It's been four years since EA Sports UFC first debuted, but it's unclear how devoted EA is to making the series a success.
EA Sports UFC 3 is more iterative than you would expect from an entry that's been in the works for two years now. It builds out the career and mode and revamps the striking mechanics, but otherwise it looks much the same as 2016's UFC 2. It even keeps the commentary from Joe Rogan, who opted to leave the series because he doesn't like doing voiceover work.
When I asked UFC 3 creative director Brian Hayes why the team opted to stick with Rogan, he said it was about authenticity. "Joe Rogan has been with the organization for so long that he's the voice of the UFC."
EA wound up scrounging up new clips from pay-per-view instead.
Because of this and other decisions, UFC 3 feels surprisingly lean. Its G.O.A.T career mode, touted as one of UFC 3's major features, is minimalist, consisting primarily of simple menus and the rare video clip. The presentation is largely unchanged from two years ago.
According to Hayes, EA Canada is still hard at work building up the foundation of UFC 3. Because it hasn't been around for as long as FIFA or Madden, modes we take for granted have to be built from scratch. It's an arduous process.
An unfortunate side effect of that process is that it makes it seem as if UFC 3 is a lower priority project for EA. The team's focus on the down and dirty work of iteration has caused whatever momentum the series has built up to dissipate. UFC 2 was reviewed by 38 critics on Metacritic. UFC 3 has a little more than half that. Coincidentally, both versions on the PS4 have the exact same metascore of 79.
Review count isn't everything, but there's a marked lack of interested in this version of UFC compared to EA's last outing. It seems as if the collective sports population has taken a look at what's on offer, shrugged, and moved on.
The lack of excitement around UFC 3 is amplified by its presentation. EA has a certain house style these days, and it tends to be pretty... flat. Even sims like Madden and FIFA—marquee sports titles that have huge teams and budgets lavished upon them—favor a simple, mechanical look for their UI. Compared to NBA 2K, which is fairly bursting with style and excitment, they feel downright beige.
Consider UFC 3's rivalries, which are a big part of G.O.A.T. mode. You can troll rivals over Twitter; and if you are annoying enough, you might get a little pushing and shoving when meeting at the press conference. But like the rest of UFC 3's presentation, that's about as far as it goes. I recognize that presentation isn't everything, but it sure wouldn't hurt EA to inject a little excitement into the look and attitude of their games.
Beyond that, there's the overwhelming feeling that despite spending twice as much time in the oven as the average annual sports sim, UFC 3 still manages to feel undercooked.
This to me makes UFC feel like a series at a crossroads. What exactly does EA want from its MMA license? Is it willing to put the time and money into making it a success? Or is it content to feed on the passion of a loyal but niche audience every two years?
We've now reached the point where UFC feels like a reasonably competent MMA sim. As I talked about during the beta, the fights feel much more tactical now thanks to the improved striking mechanics, and the high-level strategy definitely exists. But one thing EA has long struggled with is capturing "the soul" of sports. FIFA, Madden, and UFC are reasonable accurate simulations, but they too often come off as cold. Robotic. That coldness stands out more than ever in a sport like MMA, which is all about heat, rivalries, and narrative. It's a passable fighting sim, but UFC 3 lacks a lot of what draws fans to the sport in the first place.
Assuming it happens, UFC 4 is gonna have a pretty full list of items to check off. It'll need to improve upon the grappling, which is untinuitive and frankly not much fun. It'll need to overhaul the presentation and probably the commentary as well. And to be honest, it could probably use a story mode like The Journey or Longshot. UFC is well behind the curve on that front.
Five years on from acquiring the UFC license, it feels as if the EA Sports UFC series has stalled out. To regain its momentum, the next entry will need to be fresh, exciting, and above all, faithful to the spirit and not just the basic mechanics of its subject matter.
Sadly, that won't happen for at least another two years. For now, EA Sports UFC 3 is merely average.