It’s safe to say that since the UFC license changed hands between THQ and EA that the latter’s efforts haven’t quite hit the same note with fight fans. Similarly to WWE games since they changed to 2K branding, the developer is making progress by the inch, evidenced by UFC 3 and its small gains over its predecessor.
If you’re hoping for wholesale changes to UFC 2, you may leave EA’s third foray a little underwhelmed. There are some meaningful, likely underappreciated improvements to fighter realism and depth, but overall it’s more of the same somewhat satisfying octagonal warfare.
The key improvements this time out comes in UFC 3’s adherence to the feel of the real thing. In that regard, it’s a runaway success: fighters’ faces distort into pained and angered expressions when struck, the stadiums feel more alive than ever, and the commentators embellish the magnitude of fights like their real-life counterparts. Painstaking attention to detail has been paid to making McGregor feel like McGregor, weird pimp walk and all, so if you’re after a UFC game that looks the part, you’re going to find yourself utterly immersed inside UFC 3.
One of UFC 3’s most fundamental gameplay changes comes to its stand-up game, which makes it feel less like a more grounded version of Tekken and closer to the real, bone-crushing, nose-breaking thing. Strikes feel meatier, but are limited to short combos of roughly around four strikes. This may frustrate players, but it stops matches from always being slugfests that trap the opposition into unavoidable punching loops. It’s also harder to pull off the sport’s more ridiculous and powerful strikes with some rather complex input combinations. When these come off and your opponent is staggered, it’s empowering and makes you feel like a titan, but it doesn’t always work, your fighter often instead opting for a low kick, which leaves you open to the counter. You have to press the right combination in an exact way; there’s little room for interpretation.
The quality of the fights themselves can be split into two different experiences: offline and online. Offline, and particularly anything on normal difficulty or above, fights can be fraught affairs, like a bloody game of checkers. The AI responds to your patterns and starts predicting your next movement based on your gameplan to date, so a varied attack is required. Online play, however, just turns into who can land the meatiest hits most often and the quickest, owing to how crazily durable fighters are.
It’s easy to stagger an opponent; a well-placed kick to the head will often do the job. Getting them to crumple up in a heap on the floor, however, is another matter. Once an opponent is dazed, they will defend like their life depends on it and then quickly recover. Even if you manage to land a hit on them at this point and they hit the canvas, they will more often than not get back on their feet – unless you land an utterly decisive blow that catches them while they’re attacking, UFC 3 tends to devolve into an extreme version of whack-a-mole where the opponent gets up and down multiple times. In the real thing, it’s unlikely that an opponent would be able to stand up after more than three knockdowns, but it’s commonplace here.
If this is to promote the ground game of UFC 3, it’s perhaps not a wise decision. The already flawed version found in UFC 2 is replicated in its entirety here except for a couple of new nuances. While in a submission, an octagonal overlay that’s controlled with the analog sticks is the difference between victory or defeat. I didn’t become friends with it in UFC 2, and it’s the same case here – there just has to be a better mechanic than pushing in a direction and trying to outfox the opposition. Offline, the AI turns into AlphaZero, always knowing where you are going and even getting a headstart. Online, most opponents just repeatedly flick in every single direction when attacking so any progress at all is minimal. Perhaps this is just me, but my fingers tend to slip from the sticks after a while or just feel uncomfortable, so when I have to transition to the next phase, I am out of sorts or even end up flicking in the wrong direction.
It’s good, then, that away from the submissions, the ground game is deeply rewarding. Tactically maintaining your stamina enough by staying patient and blocking off escape routes to wear out your enemy before transitioning them into a tight spot with some vicious ground and pound is hugely satisfying. One of my most dependable strategies was to use an advanced maneuver to get to the back side of an opponent, mount their back, and then land some vicious hits or a rear naked choke if I was feeling brave.
It isn’t an EA Sports game unless there’s a career mode, and UFC 3’s is probably the best in the series to date. Wisely, it drops the arduous training mini-games for a broader experience that sees you try to balance fame and ability. Between bouts, you can choose training camps that range from anywhere between 1-6 weeks; how you approach them is up to you. You can make like post-peak Tyson and go all out for the fame and neglect the basics or steadily work away at your craft while only fulfilling your contractual obligations.
You are given 100 points to use each week on simulated training to improve your stats or PR. It starts off simple, but eventually you will be able to attend press conferences, TV shows, promote your appearances at events, and much more. Training starts off in your dank basement gym before you work your way up to professional gyms and learn new moves from the other fighters there. The more money you pay and the higher your status, the better moves you unlock by competing against fighters in objective-based mini-bouts. These range from avoiding or landed strikes (typically very easy) to trying to get them to submit (typically impossible). Owing to how frustrating submissions are, even when your stats are sky high, you may find that your striking game becomes far more rounded than your ground game.
Added immersion comes in the form of rivals, who, more or less, serve as boss fights. It’s utterly wild that you can still expect to go through about twenty fights before you even get a sniff of a title fight, but padding it out to make the rivalry mechanic more meaningful makes sense. Sadly, apart from a few lame Twitter exchanges and uneventful cutscenes, these rivalries lack the vim that makes the real thing such essential viewing. The groundwork for a more immersive mechanic in the inevitable follow-up has been laid, however, so perhaps in UFC 4 we’ll have some fighters do some voice acting and more player choice to really flesh out what could prove to be a big selling point for the series.
The overall objective of career is to become the G.O.A.T, which boils down to capturing the title in your division and then ticking off a checklist of most wins, submissions, and so on. It isn’t particularly amazing or even that worthwhile, but it gives some added playability once the hunt for the gold (most players’ goal) is over. Too often do career modes just die a death in immersion once you’ve reached the zenith, so it’s good that there’s a reason to keep playing here.
Away from career mode, most people’s attention will be drawn towards Ultimate Team. A pretty heavy disclaimer: I am not at all a fan of this mode in any EA Sports game. It’s a grind based entirely on luck that can heavily work against those who don’t put in the hours or their card details, so I spent very little time with it in UFC 3. Through the couple of hours I played, I was overwhelmed by the amount of different cards, packs, buffs, modifiers and so on; I found it to be completely unapproachable. Your mileage may vary, especially if you’ve tried UT in the past.
UFC 3 will likely appeal to fans of the series, though it’s highly unlikely to blow anyone away. Its improved presentation and deeper career mode will draw you into its violent and breathless world, but insipid submission mechanics and an often unreliable stand-up game may take you out of it.