In the crazy year of our MMA Lord 2020, getting through the day can be a challenge on par with being slapped in a rear-nake choke by Khabib Nurmagomedov. To endure these unprecedented times, you have to find pleasures wherever you can. For me, that means forgetting my troubles by slapping seven shades of human stuffing out of pretend humans in UFC 4. This iterative, slightly improved mixed-martial arts sim may not reinvent the double-leg takedown wheel, but hoo-boy does it deliver satisfying virtual punches.
Release date: 21 August 2020
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC
Developer: HB Studios
Publisher: 2K Games
UFC is a compromised but worthy successor to its 2018 predecessor. This sequel might be slightly tardy, but welcome improvements to career mode and a never-better cinch game ensure this hard-hitting scrapper is hard to ignore. Since taking the face-smashing reins of the series back in 2014, EA Vancouver has often struggled to replicate the screen-shaking flash knockdowns of THQ’s Undisputed games. Looking back at the developer’s first two UFC titles, clocking an opponent often felt about as impactful as smashing someone’s skull in with a soggy stick of celery. It was only with UFC 3 (opens in new tab) that the studio finally managed to translate the sport’s crunching, ultra bloody conflicts into a truly believable video game.
All fight on the night
That game’s satisfyingly squelchy blend of stand-up kicks and punches is thankfully once again present and correct. Unleashing a 360 tornado kick with currently MIA (supposedly retired) smack-talking superstar Conor McGregor is so impactful, you can almost feel your bones shake. Clock an opponent with flyweight killer Valentina Shevchenko in just the right fight-ending sweet spot, and you spend the next 45 seconds apologising to your TV for unleashing such dead-eyed ferocity. Sold through a blend of unflinching animations and effective rumble feedback, UFC 4 delivers some of the most satisfying ligament-snapping action since golden era Fight Night.
It also makes significant improvements to clinch combat. In UFC 3, these stand-up grapples felt like their own awkward minigame, rather than a natural companion to the meat and mutilated potatoes of the strike game. Here though, clinches now blend in seamlessly.
Hold L1 and square on PS4, and you can quickly lean into your opponent to unleash a flurry of sly jabs and cheeky knees. Cracking someone’s rib cage counts as “cheeky”, right? Instead of twirling the sticks in fiddly fashion ala UFC 3, you can now simply pull away from your rival to break the clinch. Just make sure you get your hands up for a block to ensure you don’t eat a knockdown punch as you’re backing away.
While locked in a clinch, you can also sling your opponent with a hip toss. Not only does this look cool – if hip-crackingly cruel – it means you now have a slicker way of taking the fight to the ground. Yes, you can still spear dudes and dudettes to the mat with the UFC 4’s somewhat clumsy takedowns. But personally, I’d rather clinch and toss than try to hug a fellow fighter to the canvas like two drunks cuddling their problems away over a Friday night falafel.
Grounds for dismissal
UFC 4’s ground game feels as confused and annoyingly vague as its predecessors, though. Once takedowns commence and the action hits the floor, fights quickly frustrate, and worse, actually bore. Under EA, UFC titles have been stumbling around in the dark trying to solve the problem of making ground-based duels entertaining. Sadly, this latest installment taps out before it can deliver the goods.
Whether your fighter is being attacked or attempting to unleash a deadly assault, the three-way choice between trying to submit your opponent, getting up, or plumping for a potentially bout-deciding ground and pound never feels authentic. As I twist the stick to try and outfox my foes I often feel like I’m clumsily trying to solve a door-cracking puzzle with a broken lockpick. Regardless of whether I gain the upper hand in ground duels or end up being pummelled to oblivion, I never feel truly in control of these confused, extra sweaty exchanges.
At least my career mode fighter has a silly name. The headline mode may not offer the sort of root-and-branch upheaval you might have wanted following UFC 3’s generic campaign, but Braun “The Beef” Barroso and I appreciate EA Vancouver’s efforts to inject more personality into punchy proceedings.
The biggest change comes with the addition of Coach Davis: a retired (and fictional) MMA fighter turned full-time mentor to your near mute rookie. Not only is this father figure The Smiliest Man in the Whole World, his cutscenes help to break up the monotony of weekly sparring sessions. Does too much of career mode still focus on repetitive punching bag minigames and throwing down with training partners? Sure. Yet at least the action outside the Octagon now feels less generic. Shooting tame barbs via in-game social media messages may not add a ton of flavor, but at least it reflects the fact trash talk is such a key part of real-life UFC. Sending friendly or cranky (definitely not) tweets to rivals also affects whether you can learn new moves from them or not; another welcome touch.
Keeping up with the Jon Joneses
Outside of career, UFC 4 doesn’t have a huge amount to offer. Perfunctory online fights offer a more entertaining challenge than the often predictable AI is capable of putting up, but offline modes are pretty stingy. Outdoor Stand & Bang brawls conjure up gory memories of PS2’s Backyard Wrestling: Don’t Try This At Home, which my inner 14-year-old is all about. Yet other than standard fights and Knockout mode – short beat ‘em up rounds complete with Mortal Kombat-style shorts and quickly drained health bars – there’s not a whole lot else going on.
UFC 4 offers improvements without ever proving itself an essential buy for fight fans. Welcome tweaks to clinches and small career mode additions show EA Vancouver still has a few ideas up its bloody sleeve, but like light heavyweight icon Jon Jones, its latest MMA effort can’t help but blast itself in the foot.
That the ground game still feels so unsatisfying four games in just isn’t good enough. Throw in distracting frame rate dips and an erratic camera that’s as jittery as McGregor after six pints of Guinness, and there’s plenty for UFC 5 to try and improve on. Still, those screen-rattling strikes really are special. Now, if you don’t mind, me and Braun The Beef are going to try and punch the memories of 2020 into the abyss.
Reviewed on PS4. Code provided by the publisher.