EA Sports UFC

(This review first appeared on thumped.com)

I’m having real trouble trying to figure out who EA Sports UFC has been made for.

Was it made for the hardcore fans of UFC as a sport? I mean, it’s got 97 current fighters all realistically modelled, animated and rendered. Their Conor McGregor even has that God-awful gorilla chest-tattoo he got recently. This means that rather than just using a generic fighting model with a different ‘skin’ for each fighter, each fighter in EA Sports UFC moves and behaves like their real-life counterpart. They have the same strengths and weaknesses (or at least, they’re supposed to – lots of fans have been scratching their heads at some fighters’ stats, some of which seem wildly off-kilter). These are things that will mostly appeal to the hardcore UFC fighting fans, because they’re the only ones that will pick up on them. Plus the game copies the basic control scheme from the previous UFC games, so the hardcore fans who are familiar with THQ’s games will be able to hit the ground running with this game.

Unfortunately, if they’re targeting the hardcore fan, I can’t imagine it being anything but a bit of a disappointment. UFC is a visceral, vicious sport that’s all about cracking heads. But the fighting in the game feels weightless and floaty. Despite the amazing graphics engine, blows never actually feel as if they’re connecting, so a lot of the fights are spent just watching health meters because they’re the only real indication of how you’re doing. Only a few years ago, this same development team introduced a HUD-less fighting game, where you could tell how tired/battered your player was just by looking at them. It’s hard not to see EA Sports UFC as anything but a step back.

And it’s not just the floaty, toothless fighting game that will drive the hardcore fans bananas. The game’s transitions between the various stages of fighting (standing up, in the clinch and on the mat) are painfully disjointed and mechanical with no sense of grace or fluidity. The game is full of canned animations that bring everything to a standstill until the animations have completed. Then there’s also the fact that some of the sport’s more ‘simple’ moves actually require a fairly complex combination of inputs on the joystick, but some of the sport’s more difficult moves are just one or two button-presses. So it’s entirely possible to just spam flying knee kicks and win 90% of your matches (I tested this and won around half of my matches on ‘hard’ difficulty by just spamming the one move over again). In a sport that prioritises technique and finesse, this confusing mess of a control set-up is another of the game’s disappointments.

So maybe the game wasn’t made for the hardcore UFC fan. Maybe it’s there for the more casual fighting fan. People like me, who think that the whole arcade fighting game genre peaked with Rocky on the Gamecube, or maybe Fight Night Round 3 on the Xbox 360. In which case, EA have completely misjudged this game’s introduction. It starts by dropping you into an extended tutorial sequence that attempts to familiarise you with some of the basic controls before finally dumping you into an actual exhibition fight. But considering the sheer number of controls, it’s a bit like saying “Okay, press this button. Great. Press this lever. Great. Now these 200 other buttons. Great. Now fly this plane.” If you haven’t played a UFC game before, you’ll be overwhelmed by the controls and immediately left feeling frustrated as the game kicks your ass and asks if you want a rematch. And when you don’t know what you did wrong in the first place, a rematch is a grim, unappealing option.

The short ‘career’ mode is where the game should open up for newcomers. You choose a fighter (or create one yourself) and take them through the various stages of The Ultimate Fighter, an actual reality TV show where contestants compete for a chance to enter into the UFC. Between fights, you practice the moves you briefly saw in the tutorial, running drills until you can actually use them in some sort of sensible way. Then you fight one-on-one against a computer opponent to progress to the next round. Repeat, repeat until you’ve won your ‘contract’. As a relative newcomer to UFC games, this is where the game finally started to make sense for me. It didn’t make it much more enjoyable – the complaints about the weak-ass fighting system still stand and the opponent AI was underwhelming – but at least I could say I finally started to get my head around what some of the buttons did and when I should use them.

Being able to create my own fighter and bring him through career mode definitely helped with the enjoyment of the game. Rather than creating something sensible, I created a 300-lb man-child called “Dick ‘Jumbo’ Wang” from Bosnia and Herzegovina (the commentators actually use your nickname and surname in fights and having them say stuff like “Jumbo Wang is taking a heck of a beating” never stopped being funny for me), with easily the worst stats in the game.

As well as providing you with just enough customization options to make your fighter look like a mongoloid sex-pest like I did, you can give your fighter some tattoos. There are pages and pages of dragons and tribal patterns (no God-awful gorilla chest-tattoos, disappointingly). In amongst all these is, bizarrely, a “In Memory of Cheryl” tattoo. And because the game lets you spam the shit out of these tattoos, Dick Wang has an “In Memory of Cheryl” tattoo everywhere the game would allow it: on his head, on his back, three times on his chest, twice on each arm and twice on each leg. I have no idea who the fuck Cheryl is, but Dick Wang must really miss her. I guess this says a lot about how easily amused I am, but it also says a lot about the game. The thing that amused me most wasn’t the exhibition fights, it wasn’t the multiplayer and it wasn’t the career mode. It was creating Dick Wang.

In the end, EA Sports UFC doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It doesn’t know who it’s trying to please, so it ends up not really pleasing anyone at all. It’s not engaging enough to be the essential next-gen UFC game the hardcore fans have been waiting for. And it’s so inaccessible for casual fans that they’ll be reduced to putting together hideous monsters in the character creation screen just to extract some entertainment from the game. I’ve no doubt that the next iteration of the game will be much better, but until then, this is definitely one to skip.


Madden NFL 15

(This review first appeared on thumped.com)

When Pete asked if I wanted to review Madden NFL 15, I initially said no. You see, I haven’t played a Madden game since the Megadrive, so I figured I’m in no position to talk about this game because I can’t tell you what makes this game better than the previous fifty-odd iterations. Plus I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched a game of American Football except one time when I was in New York over Thanksgiving and went to a friend’s house and the football came on and all the MEN went into the basement to watch the BIG GAME and I joined them because the idea of a man NOT watching the BIG GAME was kinda making everyone uncomfortable. Basically, I’m nowhere near an expert on this. I probably shouldn’t be reviewing this game.

Besides which, if you’re the kind of person who is likely to buy Madden NFL 15, you’ll probably have bought it already. Likewise, if you’re not interested in either the game or the sport, I doubted anything I could say here would convince you. But Pete is nothing if not insistent, so I got ready to write a review based on the things I did know about, like the politics of the NFL surrounding the recent Ray Rice incident. Or maybe the study by the Wall Street Journal which shows that although an average game of American Football lasts almost three hours, the ball is actually only on the field and in play for 11 minutes. I was going to talk about Friday Night Lights, a TV series about high school football in Texas and how it’s the most criminally underrated show ever made. I was ready to write around the game, rather than about the game. You know, the kind of review a real wanker would write.

But then I actually played the game. And, you know what? It’s actually won me over. I really, really like it.

It took a while to grow on me though. Like most EA Sports games these days, Madden NFL 15 opens by dropping you into the middle of an actual game and expects you to fend for yourself. Since I haven’t touched a Madden game in 20-odd years, I hadn’t a fucking breeze as to what was going on and it demolished me. If I’m being honest, more than any other game in recent memory, these first five minutes in Madden NFL 15 left me feeling a little alienated. It seemed to be a game shouting “THIS IS NOT FOR YOU. GO BACK TO DESERT GOLFING ON YOUR PHONE, YOU LAZY FUCK.” I was ready to throw in the towel and dust off that wanker-review.

But something about the game made me want to persevere and figure it out. Along with Call of Duty, Madden is traditionally regarded as the game that the ‘core’ audience (whatever that means) tend to glom onto. And since I’ve already dabbled with a CoD addiction (300+ glorious, fun-filled hours in Modern Warfare multiplayer), I didn’t want to give up before I at least won my first game.

So I fired up the ‘skills trainer’. This is a series of drills designed to familiarise players with the mechanics of the game, starting with passing and blocking and so on. I guess this is mostly intended for people who are entirely new to the game but it still presumed a level of knowledge that I just didn’t have. To make it worse, the game doesn’t do a great job of actually communicating any information that might be useful to a new player. One of the first drills you run is practicing a lob pass. “Do a lob pass”, it says. Except at no point during these drills does it say how to actually perform a lob pass. So I failed my lob pass. And I failed. And I failed. I had no idea what I was doing wrong and the game seemed completely disinterested in telling me. It was only by chance when I was loading the game that I saw it in one of the random loading screens that flashes up for a couple of seconds at a time: briefly tap the button to do a lob pass, hold the button down to do a ‘bullet’ pass. This was like a eureka moment – once this was figured out, the game unfolded in front of me like a beautiful flower.

You see, I’ve realised that Madden is not the type of game to explain itself or hold your hand. In other games, like EA UFC, the equivalent of Madden’s ‘skills trainer’ is a series of extended quicktime event where even a complete beginner can easily rack up 100% scores and gold medals in no time. Madden NFL 15 is tougher. It’s not just a quicktime event – it’s knowing what to do and when to do it. And, starting out, you’ll fuck up the drills. You’ll fuck them up a LOT. You’ll be forced to restart again and again. And it’s only when you’re into double-digits of retry attempts that you’ll actually scrape a success. You’ll happily take your bronze medal and move onto the next drill. It’s not arcade game. It doesn’t try to compensate for your lack of skill or knowledge. And you know what? I appreciate that. It means that when I actually perform a dead-perfect lob pass, there’s an extra sense of achievement. I fucking earned that pass. And so that means I’m going to make a wild statement that might annoy some people. Okay? Here we go. If you’re like me where you have no interest in American Football and you know nothing about Madden (or have forgotten anything you did know), Madden is sort of like Dark Souls: an impenetrable melange of game mechanics where each tiny advancement feels like a massive success.

There, I said it.

Even for a non-fan like me, there’s a lot to appreciate about this game. I’m pretty impressed with the social integration. The game tracks each player’s stats and decisions in the game and add that to a cumulative database, so when you’re in a particular situation, the game can say “the majority of the community chose this play”. Similarly, players are encouraged to send in their favourite screenshots from the game to be used in the interstitial loading screens. So you’ll see a picture and it will say “submitted by @AssMan1993”. Probably more than any other AAA game in recent memory, Madden NFL 15 prides itself on its community focus. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s listening to its players and involving them in the game. For example, the game shipped with a bug that caused one player to be rendered as 1’2” tall. This glitch was fixed, but the massive viral popularity of the bug caused EA to turn it into an official game mode called “tiny titans”. That’s something I wish more games would take advantage of. The only other game I can think that does anything near as great a job of channeling the community is Dark Souls. Okay, I’ll stop with the Dark Souls comparisons now. 

I said I wanted to play Madden NFL 15 until I won my first game. Well, I’ve done that. I reached the arbitrary goal I set myself for this game. And I think I’m going to keep playing this game. As a sport, American Football is still mostly Greek to me. I don’t know who any of the players are, what any of the positions do, or when to run a particular play. Christ, I even feel like a total fraud for just using the words “run a particular play”. And I’m sure this knowledge would really open up the rest of the game to me – there are entire game modes, like the fantasy football-type thing, that require this outside knowledge. But at this early stage, it’s all incidental shite that doesn’t actually matter. The important thing is that the basic game itself is actually lots of fun. And that’s what’s going to keep me coming back.