Full disclosure — the last time I played a UFC game Brock Lesnar was on the cover. That was a decade ago, and while I've kept up with how fans have reacted to each EA Sports UFC installment since 2014, I didn't realize just how clueless I was until I booted up UFC 4.
If you've been with the series from the start, you'll feel right at home with the new installment and notice a few tweaks to various combat systems. But if you're a newbie like me, get ready to bang your head against a concrete wall for the first few hours. This game is anything but friendly for beginners.
The best way to learn how to play is to forget everything you've ever known about other fighting games. Strategic aggression might get you a Knockout or Fatality elsewhere, but the stamina system demands you methodically time every strike or takedown attempt. If you go in with the old mentality you'll land some great shots, but no matter what you'll be gassed by Round 2 and be an easy target for a TKO loss.
To the game's credit it seems to know this, so the moment you boot it up you're thrown right into the career mode and go through a lengthy yet intuitive tutorial system. It's here you'll learn just how dense the combat system really is, and after hours (and hours) of trial and error, you'll get the rhythm the game is looking for. That's when the fun kicks in.
Unless you're looking to compete online, most of your time will be spent in Campaign Mode, where you'll rise up the ranks from fighting in parking lots and smaller promotions all the way up to UFC Championship bouts. Your time spent in-between fights is all about resource management — sparring, scouting, promoting your fights via social media and customizing your fighter by spending experience points.
The mode offers branching paths based on your relationships with other fighters and certain decisions you make, but you find out pretty quickly that there's really only one obvious choice each time. Selecting options like skipping fights will leave you in a bind, one that can often prevent you from progressing. The game will also throw in the occasional curveball (my bright-eyed kickboxer tore his ACL two fights into his professional career? Oh joy!) to try and slow you down, but if you keep winning and train correctly you won't have too much trouble. Also, credit to EA for putting in some work on the cutscenes. The cringe-worthy voice acting you'll find in a lot of sports games is thankfully absent here.
Outside the campaign, you'll find some real gems in the various Fight Now modes. The Stand and Bang fights now come with a special backyard setting that is such a drastic change from the massive arenas but fits the mode like a glove. There's also a Knockout Mode where the stamina system is all but dropped as you fight in a freaking Kumite straight out of Bloodsport — complete with rope gloves, golden cobra statues and a bellowing unseen announcer. You can spend a ton of time playing around with these modes, thanks in large part to the massive roster of fighters the game provides.
As for the fighting mechanics, the overhauled clinch system makes the transition from striking to grappling fairly seamless. Once you're on the ground the game offers a few different control schemes, and the grapple assist is great for beginners like me. The only gripes are that the ground and pound strikes don't feel like they have any real impact and while the overhauled submission systems are fun they do require a lot of finesse and often favor the escapee. I won more fights by chopping an opponent's leg until it broke than I did with submissions.
Overall if you're a veteran of the series, UFC 4 makes some adjustments you've been asking for and has some new features to dive into. If you're a beginner you've got a long climb ahead of you, but it's worth the grind. The game doesn't break new ground, but it seems to have refined what was already there.
Rating: 4 out of 5