Preview

EA Sports MMA

Just for kicks

I still have my doubts about the roster, but those are temporarily forgotten as I look at the unit EA Tiburon have set up to demonstrate their upcoming sweaty-wrestle-em-up MMA: battering each other on-screen are Brett Rogers and Fedor Emelianenko, two well-known fighters currently signed to the Strikeforce league. EA have definitely put Emelianenko on the screen for a reason - he's managed to batter his fair share of UFC champions over the years.

The elephant in the room is obviously THQ's UFC 2009: Undisputed. It's got the money-making UFC license, after all, which gives it the immense franchise power of fighting man-mountains Brock Lesnar (no doubt loving the Bud Lite's), George St Pierre, Anderson Silva and Mirko Cro Cop, amongst others. The eminent new franchise has the luxury of a well-received title already on the market - self-proclaimed pacifist Richard Walker gave UFC 2009 a solid 80% back in May, declaring it a "undeniably faithful realisation of visceral, ferocious face punching" - and the satisfaction of said title having proved quite a hit in the charts. Last but not least, it's got UFC President Dana White's full support, and he's a man so intense it wouldn't surprise me if he could start fires with his mind. Whatever way you approach it, Strikeforce - recently confirmed as EA's premier league in MMA - doesn't have the recognition, or the fans, of the UFC.

Surely the team at EA Tiburon - now the underdog, after years of being the undisputed head honcho of American Football with the Madden series - are a little nervous? When I ask development director Charles "Nick" Laing about it, who is sitting next to an enormous pile of MMA magazines, he cracks a smile, "we thrive on that sort of stuff", he says. And fellow designer Hedrick "Rocky" Rivero chimes in, declaring that EA Tiburon is "fighting to win."

They've got plenty of reasons to be confident. For a start, the graphics of the game are phenomenal. Yes, graphics don't make the game, and so on and so on, but when a room full of cranky games journalists gasp in unison at the game's aesthetic splendour it's very hard not to be bowled over. The animations, in particular, dazzle with the same kind of authenticity as Fight Night Round 04 - no surprises there, as MMA runs on a (heavily, it's emphasised) modified version of its engine. UFC 2009 was by no means an ugly game, but the quality of the animations in MMA simply put it to shame: Nick and Rocky cheekily stop their demonstration to remind us that the game is running in real-time. One of the reasons it all looks so good, I'm told, is because there's no canned attack loops in MMA, so fighters move and react in real-time - which will also have a significant effect on the gameplay. It all looks and sounds very impressive.

Being locked out of the UFC seems to have forced EA Tiberon to think creatively. MMA is presented as a worldwide fighting game, showcasing leagues, rings and (presumably) top-tier fighting talent outside of America. I'm told how the UFC's trademarked Octagon ring is actually, when you stop and think about it, bad for gameplay, as it restricts all fights to a single ring. MMA, on the other hand, lets players experience all shapes, sizes, colours and backgrounds - Rocky gives Japan's Fuji Dome as a key example, and says how it regularly attracts 60,000 MMA-mental fans. There's a whole world of MMA outside of the UFC, basically.

But, still - that UFC lot are all pretty impressive, aren't they? And without the talent of the UFC on their side, EA Tiburon have been forced to focus on the fighters they can sign, some of whom will inevitably be unfamiliar to the casual MMA fan. Like me. But EA have gone to great lengths to realistically animate the fighters based on their actual gestures and styles: in the demo Fedor bounces around with his familiar springy step, throwing out quick, devastating punches and displaying the kind of agility you'd think impossible for a man weighing 233lb. Rogers keeps himself more relaxed, his feet firmly on the ground, and swings his fists in a more casual fashion, but still managing to hit Fedor's core with what looks like rib-shattering force. That the engine allows for this kind of expressive minutiae is certainly impressive.

Making the experience both personal and world-aware is certainly a nice way of spinning the game. It's clearly been approached with some thought, and from what I can see it's being handled with inimitable tact. Grabbing onto the world scene also gives EA the option to take it to market as a complimentary product to the imminent (but presently unseen) UFC 2010. Clever, no?

Still, nobody is actually allowed to play. Whilst the punches and kicks all look suitably punchy and kicky, it's clear the fighting engine isn't properly finished yet. News that we were only going to be shown a hint of the ground game was also particularly disappointing, as so much of the sport revolves around it. Without a chance to get my hands on a controller it's impossible to gauge the feel of the punches, how the fighter's tiny aesthetic quirks feel to control, or whether the sensation of the mighty blows is adequately conveyed in your hands. The moments that have been chopped and chosen to display in public are certainly impressive, but they would be, wouldn't they?

It's also very clean - too clean. Blood and injury are features yet to be included, and after a couple of minutes the faces are too ship-shape and the floor of the ring too squeaky clean to adequately represent MMA. This will, I'm told, come in due course. We're still looking at alpha code, so it's not like EA have to rush it. Yet.

Then there's the matter of the online. It's a key focus of the development, they say, and Rocky is quick to pick up on UFC 2009's many online faults - he looks as perplexed as any of its many players when talking about how THQ allowed quirky netcode and gave losing players the ability to quit out without punishment. To compare, MMA will actually work online. Ouch, THQ.

There's still a lot to do, then. It might currently be coming up short on any meaty, substantial content, and announcements about the roster are still a bit thin on the ground, but when Nick and Rocky sit down to play there's a look of pure devotion and adulation etched across their faces. Whether or not it can compete with THQ's brawler is yet to be concluded, but it's abundantly clear EA are refusing to let themselves get knocked out in the first round.

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