EA Sports MMA makes a terrible first impression, especially if you've been playing THQ's UFC Undisputed series. MMA has a control scheme that, at first, seems too simple. It's also a timing-based game that discourages button mashing in favor of more careful play... but it doesn't do a very good job of teaching you how to time your moves. This leads to a few hours of frustration and confusion, but once you get over the hump, EA Sports MMA has some real depth to it, and the fighting feels more like the real thing than the games that have come before it. It also has some interesting online options that, if there are enough people playing on a regular basis, could make for some very cool tournaments.
The fighting system is deceptively simple, employing a universal control scheme that behaves similarly whether you're standing up, on the ground, on top of a guy, or in the standing clinch. It's based around using specific buttons to either improve or get out of your current position. When your opponent tries to posture up, it's on you to deny that with another button press. Submissions are also done via one button, though this quickly engages one of two different minigames, depending on whether it's a limb-based submission or a choke. Strikes are handled with the right analog stick, as in EA's Fight Night series, with triggers used as modifiers for body punches or kicks.
EA Sports MMA doesn't necessarily have the fighters that you'd want to see in an MMA game. Because many of those fighters appear in UFC. Instead, EA has gone out and licensed a bunch of individual fighters, as well as Strikeforce, a competing organization. If the first thing you want out of an MMA game is the biggest names in the sport, you might be a little underwhelmed. But EA's game is not without its stars, including guys like Randy Couture, Fedor Emelianenko, and fighting stalwarts like Ken Shamrock, Bob Sapp, and Bas Rutten, who also serves as your head trainer in the game's career mode. Personally, I found the most satisfaction by using the game's fighter creation options, which uses the same "Game Face" option found in Fight Night Round 4, allowing you to use two photos of yourself (or anyone else who happens to stumble in front of your camera) to generate your face. There's also a fighter share option that lets you download other created fighters, provided you enter the code that is packed-in with all new copies of the game. Predictably, the top downloads are currently filled with created versions of real-life UFC fighters like Brock Lesnar, Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva, Frank Mir, and so on.
Those created fighters also figure into the game's career mode, where you'll build up their stats via a series of training exercises. Unlike some other boxing or MMA career modes, this one lets you simulate the game's training minigames with no penalty once you've completed them once. This helps keep the career mode moving as you work your way up through three leagues. You'll also add up to 16 special moves to your fighter via training, letting you tailor your fighter's submission moves or add a Superman punch, spinning backfist, front kicks, and other offensive and defensive maneuvers. The career mode is pretty straightforward, but it at least gives you some sort of progression if you're going to play by yourself. Also, the training minigames are the game's real tutorial, teaching you combos and the basics of getting your submissions cinched in. There's an "MMA 101" option available on the main menu that attempts to be a tutorial, but it's lame. It's too bad the game isn't better about revealing itself to new players, as the learning curve is, in some spots, needlessly high.
Of course, all of this builds up to taking on real, live opposition. Naturally, you can do this alongside your opponent locally, but the online mode is where the real action is. You'll rank up as you fight and earn the ability to challenge other players for online titles, and if you're just looking to fight your friends, you can set up unranked fight cards that let you assign a human player to each slot. It helps that EA Sports MMA is actually fun to watch, and that once players get good, it starts to more closely resemble actual real-world fights. This also factors into an online live broadcast mode, where selected players get a chance to compete online during a live event, complete with live human commentary from EA. Considering the commentary in the regular game is a little flat and repetitive, hearing actual people talk about the fights and getting to see players' pre-recorded "hype" videos is a pretty cool twist on what would otherwise be a pretty standard mode. Of course, only a handful of players will get selected for the live events, so most of us will probably be relegated to just watching the action. Either way, it's a really neat idea.
EA Sports MMA has great animation. The models don't clip through each other very often, and the movements look believable, like the fighters are constantly struggling for position. This actually makes the game a little harder to pick up, as it's initially tough to tell when your button presses are translating into on-screen action. The controller vibrates when the other fighter is attempting to make a move on you when you're grounded, but you'll have to spend time watching the action to figure out which animations are which when you're trying to move past the guard and into a mounted position. There's a decent amount of ring variety in the game, too, allowing you to fight in octagonal rings, circular arenas, and traditional boxing rings.
If you're willing to put in the time to learn how to actually play it properly, EA Sports MMA becomes a very rewarding experience. When you lose a fight online, you usually know exactly what you need to work on, either in the career mode to get your fighter's stats up or just, you know, as an actual player. With its innovative online features and realistic fight system, EA Tiburon's first attempt at MMA lays down a solid foundation that's worth checking out.