I’m estimating there are around 208 different punches and kicks you can throw‘ – John Kelly plays EA Sports UFC 2 but yearns for QWOP’s accessibility

A couple of days before UFC 196, I got a phone call from my ma, asking me what I thought of Conor McGregor’s chances against Nate Diaz. That’s when I knew that (in Ireland at least) UFC had gone proper mainstream. When something has landed on the radar of my mother who is in her 70s, it’s safe to call it ‘proper mainstream’. EA Sports’ original 2014 attempt at a UFC game landed just as the sport was making this transition into the mainstream and the game felt very much like a first draft that needed a lot of refinement. In my review of that game, I said I had no doubt that the next iteration of the game would be much better because I thought they’d pull an Assassin’s Creed 2, with the second game working out the kinks and building on the promise of the first.

Unfortunately, they haven’t.

Okay, let’s be generous and start with the positives. In terms of presentation, this game does a much better job of giving a holistic UFC experience. The first EA Sports UFC relied heavily on full motion video to recreate the experience of watching a UFC event. So before a fight, you’d get short press kit videos of fighters chatting about their UFC experience or Dana White speaking generic platitudes about the sport. This probably seemed like a great idea at the time, but it only served to highlight the disconnect between what they were trying to achieve and what the programmers could come up with. Side-by-side with the real fighters, it’s hard not to see the character models in the game as anything but dead-eyed meat-puppets. In EA Sports UFC 2, they’ve replaced these full-motion video sequences with scenes competently rendered in-game, making the whole thing feel a lot more cohesive. So when you see Dana White in the game, it makes more sense, although rendering baldy stocky white men is basically this game’s bread and butter.

And the game’s “live events” function is a terrific way to get a player engaged with the broader UFC brand. In this mode, you can see what real-life UFC events are coming up and predict who’s going to win in the various fights in the event. Correct predictions win you in-game points you can spend in the “Ultimate Team” section of the game. For bonus points, you can predict how they’re going to win and when. E.g. First round via rear naked choke. For super extra bonus points, you can play that match-up as a fight in the game and try to win in the exact way you’re predicting. This is a really great feature and a great way to extend beyond just the game.

Okay, that’s the good stuff out of the way. So let’s talk about the actual fighting.

You’ve probably played Bennett Foddy’s QWOP already, right?. It was a free flash game where you press keys to make a ragdoll figure run down a track. That was the entire game: make your guy run and not fall over. Except instead of furiously waggling a joystick like you did in Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, you use four different keys of your keyboard (the Q, W, O and P of the game’s title) to move different parts of the runner’s legs. By giving this activity a ridiculously convoluted button-based control scheme, it suddenly became the most difficult thing in the world. And because of the ragdoll physics, QWOP is also charming and hilarious (someone even cosplayed as almost every game of QWOP ever and it’s just lovely).

Now let’s look at the controls of EA Sports UFC 2, for comparison. You’ve got the four face-buttons of your controller mapping to your fighter’s four limbs. But you can press extra buttons on your controller to ‘modify’ these attacks. For example, you press L1 to change the default punches and kicks to ‘advanced’ versions. And you press L2 to target the body, rather than the head. Combine these two and you’ll do an advanced strike to the body. With me so far? Then you can move the joystick while you’re hitting and you’ll do a modified version of that strike. For example if you pull back on the stick and press a punch button, you’ll do an uppercut. And you can combine all of these – press L1, L2, press forward on the stick and press a punch button to perform… I’m sure there’s a name for this type of punch but I don’t know what it is. From a quick back-of-an-envelope calculation, I’m estimating there are around 208 different punches and kicks you can throw. No shit, TWO HUNDRED AND EIGHT. And this doesn’t even count the blocking (high and low), parrying (again, high and low) and feinting. All of which makes QWOP’s four-button control scheme look positively babyish by comparison. It’s the same complexity that put me right off the first EA Sports UFC, and they’ve done nothing to improve things here.

This is the first and biggest problem with the game. On a more nit-picky level, there’s the movement of the fighters in the game.

See, one of the things that makes MMA so interesting as a sport is that each fight is different because each fighter is different. There’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ fight. You might have a brawler squaring off against a wrestler. These fighters will move differently, they’ll carry themselves differently. Look at the recent fight between Demetrious Jackson and Henry Cejudo. Jackson comes from a Muy Thai background and was constantly bouncing around the ring. Always moving, popping shots whenever he could. Cejudo, who is trained in freestyle wrestling, spent most of the fight coiled in the centre, waiting to take the fight to the mat. This is what make MMA so much fun, the different styles squaring off against each other is what make the fights exciting. It’s not just seeing who can take the most hits.

Now, EA have clearly put a lot of time and effort into modelling each of the game’s 250 fighters so they’re pixel-perfect representations of the real thing. But when the fighting starts, all that attention to individual detail goes out the window because it feels like every fighter in EA Sports UFC 2 moves at the exact same speed. They lumpenly circle each other as they move around the arena. Recreate the Jackon/Cejudo fight in the game and you’ll see what I mean. In reality, both fighters are distinct, having unique skill-sets and movements. In the game, they both move at the same speed, flat footedly fighting with the same movements. The dynamism of the actual fight is nowhere to be found. And as if to emphasise this shortcoming – in a completely bizarre moment of self-un-awareness, the game also includes Bruce Lee (?) and Mike Tyson (?!) as downloadable content. These are two fighters whose physique, technique and philosophy as fighters couldn’t be more different, but put them in the ring together in this game and they’re almost the exact same. It’s not just disappointingly simplistic, it’s also plain ugly to watch.

If the stand-up fighting in this game is a poor representation of the real thing, then its depiction of the clinch and the ground game are just short of tragic. They were the worst part of the last game, and EA have at least attempted to fix this problem by introducing a reworked system. But they’re still massively wide of the mark. EA’s new solution has been to drop in what is essentially a quicktime event where you have to push the sticks in the direction the game tells you so that you can transition from one animation to the next. There’s no fluidity to the movements you’re doing. Your autonomy as a player is completely taken away from you. It’s a clockwork series of movements that don’t even look convincing on-screen. I genuinely hated these parts of the game and avoided them any chance I got.

If you’re coming to this having never played a UFC game before, there are a few options of where to start with EA Sports UFC 2. As well as the “live events” feature, there’s the vanilla fighting mode (which, as a new player, you’re going to lose, a lot). Pick a fighter, pick their opponent, have a one-off match. There’s the “Ultimate Team” mode, which EA have brought over from their other sports franchises where you build a team of fighters, give them ‘skill cards’, which you get by either winning fights (you won’t win) or just straight-up buying as microtransactions. And then there’s the “Career” mode, which is presented like a season of the UFC TV show, The Ultimate Fighter, where you create a fighter and compete in a series of matches to eventually win your fighter a contract with the UFC. In between the fights (assuming you win), you have to train your fighter by performing a series of quicktime events that are supposed to improve your skills. But the explanations of what you’re supposed to be doing in these training exercises are so badly written that you’re essentially, performing these quicktime events without any context, so they’re next to impossible. So what options do you have as a new player?

You can play the training fights, I suppose, where you can tell your opponent to just take your punches, or to do simple defence, or to fight back. And this is where you put in the hours to get you ready to try the other modes. But at this stage, it doesn’t feel like fun. It feels like work.

Look, there are people out there who have gotten so good at QWOP they can actually speed-run it, so I have no doubt there are going to be people who devote a lot of time and energy into mastering all this game’s awful mechanics and will get real pissy with me for being a stupid noob and not giving this the time they think it deserves. But it just didn’t feel like the fighting in this game was worth sinking my time into getting any better at it. And that’s the real pity of this game – now that the UFC has become proper mainstream, the best that new players have got is a game that essentially locks off most of its content until they’ve spent hours mastering its nuances and complexities. Games like Dark Souls have reputations for being unforgiving to newcomers, but compared to EA Sports UFC 2, they roll out the welcome mat.

Maybe the next one will get it right.