EA Sports scores unanimous decision, not a KO, with its first UFC video game

Anthony Pettis (left) kicks Gilbert Melendez -- in video game form.

The brand new EA Sports UFC video game is a whole lot like the old ones.

If you enjoyed the gameplay on the UFC’s THQ games, you’ll really like what EA has done with the franchise. Everything is better, crisper, cleaner and faster, I found out last week during a special sneak peak of the game with creative director Brian Hayes in New York City.

Overall, there aren’t as many features, modes or fighters as previous versions, but this is a very good start by EA Sports for its first foray into the UFC world. The game will be released on next-generation consoles PS4 and Xbox One on June 17.

The button commands are essentially the same as prior games, so I was able to jump right in and put on a serviceable performance right away. But you’ll notice quickly that the movements are far more fluid and lifelike. The physics utilized are really quite incredible.

In terms of just pure gameplay, it could end up being the best combat sports game ever. And the fighters are true to reality. Playing as Chad Mendes, I couldn’t quite catch up to UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo. Aldo was always a step faster, with his footwork, hands and kicks. When I did have success it was because I was able to get Mendes to take Aldo down — which essentially will be Mendes’ game plan when the two meet in the main event of UFC 176 on Aug. 2 in Los Angeles.

The graphics, which you’ve already seen, are obviously outstanding. Every fighter was scanned in 3D by EA Sports and details are vivid, down to the coloring of Aldo’s scar.

What Hayes and his team really sought out to do was give EA Sports UFC the most true-to-life gameplay experience they could. It’s what had many of them actually training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu while they created the game. And they succeeded. Fighters can gas. Damage can be done — and seen — on specific areas of the body. The AI actually executes a logical strategy thanks to EA’s Ignite sports engine. The way the athletes move on the screen is the closest to how they truly move that I have seen.

"Our mission statement from Day One has been ‘feel the fight’ and really define what athletes should look like on the next generation of video-game consoles, so we really focused on getting to a high level of visual quality," Hayes said.

While most of the controls are very similar to the past THQ games, the submission system has been totally overhauled. Now, it is like a mini-game inside of a game that focuses more on reflexes and skill rather than button-mashing. Like BJJ itself, it’s almost like a chess match. It’s a major improvement over previous editions.

"We wanted to bring more strategy to it," Hayes said. "Stamina will play a part. If your opponent is tired, he wont be able to escape as fast. The position plays a part. Your guy’s submission rating plays a part."

Our mission statement from Day One has been ‘feel the fight’ and really define what athletes should look like on the next generation of video-game consoles, so we really focused on getting to a high level of visual quality.

-Brian Hayes, EA Sports UFC creative director

There’s also a revamped online mode, which uses a belt system, not dissimilar from actual martial arts. White belts can only play white belts and so on. You can move your way up and earn better belts — and better opponents — by accruing points. With this method, it keeps beginners from getting squashed by experts who are just trying to fatten up on points.

What you won’t get in EA Sports UFC — at least not the first version — is many bells and whistles. There is a career mode, which starts with "The Ultimate Fighter," and a mode to challenge your techniques in striking, grappling and the clinch, but that’s where it ends. There is no phase of the game that lets you replay classic fights in UFC history like the last THQ game had, nor is there a PRIDE mode.

"It’s important to get the foundation out there, let people play it and then look at, what are we hearing back from the fans?" Hayes said. "What are they clamoring for?"

In career mode, you can only play as a created fighter or Bruce Lee (if you pre-ordered or beat career mode on the second highest difficulty), not a real UFC fighter. That’s unfortunate, because many fans like to take their favorite star and work their way up the ladder with him or her. Your custom character will get visits from different UFC fighters along the way and you can train with them. There will also be interaction with the likes of UFC president Dana White and Octagon girl Arianny Celeste.

Then there’s the roster, which will disappoint some UFC devotees. EA Sports wanted to make the characters as lifelike and detailed as possible, so they limited the count to just 99 fighters. The last UFC THQ game had 150 playable competitors.

Jon Jones and all his mannerisms have been accurately portrayed by EA Sports.

"That’s as many guys as we could get done in the time allotted," Hayes said.

There are some weird roster choices, too. Tyron Woodley is not in the game, but Pascal Krauss is. Hayes said Woodley was not a top contender when EA started developing the game and he will likely be in as a downloadable character in an update. Anthony Johnson will not be in on Day One, either, but could also be in an expansion pack.

Lee will be available to compete in four different weight classes — bantamweight, featherweight, lightweight and welterweight, Hayes said. His stats are very good, but he won’t be as strong as the champion and one or two top contenders in any division.

I didn’t get to play with Lee, but I can only imagine his speed. It was hard for me, as Mendes, to catch up with Aldo. There was a clear difference in abilities, whereas in past games every character seemed fairly similar. This is significant and the game play is clearly advanced.

If you don’t mind less game modes and fighters and just want to get down to business with fights, you’ll love EA Sports UFC. And even if you do want more of the former, you’ll probably end up loving it anyway.

Bruce Lee is playable in four different weight classes: bantamweight, featherweight, lightweight and welterweight.