First published on GameSpot.
Mixed Martial Arts is an incredibly technical sport. In the Octagon, fighters are forced to make multiple decisions and execute difficult physical moves in seconds. But would real-life training in MMA make you better at playing EA Sports UFC 2? I had the opportunity to find out, thanks to a day of intense physical MMA training with a veteran UFC fighter, followed by a hands-on session with EA Sports UFC 2 on PlayStation 4.
First and foremost: I am far from a professional fighter. While I boxed recreationally for the latter half of 2015, my experience with other combat sports is practically non-existent. My MMA training consisted of three sessions, focusing on teaching the fundamentals of striking and grappling. It was a condensed crash-course in the martial art, and it required me to get up and close personal with people I barely knew. Nothing like introducing yourself to someone, tackling them to the ground, pinning their limbs, and choking them out as a means of getting to know them!
By the end of the day I had gained a newfound appreciation of how truly complex the sport is. Matches aren't as straightforward as simply tackling somebody to the ground and punching until the referee intervenes; making such a careless move would leave multiple openings for a skilled fighter to counter and use any exposed body areas to their advantage. Using the knowledge I had gained from punching, kicking, and choking my training partners in the Octagon, I jumped into UFC 2 with gusto.
Training had started with basic striking combos. It was natural, then, that the first few combos I tested in-game consisted of strikes. Closing the distance between myself and my opponent proved tricky, as they consistently danced out of reach with solid footwork, although it was a relatively easier task in-game. With less of an emphasis on exact positioning, the game simply needed me to tap the left analog stick in my preferred direction. Opting for a more aggressive strategy, I bull-rushed my opponent and went on the offensive with a combination of punches and kicks, concentrating particularly on my opponent's leg.
UFC 2 provides you with tools real fighters don't have, with the HUD featuring a body chart which highlighted parts that had sustained damage. With that extraneous information, I could see that my opponent's character was suffering a lot of punishment on the left leg, something which may have been better hidden in a real fight. With that information I honed in on it, and when the leg finally gave way, I went in for a takedown.
I had favoured the grappling section of my MMA training, so maybe that's why I liked the options that opened up once the fight shifted to the ground game. Forcing my opponent to the ground would have opened up many choices in real-life, a lot of which get very technical in MMA. Instead of presenting what could have been a lengthy list of potentially overwhelming terminology for follow-up moves, however, EA Canada's answer to this was to present a few selections which seemed to be based on the context of my grapple position. As a result, I was still given a fair amount of choice without being inundated by with options in the heat of the moment.
My choices resulted in my fighter shifting speedily from a half-guard position to a full mount, and then being rolled into a submissive position, all in quick succession. Watching all the transitions happen one after another in a short time span made me feel fatigued, but my fighter was able to continue them effortlessly like a superhuman with endless pools of stamina. Evidently some liberties had been taken with the speedy mount transitions, but like in real-life, these cannot be defended pre-emptively. Speaking to creative director Brian Hayes provided some insights into the changes made to the ground game after the previous UFC game.
"This has been new not just to us but [to] anybody that's attempted to express jiu-jitsu and wrestling virtually with 3D animated characters," Hayes said. "You could very often be in jiu-jitsu situations where you cannot see 98 percent of your opponent if they're pushing your chin away and you happen to be on your back. Visual feedback is not what you're looking for, you're trying to feel where they are. It's always been a challenging thing to translate something like that into a medium where we can only give the user visual feedback."
In UFC 2, the analog sticks help compensate for this lack of physical feedback. To successfully transition to another position, I needed to quickly use the left analog stick to move in my chosen direction and the right stick to select what transition I would use--both relatively easy actions to execute within a few seconds.
"Now you just have to push the left stick to the left to see your fighter move in that direction and attempt to transition in that direction. You might not succeed in getting to the end point if your opponent does something before you do, but it just is a little bit more intuitive not necessarily from a Brazilian jiu-jitsu sense, but from a video game sense. Many users are used to the idea that you push this stick in a direction to go there. And that's the system we're trying to bring to life," Hayes explained.
But I wasn't quite yet victorious. With a personal preference for victories via submission, I went in for an armbar, which triggered a mini-game. To prevent my opponent from breaking free, I needed to defend against attempts to shake me off his character, facilitated by him pressing the analog stick in one of four chosen directions. And to stop him from escaping my hold, I needed to do the same just after he did, lest he break out. Despite my best efforts, the mini-game's timings proved too difficult and my opponent broke free, much to my displeasure. Still, while the day's real-life training had touched upon submissions, I had not executed anything more technical than a choke, so perhaps the mini-game was an accurate depiction of the level of mastery an armbar submission requires.
A submission is not easy to execute, in real-life or in-game.
For all the options presented in the ground game, however, I was slightly disappointed by the lack of options when fighters were pushed up against the cage wall. While the wall game gets less attention in MMA, it still contains some interesting techniques which make use of the environment, something I saw little of in-game during my play session.
While the real-life MMA training was helpful in teaching advantageous techniques to employ in certain positions and gave me better insight into the ground game portion of UFC 2, the advantage did not feel significant. Mastery of the game is better achieved through practice, which I hope to get a lot of when the game launches on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on March 15.