UFC 4 is the latest MMA fighting game from EA and it comes at maybe the perfect time. Right now the UFC is in a weird place with them putting on lots of events but with no crowds because of the current Covid epidemic. Now, that might not be great for fans who like to go but for us watching at home, especially in the UK, it is great as we get to hear every punch and kick while also not having to hear to incessant wooing that the UFC’s more drunken fans like to do.
But in UFC 4 the crowds are back, without the wooing, and that gives the game an almost nostalgic feel and reminds us of what things were like at the start of the year. As with the other games in the series, this one uses nostalgia to remind us of the sports previous big moments too and feels like a celebration of MMA, although not as much as we’d like. More on that later.
Firing up the game for the first time, you’ll witness a CG intro with likenesses of the game’s cover stars, Jorge Masvidal and Israel Adesanya, as they recreate moments from their decorated careers (including Masvidal’s three second KO of Ben Askren). Conor McGregor shows up in there too. He’s no longer a cover star thanks to him being retired (yet again) and not fighting regularly in the last four years, but he’s still the biggest name in MMA so they can’t really ignore him.
Unlike UFC 3, you don’t get to take part in any of this and instead will have to wait until you choose a quick fight or get into the Career mode which is where we started. Here you’ll create a fighter, basically you but in shape, and will pick a base to work from either boxing, kickboxing, wrestling or Jiu-Jitsu. The game then begins telling your fighter’s story from the perspective of your head coach.
He recalls your first fight which is you completely outmatched against a crafty veteran. Here you’ll be thrown in the deep end with little in the way of guidance. You inevitably lose the fight but the coach sees something in you and then invites you to join his gym. There you’ll learn the basics of fighting from those four bases, with each discipline leading to an amateur fight in a local promotion.
Once you’ve won those fights you’ll then fight in the WFA (World Fighting Alliance) until Dana White, the head of the UFC, gives you a chance on his TV show, Dana White’s Contender Series. Do well there and you’ll make it to the UFC, opening up the prelims on a card before eventually working your way into and up the top 15 rankings in your chosen weight class.
As with the previous games, UFC 4‘s career mode is about two things: the fights and the training camps between them. These training camps last between four and six weeks and you’ll have to use that time to work on your skills in sparring and learn new moves from other pros in the organisation (so you can learn new submissions from BJJ experts like Damien Maia, new strikes from technicians like Carlos Condit or heavy hitters like Mike Perry and, of course, those really advanced kicks from people like Stephen Thompson and Anthony Pettis.
But you’ll also have other obligations such as promotion duties, managing your social media to hype up fights and rivalries and you can even ‘study tape’ on your upcoming fighter. For us this was the weakest part of the game. The promotion stuff is nothing but a text message saying that you were on a podcast or doing an interview on TV. This could have been a good way to define your personality (a bit like the Journey stuff in FIFA). The social media stuff is pretty limited and doesn’t let you go full Chael Sonnen on people and really pick fights and the tape study just shows you the stats and style of your next opponent. This isn’t particularly necessary if you know the sport. You know that Ngannou is going to stand and bang, you know that Usman will take you down. But for newbies to the sport it might have some application.
Once the training camp is over, you’ll be off to the Octagon for your next fight. The game uses a similar control scheme to the previous games in that each face button is mapped to a limb (like Tekken) and you use the shoulder buttons and triggers for modifiers. It’s a very complex system, especially when you start adding new strikes to your arsenal, but it is fairly intuitive. The only downside is that head and body evasive movement is mapped to the right stick and that’s not really useful but we stuck to blocking and keeping distance and that served us well.
The complexity of the controls allows you to really express yourself in combat and it all has a sense of authenticity about it. For example, if you throw leg kicks, eventually your opponent will get wise to it and start checking them, which will hurt you more than it hurts them (look up Anderson Silva’s rematch with Chris Weidman for a horrible example of that). But if you throw out a jab or two and then kick, you’ll have a better chance of it landing. It’s all about having a varied striking game and keeping your opponent guessing.
Combat takes place at all ranges, from kicking to boxing, from boxing to clinching, from clinching to the ground. As you develop, you’ll need to put work in in all of these ranges. We focused on a rangey kickboxing style with lots of ‘spinning shit’ (copyright Nick Diaz) and this served us well but had some truly nerve-racking fights against lay and pray wrestlers. Being pinned down for a whole round and then coming back in the second with a masterful striking display (while keeping one eye on our rapidly diminishing stamina) is where this game excels. We absolutely adored these battles and had more of a sense of consequence in these fights than in any other fighting game.
Fights can go bad easily. Soft tissue can be damaged, chins can be rocked, you can be taken down. It’s how you navigate these choppy waters that will decide the fight and we love that you can fight your way out of trouble. It reminds us of the early Knockout Kings games (from EA also) in that respect.
The grappling aspects of the game have been improved since the last time out. The clinch allows for all manner of strikes and sneaky takedowns and while the Jiu-Jitsu allows for chokes and joint submissions as usual but the whole system has been simplified so that pushing the left stick left will let you go for submissions, up will have you attempt to get up and right will put you into a ‘ground and pound’ zone where you can start punching someone’s head off of the canvas.
The simplicity of the system allows anyone to compete on the ground, or at the very least just survive. You can opt for ‘legacy’ controls where things go back to the previous, more complex control scheme but that’s optional (there’s a nice ‘hybrid’ version that is a mix of both schemes). The only issue though is that submissions take quite a while to pull off. Even at your most efficient, you might as well not attempt any Demetrious Johnson style last second subs as the setups take at least a minute. It gets worse online as people defending submissions just seem to waggle their left stick around and that tends to keep them safe which is how it has been since UFC 2 to be fair.
That means that online bouts tend to be striking affairs most of the time and that’s fine because when you’re going up against a human player the realism of the game’s combat makes for some fantastic matches. Dramatic back and forth battles with another human that are better than any online fighting game we’ve played in years.
So, as you’d expect from a UFC game (either these ones or the old THQ ones), the striking game is absolutely on point, the grappling is a little less intuitive (but fully featured) and you have a lot of scope for improving both yourself as a player and the fighters you create in Career Mode. That just leaves us with the trimmings.
The original EA SPORTS UFC game had loads of little video cameos from famous fighters and coaches. We liked that, even if you could feel the cringe from the fighters. The next two games didn’t have that but did show old footage from the UFC archives. UFC 4 has none of that though. Some famous moments are recreated as fake social media posts but with over 30 years of fights, we’d have liked to have seen more moments, some footage and a lot of ‘legend’ fighters. Sure, Chuck Liddell, Royce Gracie and recent retirees like Michael Bisping and GSP are all in there alongside the huge 200+ roster of current fighters, but we can’t help feel that there should have been more attention given to the past.
It would have been nice to see old footage from, say, UFC 100 and then had a preset version of that event to play through. You can create your own custom cards though and that’s fun. None of this is game-breaking at all but it would have been nice to see EA really get the most out of this license.
The presentation otherwise is good. The menus are less faffy than last time, thanks in part to them doing away with the Ultimate Team mode that was basically pointless and confusing last time out, and the new art style actually works quite well. It’s an extension of the game’s cover art which, like FIFA 2021, will take a bit of getting used to but it works in the menus here.
The action in the cage is well represented with the same high quality graphics and animation as we saw from the previous iteration. We could niggle and say that we’d like to see a little bit of progress (and maybe a switch over to the Frostbite engine) but the KOs still look brutal and the damage modelling seems good. The fighters are all recognisable but if you start with a custom fighter, especially based on yourself, it does look a bit ‘off’ as you’d expect.
The audio is a mixed bag. The good news is that the thuds and smacks of combat all sound good and the new commentary team of Anik on play-by-play and Daniel Cormier on colour commentary. As with last year, Anik still sounds a typical radio disc jockey but Cormier is a great replacement for Joe Rogan.
The downside is the music soundtrack which focuses exclusively on modern hip hop which isn’t in keeping with the UFC generally where you get a good mix of that with older hip hop, rock and metal and even some poppier stuff. It’s filled out with a bunch of tracks created just for the game but these all sound pretty generic. It’s no big deal again.
But overall as a package, this is a solid a UFC title as you’d expect from EA. A lot of the changes are subtle though, making this less essential than it could be, and the lack of fan service is a let down but it puts on some great fighting and the simplified grapple controls are great for keeping the action on the feet. Grappling fans might not like it but if you want dramatic, brutal fights, UFC 4 is easy to recommend.
+ Well considered controls
+ Good, in-depth career mode
+ No more Ultimate Team nonsense
- Lacking in fan service