can, of course, turn the old mode back on. So, players who like that system don’t need to fret. On the other side of things, ground-and-pound feels much better. The camera takes a more overhead view, letting both fighters more easily see what they’re doing. You also have more options for both striking and blocking, in addition to finally being able to sway your head and dodge punches.
Personally, I still don’t think they’ve quite nailed how exciting the ground game can be. They’ve made some steps to streamline everything and make it feel more fluid. However, there are far fewer big moments than when you’re on your feet.
In a lot of ways, that sums up UFC 4. There’s a lot here to love. The way you level up your fighter in career mode is a dream. Striking continues to be impactful and provides moments that will bring you out of your seat. But the total experience just feels like so much wasted potential.
I absolutely think UFC fans will get a ton out of UFC 4. There is a ton to do and Blitz Battles seem like the perfect way to get players hopping in daily. However, if you didn’t like UFC 3, there’s not much here to entice you to hop on.
In short, UFC 4 is the definition of fine. While you’ll probably get several hours of fun out of beating the sport’s best to a pulp, I think I’d still rather dig out my Xbox 360 and play through Fight Night Champion or Undisputed 3 again.