“EA UFC 2” attempts to translate mixed martial arts into a video game at a time when the sport is racing forward in a state of perpetual change. One of the spectatorial thrills of MMA is being wrong, coming into an event with a solid conceptual paradigm for what should happen and then having to tear it down and start fresh when the opposite happens. Last fall, the two fighters who grace the game’s cover —Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor — were considered among the best fighters in the world, unbeatable in some evangelical estimates. Today, both have been not just beaten but fundamentally dismantled in such a way that it’s almost harder to imagine how they might ever win again.
The game is a deeply unstable work that captures this spirit of unpredictability, sometimes an excruciating slapstick that leaves character models fumbling over each other like marionettes in a stupor, and other times an unusually meticulous simulation of punch and kick timing and countering. The game presents its standup fighting on a 2D plane similar to the more fantastical 3D fighters like “Tekken” and “Mortal Kombat,” with the camera pivoting every time a fighter sidesteps or attempts to circle out of an exchange. The right- and left- hand strikes are assigned to the two top face buttons and the right- and left- leg strikes the bottom two, each of which can be modified into variations (knees, uppercuts, spinning side kicks) with shoulder buttons or pressing the control stick in a particular direction.
Each fighter has a red health meter with a stamina meter overlaid on it, limiting the power and intensity of strikes as it lowers, a reminder that timing and careful shot selection are preferable to marching forward in a storm of knuckles and elbows. The system is wickedly constrictive — with almost no ability to focus on the kind of bouncing, balletic rhythms of Dominick Curz and Demetrius Johnson, nor the grinding against-the-cage grappling of Eddie Alvarez or Khabib Nurmagomedov. Instead, every fighter moves like a flat-footed boxer inching forward and backward in the loping lunges of a heavyweight.
The ground game switches perspective and has players holding the right analog stick in one of four directions for a few seconds in order to work through the cardinal positions of jujitsu. The system feels even more automated than the striking, reducing the almost-unseeable battles of grappling — the battle for hip position, the persistent prying at gripped fingers, the interlocked legs trying to inch themselves up from an ankle to a knee — into a process of just pushing on a joystick and hoping the automated transition will play out in your favor. There are precious few indications of how or why your inputs sometimes lead to success and other times end in failure. This, though, has a faint echo of realism to it, where a superior grappler can flip and mount another with as much disorienting force as an ocean wave.
These haphazard systems reward players for bringing some doctrinal knowledge from outside the game, and for having their own pre-existing narratives to test out against a computer. Like sport, video games use the pretense of rules and competition as raw materials for their fans to assemble and disassemble narrative structures to explain what they’ve seen. They work best when they first defy the player’s expectations and then repeat them often enough to allow players to develop new expectations. All of these strange new phenomena are soon incorporated into the canon as spectators fix a narrative justification for where they came from and why they work, setting the stage for still more unexpected developments.
“EA UFC 2” is a cartoonish and hugely incomplete depiction of MMA, but it captures the obsessive incoherence of spectator sports. The inclusion of Bruce Lee and Mike Tyson as bonus characters in the game, two radically different fighters who look bizarrely alike in the game’s version of martial arts, is a reminder that what’s important isn’t the sport but the blurring of fantasy and rationality that sport makes possible in a fan’s imagination.
The actual fighting in “EA UFC 2” is a disorienting clockwork of animated mannequin limbs but the complexity of possible techniques and style matchups this broken system makes possible rewards the studious fan with a sprawling network of empirical fantasy and experimentation. “EA UFC 2” is an effective tribute to of professional sport fandom, the spirit that causes the crowd to roar to life not in appreciation of another person’s actions but because they believe it means something for them to have witnessed it.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.
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