The EA Sports UFC franchise made its debut in 2014, the first MMA game released by the company following its non-UFC-licensed title, 2010’s EA Sports MMA. While the first licensed UFC title was somewhat disappointing due to the underwhelming feature set and the series trying to find its footing as an all-new franchise, it was a solid first attempt.
With each subsequent entry, which has traditionally been released at a two-year cadence, the franchise iterated in meaningful ways, adding new fighting mechanics, improved animations, more feature-rich modes, and larger fighter rosters. With the last EA Sports UFC arriving in 2020, it’s now been three years since players were last invited to step into the Octagon. If my time seeing the game in action and talking with the development team is any indication, that extra year was put to good use; EA Sports UFC 5 brings EA’s in-house Frostbite Engine into the cage for the first time in series history.
The developers of EA Sports UFC 5 have seen the bungled transitions other sports franchises have made when moving to another engine, with glitches and unnatural animations plaguing some of them, but the UFC team has the advantage of not being released on an annualized basis. “That’s why we took three years; we wanted to get this [transition to Frostbite] right,” producer Nate McDonald says. “It’s important to us, and it’s important to our players that we give them the best experience we possibly can, especially with it being on the current-gen platforms. We really just wanted to make sure we’re delivering as high quality, polished, and bug-free of an experience as possible. And that takes time, and here we are.”
The result is highly detailed character models, a new level of lighting and shading, improved rendering quality, and several brand-new presentational elements involving the environments and visual effects. Seeing the side-by-sides of the character models from UFC 4 and UFC 5 hammers home just how much better the fighters look in this upcoming version. New skin and eye shading, facial animation and body technology, and strand-based hair make the fighters look much more natural and representative of their real-world counterparts.
Not only that but EA Vancouver is leaning hard into the violence the sport of MMA is known for. UFC 5 adds the most authentic damage to date, including cuts, bruising, and swelling that accumulate in real time over the course of a fight. The damage is designed to be true-to-life, with realistic details and, as the development team calls it, “unedited authenticity.” Fighters possess eight regions for accrued damage, each with multiple levels of progression. When you combine all of these regions and stages of damage, fighters can have 64,000 different damage combinations. If you’re squeamish, you’ll definitely see lots of blood and some deep gashes, but you’ll be spared some of the rarer, more gruesome injuries like compound fractures or exploding cauliflower ears.
And it’s not all just for show, as damage sustained has real impacts on the fighter’s performance. For example, a broken nose leads to slower stamina recovery, while a cut by the eye leads to impaired vision and more vulnerability on the affected side. Meanwhile, accumulated leg damage means slower movement and less effective takedown attempts. If you take too much damage, the referee might call a stop to the action to have a doctor take a look at the affected areas. If the doctor deems the damage too substantial, they might call a stop to the action. This adds an extra layer of strategy, as a highly damaged fighter might need to get extra defensive above an already-hurt body part or decide they need to go for broke in order to avoid having the doctor stop the action. Meanwhile, the fighter dishing out the damage may decide to continue targeting the hurt regions to try and influence a stoppage. According to EA Vancouver, 90 percent of the time or more the doctor is called in, the fight will continue, but it’s something you must keep in mind and strategize around.
As a result of all of this, EA Sports UFC 5 is the first entry in the series to receive an “M for Mature” rating. The last time an EA Sports fight-sports game received an M rating was 2011’s Fight Night Champion, which was created by the same team based in Vancouver, Canada. “From a sport perspective, it was really about us being in a position to deliver UFC in as authentic a way to the real sport as possible,” McDonald says. “The only real way to do that in an as-real-as-it-gets way was to go for that ‘M for Mature’ rating. This is meant to be true-to-sport gameplay with authentic damage and realistic fighter likenesses. We know MMA is a very visceral sport, and damage is a part of it. It’s not meant to be something that we’re portraying in an overly gratuitous way, but if we want to nail what the true-to-life sport is, this is what needed to happen.”
Those new details look great in action, accentuated by 60 frames per second performance. When slowed down using the new cinematic slow-motion replay, which includes enhanced visual effects and sounds focused on the impact, you can see sweat and blood spray off as the strike lands and faces and bodies briefly deforming as the knockout blow connects. In some instances, blood may even be sprayed on the camera lens.
In these slow-motion replays, you can really get a sense of the new animations, which include physics-driven reactions. New strike animations for things like ground-and-pound elbows, spinning attacks, calf kicks, body punches, and heavy hits join the improved fighter likenesses and damage systems to make this the best-looking entry in the franchise by a long shot.
One of the biggest sticking points with fans through the first four entries is how the grappling plays out. While UFC 4 mitigated some of the criticism by introducing a Grapple Assist system, the default grappling system in UFC 5 is now transition-based for faster for more seamless submissions. Gone are the U.I.-heavy minigames that block out much of the screen; now, the grappling system focuses on continued immersion within the context of the fight with minimal HUD elements blocking your view. In one video, I got to watch high-level grapplers Charles Oliveira and Islam Makhachev trade submission attempts and fight for position. The grappling exchange was smooth and well-animated, but most importantly, it was fast-paced and not nearly as robotic as the previous system.
“The UFC 5 Seamless Submission feature is like a revamped extension of our existing grappling system,” producer Raman Bassi says. “Basically, minigames are gone; there’s nothing over your screen, blocking the beautiful transitions we have. […] You can go from one submission, you can counter it and turn it into your own submission. It’s an endless possibility for submission, and it offers a smoother, more authentic ground game. And much faster and more intense.”
Players can still use Grapple Assist if they don’t understand the intricacies of the grappling game, or they can enable the legacy version that still leaves the submission minigames by the wayside but gives you more control over transitions, sweeps, and submissions. I’ll have to wait until I get my hands on it to know if this is a better system than the previous one, but I’m hopeful that the team has listened to the feedback of the community over the last decade.
Outside of the Octagon itself, players can immerse themselves in a more cinematic experience, which features the return of Coach Davis from EA Sports UFC 4. This time, he’ll play a bigger role in the story beyond the opening experience – in one of the scenes, I see Coach Davis delivering a pep talk to a created fighter ahead of a big fight. There’s also a new onboarding experience featuring former UFC champion Valentina Shevchenko that includes an introductory training camp ahead of your Contender Series bout. This first camp introduces you to the UFC Performance Institute, where much of your training takes place, and teaches you the basics of striking, grappling, health, damage, and stamina.
Additional cinematics highlight your journey to the ultimate goal of becoming the GOAT, and better training camps and A.I. make it a more diverse trip to the top. Sparring challenges have received an upgrade, challenges feature an upgraded grading system, and improved A.I. actually becomes more difficult during higher stakes fights. You can even choose basic rulesets, like Stand and Bang, for your entire career or use the more realistic Simulation mode to try and be champion with realistic fight clock, stamina, and damage.
UFC 5 also adds an Online Career, which takes elements from Ranked Championships and makes a created fighter vs. created fighter promotion for players to battle through. You can compete with a different created fighter in each of the four divisions, earning evolution points by fighting. You then invest those points to grow your fighter, and if you max them out, you can prestige them, similar to other online multiplayer games. The hope is you explore different builds with different characters.
Finally, EA Sports UFC 5 is adding additional integration with real-world UFC events. Daily Fight Contracts offer you a new challenge against CPU fighters every day, asking you to complete certain tasks to earn UFC coins or other rewards. Contracts last seven days before they expire and get harder as the week progresses; Monday’s contract might almost seem like busy work, but Sunday’s contract should test your skills. You can also look forward to picking fights for upcoming cards, with UFC coins and other rewards given out for correct picks. Alter Egos are unlockable variants of fighters that have different looks or abilities from an iconic era of their career; the first wave of Alter Egos includes younger versions of Israel Adesanya and Jon Jones, as well as Alexander Volkanovski in full rugby attire and Valentina Shevchenko in a kickboxing uniform.
Though sports games are often criticized for their iterative approaches that are necessitated by an annualized release schedule, the EA Sports UFC 5 team thankfully doesn’t have to worry about that, and if everything they showed and talked to me about plays as well as it looks, I have high hopes for this next evolution of the franchise. EA Sports UFC 5 arrives on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S on October 27. Those who preorder get access to bonus fighters, including heavyweight MMA great Fedor Emelianenko, as well as heavyweight boxing legends Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. Preorderers can also look forward to several Bruce Lee Alter Egos.
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