UFC 3 review: a champion in the making

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If you’ve ever seen an MMA fight, you’ll know it usually makes for great TV. As one of the fastest growing sports in the world, nothing comes close to watching two men or women skillfully beat seven shades of snot of each other. 

It’s a glorious gladiator pit full of big personalities and cast iron chins. The grappling finesse of Khabib Nurmagomedov. The concrete-soaked fists of Darren Till. The unparalleled ego of Conor Mcgregor. However, adapting the myriad fighting styles of mixed martial arts to the active world of video games has often proved difficult to translate.

More than any of the other cage-based fighting games that have preceded it, UFC 3 comes the closest to achieving this feat. But just like its predecessors it ends up offering a fight simulator that’s both empowering and deeply frustrating; one that nails the feel and impact of striking, yet struggles to encapsulate the deep, chess-like nature of the ground game.

While still using EA’s Ignite engine (FIFA has already made the move to Frostbite, with more sports sims reportedly meant to be following suit), it’s hard to deny just how good this third round looks. 

This game comprises the largest roster of MMA athletes to date, and real-life fighters boast their most realistic recreations yet; everything from likenesses and signature celebrations to stances rebuilt in digital form. 

It also makes for a lifelike original avatar in its character creation suite. It’s just a shame its options are so limited when compared to those found in the likes of WWE 2K18.

Seek and strike

Ignite does, however, make for one of the most impressive damage models we’ve ever seen out of a racer or an open-world shooter. Every punch to the face, every hard kick to the shins, every crunching takedown to the mat leaves an impact on the dynamically changing body of your fighter. Over the course of any given fight you'll see them develop everything from swollen eyes, to legs that care barely take any weight.

And that’s just the cosmetic angle. 

Striking has been completely overhauled for UFC 3, and it makes for the most tactical MMA experience yet. Both button inputs and the overall deadliness of each strike has been tweaked, in an attempt to move the game away from the button-bashing beat-’em-up setup that made the previous game a frustrating troll fest online. 

Striking, exactly as it should be in MMA, is now a more tactical affair. You now have three health bars (head, body and legs) and each one recovers at a different speed, forcing you to use distance and the clinch far more knowingly.

Kicks aren’t as all-powerful as they were in UFC 2. They’re slower, too, which in turn urges you to use them as part of a combo where they’re most effective, rather than simply employing them as a foot-based haymaker. 

It’s less exploitable and far more rewarding if you start using space and body movement. Incidentally, head movement is now locked to the right analog stick. which helps you to dodge your opponent's jabs while building power behind an uppercut.  Whether you’re going online, building legend status in GOAT Career mode or in the game's various other modes, it’s an overhaul that finally discards the vanilla fighting game association.

The same can’t be said for the grappling and submissions of MMA. It’s the other side of the coin to the sport, a fundamental part of mixed martial arts, and it’s an area EA Canada still hasn’t cracked. 

EA’s sports-centric studios are known for giving one feature the main focus for a given release. But UFC 3’s grappling feels woefully underdeveloped and barely refreshed since the previous game. 

The core mini-game where you attempt to shift your weight based on four sections of a circle (to either escape, or continue controlling your opponent) is so unengaging you actively groan every time a fight goes to the ground.

Accurately gamifying something as instinctive and tactile as carefully shifting your body position and limbs when searching for a full mount (to punch your opponent into a bloody heap) or finding a painful submission opening is naturally going to be very difficult. 

But the system in place here simply doesn’t work. And, considering wrestling, jiu jitsu and other forms of ground work are literally half the sport, we shouldn’t have to be wait until UFC 4 to see the problem finally addressed.

Billy GOAT

The rejigged GOAT Career mode is the real centerpiece for 2018’s MMA simulator, and it’s here we get to see everything UFC 3 does right, and indeed wrong. There’s no FIFA 18 The Journey-style story mode here – instead, EA Canada has attempted to emulate the journey of a fighter from a no-name fighting league to the ridiculous pomp of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

The repetitive mini-games found in UFC 2 have thankfully been dropped. In their place we get something that attempts to better represent the life of a fighter on his journey to the big leagues. It’s a mixed bag in execution. 

On the one bandage-wrapped hand, the minutia of your fight-to-fight training is now split into a set of sub-menus that enable you to up your fitness and incrementally increase your overall stats.

You get to choose the weight class and fighting style of your fighter from the off, ranging from strike-happy boxers, to wrestle-minded grapplers, and every combination in between. 

There's also a real agency to being able to up your fitness with cardiovascular routines, train with real-life fighters to learn a new strategy on your upcoming opponent and test these new skills in a sparring session. You’ll need to be fit enough come fight day, but managing the ever-looming shadow of over-training (which will leave you sluggish and prone to attack in the fight), adds an extra plate to spin.

The attempt to mix in a more authentic behind-the-scenes aspect fails, mainly because promoting your fight with a set of generic tweets is as hollow as it sounds, as is the inclusion of FMV featuring Dana White and co as they attempt to ‘hype’ your arrival as the next hot prospect in MMA. 

Thankfully, it’s elevated by how authentically UFC 3 captures the pomp and presentation of a real UFC PPV. Whether its Bruce Buffer’s eternally enthusiastic announcing or seeing everyone from Herb Dean to Big John McCarthy officiating in the Octagon, this game nails the fight night atmosphere to a tee. Well, all except Joe Rogan’s bizarre commentary delivery that sounds so phoned in it’s painful.

There are plenty of other modes to keep you interested. If you like focusing on one fight distinction over another you can explore Submission Showdown, Stand And Bang and Knockout mode. Or you can attempt to take down your favorite fighters online in UFC Ultimate Team. 

It’s a calling card for EA Sports games at this point, but UFC 3 does have the option for microtransactions in its Ultimate Team mode. They come in the form of card packs which can be purchased with real-life or in-game currency earned by grinding, and it's a very similar system to UFC 2. 

Some of the elements feel very pay-to-win – you can buy packs that basically make strikes stronger and submissions near impossible to escape. Fortunately, they won't affect any mode outside of Ultimate Team though you'd think some lessons would have been learned after Star Wars Battlefront 2

Verdict: play it

Make no mistake, UFC 3 is the best MMA game ever made, but it’s a title that comes with a handful of concessions. 

You’re getting the true spiritual successor to the boxing-centric and long defunct Fight Night series with an unparalleled set of striking mechanics and gruesome damage model, but it lets itself down by failing to elevate the intricate DNA of takedowns and submissions, demoting them to WWE 2K18-style mini-games. 

With an up-to-date roster, plenty of online/offline modes and the most authentic recreation of the sport’s over-the-top pomp, it’s certainly not lacking in content. While far from the GOAT it hopes to be, UFC 3 is still a prospect with plenty of potential for greatness. 

UFC 3 will be available for Xbox One and PS4 on February 2.