Published on August 21st, 2020 | by Paul Stuart
UFC 4 PS4 Review
Summary: Another solid version of EA's UFC, a series still struggling with an identity crisis.
It's (the Fourth) Time!
Despite its seemingly best intentions, EA’s UFC has a serious identity crisis. Now on its fourth iteration, the series wafts back and forth with embracing either an arcade or simulation orientation…or an awkward combination of the two. And here we are again.
This identity crisis, however, makes a lot of sense. UFC as a sport and its accompanying audience is near-constantly evolving. There is no doubting MMA more mainstream than it’s ever been, also a current preference for striking versus BJJ amongst its fighters. Related, the surge in popularity of female UFC athletes (notably standup centric ones) brought with them even more new fans and changed expectations. The UFC videogame series simply and rightly adjusted to these nuances via altering gameplay and mode choices.
Moreover, EA’s UFC is the rarest console title that provides highest level backend support throughout an iteration lifecycle. The game is constantly updated literally to the day…and for years at a time. In tandem, its development team works quite hard to locate and then remove any/all bugs as they arise. For those truly committed to the series, there’s potentially hundreds of hours of gameplay at your disposal…and for years to come.
Despite this TLC, UFC 4 continues its trend of trying to do too much for too many people and ends up somewhat alienating both hardcore and casual fans alike in the process. For instance: UFC 4 places highest premium on three new arcade, striking-centric modes (standup, knockout and online blitz, respectively), but they reside in still a very complicated engine with arguably the least intuitive sports game control scheme on the planet.
Echoing the above, the EA UFC engine is overly ambitious for the right reasons (it literally wants to capture every available boxing, kickboxing, wrestling and BJJ move…and fighter roster uniqueness), but in doing so makes it a chore to capably fight. I offer this not as a couch potato rather someone with over a decade of Muay Thai experience and across the world. To explain, UFC 4 relies on shoulder button modifiers to execute its holistic move set (e.g. hold L2, R1 and a face button for a modified front strike). Similarly, the same shoulder button is used for low blocking (when combined with yet another shoulder button)…and becomes either a knee or takedown modifier when…combined with a specific face button. Insult to injury is the too often press and execute, staccato delay between moves.
Clinch work and grappling were supposedly simplified (if desired) in UFC 4, but it’s like putting training wheels on a MotoGP bike. Yes, fewer analog movements are required (as UFC 4’s clinch/grapple now more physics versus button based)…but this simplification still requires enormous amounts of MMA acumen plus are on broken autopilot (due to scripted moves stemming from what should be auto-assist). Submission, however, is a different story. I’m a big fan of the now easy-to-follow cat and mouse, cursor-based interface. This is a vast improvement over the analog stick heavy versions, transitions sans cues from UFC 3.
The biggest frustration lies in the frustration: there is seemingly no excuse why UFC controls are still a work in progress…four versions later. An alternative? Borrowing from NBA 2K – move all strikes to the right analog stick + a button for modifiers. Yes, it will limit available moves at one’s disposal, at a given point in time. But actual fighters have actual preferences, and UFC should arguably force play style in the interest of playability. (Once more, NBA 2K does this based on player position/type.) Sure, this lack of total freedom may tick off some players. But the rewards are worth the risk. There’s a reason why Fight Night remains the most beloved fighting series of all time. It was both easy to play and featured a deep engine, nonetheless.
Flipping the script, big kudos to UFC 4 for its amazingly complete overhaul of the Career mode fighter leveling up system. Career mode upgrades are now primarily achieved via in ring executes. Do a move/technique often and well (in sparring/fights), and they’re automatically updated. Yes, player upgrades are still purchasable via earned skill points. But the majority of a created fighter’s strengths are derived from actual in game fighting. A very cool moment was when my kickboxer naturally developed and leveled up BJJ acumen after being forced to the ground so many times (as computer AI sought to disrupt preferred play style). Adapt or die, friends.
Another important nuance: this new level up system effectively eliminates microtransaction cash grabs. EA likewise surprisingly removed Ultimate Team Mode from UFC, yet another surprising decision and loss of supplemental game revenue. I dig it.
What I don’t dig are the still abhorrent Career mode menus. Navigating these menus for the purposes of upgrades and/or customization remains a beast. These remind me of the equally confounding Witcher 3 ones, where what should be fun customization experience instead devolves into a GUI chore.
Outside of Career, UFC 4’s new player modes speak to aforementioned emphases on striking. The Mortal Kombat inspired underground martial arts (snake themed) arcade knockout mode is a nice respite from the button jambalaya of main modes. It is, however, a bit thin (as there no stamina meter), best suited for battling a buddy. Similarly, the standup-only, outdoor cage mode is a nice break from being forced into the ground game (if that not your preference). Although rounds in this mode are very long (at 5-minutes) and get dull quickly sans half of MMA’s move set to fill the time. Finally, online blitz is more button mashing (again, no stamina meter) in timed, tournament fashion. (Been there, done it, no real desire to go back.) This seems meant for kids, if I was to venture a guess.
Presentation-wise, UFC 4 is perhaps a step back from UFC 3 in visuals. It doesn’t maximize HDR capability, with player models lacking human quality…and seem almost like wax museum statues. Blood/bruising effects are executed well, as are stagger displays (when screens go red or otherwise indicating a near knockout and/or serious body area damage). Commentary, sound effects and overall presentation remain a highest point of the series. UFC aficionados will love the authenticity.
Gameplay wise – and in main, non- arcade modes – UFC 4 does a very impressive job in rewarding for patience. Stamina meters will drain quick and permanently for attempting too many strikes and too similar in nature. Related, the game is outstanding at maximizing counter-striking and openings for big hit moments. For veterans of the series and/or real-life MMA athletes, these are done extraordinarily well in UFC 4. The same can be said of a much better executed head bob system…albeit one which drains stamina too quickly. Moreover, blocking mechanics can be a bit better, with too much emphasis on parry versus defensive posture. On-the-ground transitions are a bit improved, with better ground feel versus UFC 3. This feel gets hampered by an often-inaccurate move wheel (where player selections don’t intelligently match fighter actions). I’m confident these will get tweaked in future updates, as will overpowerful crescent style kicks and clinch work.
UFC 4 is 1.5 steps forward…1 step back from UFC 3. The series’ over-emphasis on realism but also widest playability remains an awkward marriage. Still, it’s also one of the deepest sports titles available, and a great homage to the MMA genre.