Damn you, EA Sports Cover Curse! Banjaxing NFL players for years during the legendary Madden Jinx clearly wasn’t enough: now the insidious boxout voodoo has floored MMA’s two biggest stars. First it sunk Ronda Rousey days after she’d been chosen as the face of UFC 2; a devastating Holly Holms kick not only ending the bantamweight megastar’s unbeaten record, but also damaging the credibility of the game’s packaging. Next, it savaged Conor McGregor; The Notorious tapping to a Nate Diaz choke in his first bout following the Irishman’s coronation as Rousey’s cover co-star. Of course, both those combatants have the class to bounce back from defeat. It’s a pity the same can’t always be said of UFC 2.
EA Canada's second crack at MMA is confoundingly uneven. It’s authentic, yet prone to moments of ludicrous fantasy - witness a fighter get knocked down, then magically leap back up as if being levitated as part of a Vegas magic act. It’s hard-hitting, yet not quite hard-hitting enough. It’s carefully crafted, but also buggy as hell - the commentary on my review copy didn’t work, while Bruce Buffer sounds like he’s reading the fighter intros from the bottom of a well.
Still, if there’s one thing UFC 2 is brilliant at - aside from looking so good I want to staple its screenshots to the inside of my eyelids - it’s that it cannily captures the unpredictability of real mixed martial arts. Fights can feel brazenly, almost wonderfully random. I’ve had marathon matches go the full five rounds, then blinked and missed barbaric bouts that ended within 36 seconds courtesy of a crunching knee delivered from a Muay Thai clinch. This unpredictability is definitely a good thing. After all, this is sport where the most watched fight in history ended with the wet, bloody thud of a jab to the chin 13 seconds in - I’m looking at you, McGregor vs Aldo.
Unlike its predecessor, UFC 2 is adept at nailing down the small details that bookend bouts. The pad-touching ritual that kicks off real fights is now present and correct (just hold the left trigger), while the developer has seen sense and finally included knockdowns. Last time out, KO victories came via instant match-enders where opponents would instantly crumple into unconscious heaps. Here, as with real MMA, the hit that knocks your foe to the canvas is just the starter; the main course is promptly served by pouncing to the mat, mounting your opponent (steady) then flattening their face with a flurry of punches.
It’s both a vitally authentic nod to the sport and a hugely satisfying way to finish fights. Pity most of the punches you throw while your brawler is on their feet aren’t as satisfying. UFC 2’s striking game lacks the crunching weight of THQ’s excellent Undisputed series; hits just don’t feel impactful enough to fully sell the sense of knife-edge danger that real-life MMA counters thrive on. Sure, landing a big shot can be hugely empowering - counter a takedown attempt with a kick to the neck and you’ll send your foe reeling. Yet all too often the lion’s share of offence feels a little weedy.
Thankfully, UFC 2’s ground game fares much better. Performing right stick clinches and takedowns requires keen timing, resulting in quietly engaging cat-and-mouse affairs as you try to floor your opponent with the world’s most aggressive hugs. The animations as you transition from standing holds to canvas positional power plays are often beautiful, too.
Sensibly EA have also made ground holds much more streamlined - the quarter circle turns of old have been ditched for more of a rock-papers-scissors system where you choose a stance, then lock the right stick in place for a few seconds to execute. Visually, it’s much easier to read, meaning I no longer feel like I need a PHD in rear naked chokes to tap a dude out.
It also looks the part. Hell, it looks astonishing. If you’d shown me 15 seconds of UFC 2 five years ago, my eyes would have spontaneously combusted. It’s not just the absurdly lifelike fighter models - though they do make the wrestlers in WWE 2K16 look like they’ve been made out of muscly silly putty. No, it’s also the subtle details, like a body deformation system that results in rippling flesh, geysers of gushing blood and bruises so believable, it’s all you can do not to sadly rub your arms every five minutes. In short, UFC 2 will make your eyes very, very happy.
What won’t delight nearly as much is the game’s stingy structure. While not as insultingly barebones as its predecessor, this still feels like a threadbare package. Aside from the novel Knockout mode - where bouts play out like thirty second beat ‘em up brawls thanks to the fighters stripped down health bars - there’s not much here to get your gumguard stuck into. The main meat on UFC 2’s plate comes from the career mode, yet even that’s an insultingly perfunctory affair. You start by working your way through The Ultimate Fighter reality show, before graduating to the UFC big leagues. Sadly, it’s structured almost identically to the original Fight Night - yes, a 12-year-old PS2 boxing game.
During my stint playing as former WWE grappler CM Punk, I really was the Voice of the Voiceless. There’s no talking smack in pre-fight press conferences; no rivalries to build; no relationships to manage. Instead, ‘colour’ is added in the form of Gym Hub loading menu updates where you’re coldly informed of tidbits like “you made a funny joke during the post-fight press conference. Gained some fans!” Ugh. The entire mode feels like a quickly knocked-out afterthought.
Like its Notorious Irishman, UFC 2 can delight and offend in equal measure. In its best moments, it offers a brutal, refined take on MMA that fans of the octagon will eat up. Conversely, it can also leave you colder than Holly Holms in a Miesha Tate sleeper; content feels lightweight and standing offence can be patchy. With more fully fleshed-out modes, the inevitable sequel could be a real contender, but for now, UFC 2 will have to make do with being an occasionally entertaining also-ran.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One.
UFC 2’s servers weren’t live at time of writing, so I wasn’t able to test out the game’s online modes. EA have at least thrown a couple of interesting wrinkles into the online action, though. Ultimate Team lets you pit a stable of five created fighters against other players, while Live Events encourages you to act out upcoming brawls, then rewards you with XP - which can be spent on fighter upgrades and new moves - if you predict the outcomes correctly.