Right off the bat, EA Sports UFC 3 screams one thing from the rooftops: Conor McGregor, the brash Irishman who has become an irresistible media force, is this year’s cover star. His lantern jaw and clipped beard are everywhere you look, right down to an introductory training fight against interim lightweight champ Tony Ferguson; a training demo of sorts that serves as a chance to get to know the new controls (more on them later) at the expense of Ferguson’s skull. Quite what Ferguson is going to make of being pummeled by millions of UFC players the world-over – all at the hands of an eerily lifelike approximation of one of his biggest rivals no less – is up for debate. But it’s clear who the UFC would favor if that match up ever did come to pass.
McGregor’s ascent has been nothing short of joyous, and he’s a big reason mixed martial arts is a global force today. In many ways he legitimizest what is, deep down, a dangerous and fringe pursuit. All those Conan and Jimmy Fallon appearances have helped brush that issue under the carpet. But the good news is that not only is UFC 3 an appropriately kinetic and violent expression of the sport, it’s a much better game than UFC 2 before it. In the latter, fighters fought like identical chess pieces you moved forward a block at a time, steadied, then got to work. The left thumb stuck could control precisely where that punch or kick went, but it came at the expense of actually moving. The net result was something resembling a turn-based game of Tank.
UFC 3 has learned some harsh lessons and fighters are more fleet-of-feet now, quite capable of throwing kicks and punches while dancing around the octagon. Cleverly, the right stick is mapped to head movement, so you can now rock back, watch a shot brush the tip of your nose, and counter with devastating efficiency – à la Mr McGregor. Punches are still mapped to the X and Y buttons and kicks are still executed with B and A, but bumpers and triggers vary the output. Some moves, like the jumping knee, require a bumper, a trigger and a button to be depressed as one. The upshot? You’re going spend a fair chunk of time reading through the extensive moves list – a Mortal Kombat-esque breakdown of bone-breaking combinations unique to each fighter. But for the first time, a UFC game actually delivers the Mortal Kombat moreishness to warrant this preparation.
One of UFC 2’s sins is that it felt tame. Fighters had iron jaws. If they went down they would pop up as if nothing had happened. Yet, if you’ve ever watched a real UFC fight, you’ll know that that the elixir is all in the unknown. The entire spectacle is pitched on a precarious knife edge. I’ve seen fighters school their opponent for fourteen minutes only to make one mistake and wake up on the canvas. UFC 3, though still not unpredictable enough for my liking, is far more willing to pull the trigger on a flash knockout, especially if you time a leg kick against the dome of your opponent. Other things, like the speed at which the game loads, and the actual framerate during the spectacle proper, have seen a tremendous amount of work. UFC 3 plays like butter. UFC 2, which I booted up the other day for the first time in two years, plays like you’re wading through a Louisiana swamp.
One thing that hasn’t changed – at least not drastically – is the minigame you initiate any time you initiate or fend off a submission. So many people found fault with the system in UFC 2 that I’m surprised it hasn’t seen an overhaul, though it has received a small facelift that makes it easier to pick up on the screen. Instead of tinkering with it, EA has created a “simple submission” alternative you can tick any time you enter the octagon offline. Here, you simply mash A to attack or defend. Depending on how good you are at mashing, the AI will randomly decide whether your rock is meeting another man’s scissors head on. And vice versa. I don’t like button mashing, but I do quite enjoy the full-bodied submission system, and I tend to think it works just fine. It’s challenging, yes, but it makes the reward for sinking in a kimura or guillotine choke all the sweeter.
Chances are you’re going to get good mileage with UFC 3. The career mode lets you embark on a fledgling mixed martial arts journey with the lofty goal of becoming the greatest of all time. It’s an enjoyable if repetitive diversion, mostly memorable for the way it knowingly brings to life the Twitch-streamed, hyper social nut house of a world we live. Online, Ultimate Team scratches the itch for pack openings and dangles the dubious carrot of micro-transactions under the collective nose. Online quick fights, ranked championships, live events, a Knockout Mode, submission and striking exhibitions and a Create A Fighter mode round out what is a substantial package.
2018 is a good year then, though not a home run. Perhaps my expectations are unrealistic, but the better the UFC video game becomess the more small wrinkles are going to stick out. This year, it’s too hard to initiate ground and pound on an opponent you’ve dazed and dropped to their feet. There’s an inexorable moment where time seems to slow and you and your bloodied victim look at one another – you standing tall and proud, your bested foe legs akimbo and eyes wide – and nothing happens, no matter how many buttons you bash. And finally, when something does happen, it’s your opponent standing back to his feet, your opportunity lost.
But the biggest issue of all? In a fantasy sport, where the closest most of us will get to the octagon is staring slack-jawed at our screen, EA Sports UFC 3 falls agonizingly short of properly recreating the real thing. Conor McGregor doesn’t feel like Conor McGregor, even if the face and beard and lantern jaw are spot on. Where’s the signature wide karate stance? The arms splayed like a gorilla? It’s no good recreating the Vince McMahon walk-off celebration if you’re not going to mimic the fighting art. Many of the greatest combatants in the sport can be identified by their silhouette, yet what we’re left with is a roster of distinct digital faces rather than a roster of distinct digital fighting styles. Sure, there have been great strides forward in this regard, but every sports video game is judged on whether it puts you in the thick of the action, and I still don’t truly feel like I’m inhabiting the bodies of my favorite fighters. Instead, we get an A star for effort, rather than A star for outcome. In fighter’s terms, that’s spirited Forrest Griffin, not ultra cool Anderson Silva. Plucky Urijah Faber, not inimitable Dominick Cruz. Journeyman Cole Miller. And for all the promotional hype, not quite Conor McGregor.
This review is based on the Xbox One X version of the game, which was provided to us by Electronic Arts.
After the disappointing UFC 2, this new entry is a significant and welcome step forward. It's not perfect, but in this form, the future's bright.