Mixed martial arts is one of the few sports that has continued despite COVID-19 concerns, with UFC president Dana White insisting on holding fights during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. UFC’s most elaborately conceived event yet, UFC 251, is set to begin hours from now on Saturday night. Well, technically, it’ll take place Sunday morning, since it’s being held on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates — which UFC has rebranded “Fight Island.” (No, the organization didn’t go with John Oliver’s suggestion of “UF-Sea,” but that did lead to a fun back-and-forth between the Last Week Tonight host and White.)
UFC chose Yas Island because the organization needed a venue outside the U.S., since some countries have travel restrictions in place to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The pandemic has also upended UFC 251’s fight card itself: The main event will now pit UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman against rival Jorge Masvidal, who stepped in when Gilbert Burns tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
As unfortunate as that development was for Burns and his fans, the news couldn’t have been better for video game publisher Electronic Arts, which happens to be putting Masvidal on the cover of EA Sports UFC 4 alongside Israel Adesanya. The game is coming to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on Aug. 14, which is less than five weeks away. Two other fighters are pre-order bonuses, except they’re boxers instead of MMA stars: Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury. Martial artist Bruce Lee will also be available, returning from EA Sports UFC 3.
Before you ask: No, there’s no word yet on PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X versions of the game. “We are exploring opportunities on Gen 5, but nothing to share right now,” said Nate McDonald, a producer on UFC 4 at developer EA Vancouver, referring to the next generation of consoles during a media briefing earlier this week.
Asked about playing the game on next-gen consoles via backward compatibility, Brian Hayes, the game’s creative director, said in a statement to Polygon that “presumably, fans will be able to play UFC 4 on their Gen 5 consoles,” as long as both the PS5 and Xbox Series X offer the feature. But he noted, “We haven’t yet had an opportunity to test this out and determine whether any additional development work is required to leverage Backward Compatibility.” The statement is strange, considering that the box art for the Xbox One version claims the game will be playable across both Xbox One and Xbox Series X via Smart Delivery.
UFC 4 gameplay improvements
Hayes and McDonald spent the rest of their presentation outlining the development team’s vision for UFC 4: a game that looks and feels more like real-life UFC action in the octagon, while taking more liberties outside of it. They said their overarching goal is to broaden the series’ appeal by making UFC 4 more accessible — a welcome change for the franchise, since we described 2018’s EA Sports UFC 3 in our review as “probably the least pick-up-and-play game in the sports genre.”
Both McDonald and Hayes have been working on the EA Sports UFC series since the beginning, and their approach used to be inspired primarily by EA Sports’ famous, long-running tagline, “It’s in the game.” Hayes told Polygon, “We were always consistently going down [the path of] ‘how can we add more sim, more realism?’” This time around, they’re still focusing on delivering an authentic MMA gameplay experience in UFC 4, but “the broader game has kind of taken a bit of a pivot” away from the real-life UFC, according to Hayes.
Much of the team’s new philosophy is driven by feedback from fans and critics. One of the main complaints with the previous games is that their control schemes were too complicated, especially for elements like submissions and grappling. In UFC 4, you simply tap buttons for quick, basic strikes and hold them for longer, more damaging (and/or more flashy) attacks. Buttons are also used for entering the clinch and attempting takedowns, instead of the analog sticks. “It is a lot easier on your fingers,” said Hayes.
EA Vancouver has integrated the company’s Real Player Motion technology into UFC 4 for takedowns and clinch situations, which should increase the fluidity of animations for transitions and other movements. And if you were frustrated by missing the timing for blocking takedown attempts, the animation changes should also help in that area, because there are new movement-based ways to defend against or escape from takedowns.
On the grappling front, the developers have added what Hayes referred to as “grappling controls for the rest of us.” The new left-stick scheme is simple: Push up to get up, left to start a submission, and right to mount your opponent and start pounding away. The complicated positional transitions of old are still available for hardcore series veterans, and there’s an in-between setting, “Hybrid,” that shows you which legacy controls apply to which left-stick move you’re doing — it’s a way to learn the transition controls.
Submissions no longer rely on moving “break walls” with the right stick, as in UFC 3. There are two new submission minigames in UFC 4 that have you chase your opponent around the interface by using the triggers and sticks. The mechanics will be familiar to people who have played other wrestling and MMA games, and they’re “a lot less complicated to explain to your friend on the couch,” said Hayes.
Career changes and other UFC 4 modes
Along with player feedback, EA Vancouver relies on telemetry data that indicates how people actually played the previous entries in the EA Sports UFC franchise. It turned out that the career mode was easily the most popular mode, and that people strongly favored using created fighters rather than the real athletes on the roster. To that end, UFC 4 will take players straight into the career mode; it’s designed as an onboarding experience, with an opening sequence of four amateur fights that introduce players to boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, and jiujitsu.
After that, UFC 4’s career mode will play out similarly to that of UFC 3, which was all about becoming the G.O.A.T. (the “greatest of all time”). We noted in our UFC 3 review that the career structure quickly became a repetitive grind, but perhaps the additions and updates will liven up the experience in UFC 4. Training is still a key component, but instead of playing minigames, you earn points to upgrade attributes, and you improve your skills just by sparring and fighting — the more you use a move, the better it gets. You can now choose to accept or decline fights, which will have consequences for your career development and your rivalries. And there’s now a full World Fighting Alliance minor league, where you can keep fighting for as long as you want before graduating to the UFC level.
Since many people will play the career mode with a custom character, EA Vancouver has greatly expanded the customization options available when you’re creating a fighter. In addition to increased variability in body types and hair, the accessories now include all kinds of outlandish items like crowns, animal heads, and luchador masks; in addition, the tattoo creator is deeper than before. The goal, according to Hayes and McDonald, is to give players much more freedom in character design, so they’re not limited to the kinds of apparel you’d see real-life UFC fighters wear.
It’s also worth noting that the customization items for created fighters are all cosmetic; they won’t affect gameplay. UFC 4 will offer microtransactions in the form of a premium currency that can be used to buy those items, but all of them can be unlocked by playing the game. And EA is trying to avoid any hint of the microtransaction kerfuffle around UFC 3 — that game’s Ultimate Team mode isn’t returning for UFC 4.
EA Vancouver’s strategy of removing realism-based restrictions in UFC 4 extends to setting up fights. Offline exhibition matches have open weight classes, so you can create a bantamweight fighter and put them in the octagon against a light heavyweight. The game will scale everything accordingly to keep the fight fair.
“As a video game, we have the ability to do things that you can’t do in real life,” said Hayes. It seems to fit with the modern sports gaming philosophy of keeping the gameplay on the simulation side while being less restrictive elsewhere.