If there’s one constant in combat sports videogames since their inception, it’s that striking tends to get the short end of the stick unless the game is solely focused on striking. For the longest time, K-1 World Grand Prix 2001 was the GOAT of striking games. Not just because it was from they heyday of K-1 and had an absolutely bonkers roster, but also because the striking felt rewarding.
In that game you were able to block high, medium and low, while the early UFC and PRIDE games were fun, but shallow and not very rewarding when it came to stand-up battles. This isn’t just my clear, explicit bias towards kickboxing speaking, either, or that I was actually able to get my friends in college to play K-1 WGP 2001 on weekends even though they had no clue who Peter Aerts or Ernesto Hoost were.
The label of best striking game held up for quite a while, as well, outside of the Fight Night games. EA’s Fight Night series was boxing at its best in a videogame, with actual boxing strategies working within the game and it not feeling always explicitly like a videogame, where there are “game” systems in place to enhance the gameplay while detracting from the realism. The UFC games were always sorta just there, fumbling at some aspects while shining in others, with EA MMA for the last generation of consoles maybe being the best of the lot, taking some cues from Fight Night. EA MMA was, at its core, incredibly simple, which is probably what made it work so well. There were limited moves and animations available, but it was the closest thing to a realistic simulation of stand-up fighting since Fight Night or K-1 WGP 2001.
When EA took the reigns of the UFC franchise, they did a pretty good job with EA UFC and a better job with EA UFC 2, but it still felt like it was a videogame. By that I mean that while playing actual striking strategies didn’t work because of the sway system and the parry system. If you were able to sway and able to parry, follow-up strikes did crushing damage and a skilled player could get by on simply reversing strikes at the exact moment and following up with a big hit. Working a jab was ineffective due to the stamina drain and pushing a direction on the control stick to chase an opponent in motion would trigger a more powerful strike that would also drain the player’s stamina more.
Granted, I’ve spent probably hundreds of hours in EA UFC 2 since it was released, going as far as to create large swathes of created characters and pitting them against each other with friends in our own, strange league. It has served as a central meeting point for my circle of friends since its release now, with it being less about playing a competitive game with each other as it was a good thing to do while talking, be it about life, creative projects or anything else. Through that time we’ve picked up a very acute understanding of the striking system in that game and how to “game” it. There were distinctive eras where certain tactics would be unstoppable for a period of time, until someone figured out how to “game” that tactic and it went from overly effective to worthless in a heartbeat. Discovering parry->leg kick? Game changer, until a leg kick-heavy strategy was met with certain punches that would ignore the leg kick and take advantage of a defensive opening, or using a kick that wouldn’t land you on your ass when hit by a leg kick.
EA UFC 2 was a lot of fun, but the striking system was still just one in a videogame that didn’t really allow for in-depth striking strategies. It was good and we never had real complaints about it, but then the EA UFC 3 closed beta dropped on November 27th and it felt very inadequate in comparison. First impression of the striking was that the new game was sluggish, the removal of parries would cripple defensive play and that the blocking and stronger strikes involving so many buttons was confusing, if not downright bad.
But then the hours started to melt away during the first evening and it became clear that actual striking strategies were paying dividends in this game. A jab-low kick combination would perfectly set up a stronger strike, a push kick actually pushes the opponent away to create space and allow for a different strategy. Foot placement all of a sudden mattered and while other games would punish lateral movement by not allowing you to do so while landing jabs and light leg kicks, this game changes that.
Being cornered in prior games meant the only way to really, effectively get off of the cage was to rely on grappling or move out while striking, which, due to the game system, meant throwing hooks or uppercuts that would leave you incredibly vulnerable. Being pushed against the cage in EA UFC 2 was a death sentence if you were solely relying on striking, but here I can actually use a jab to interrupt a big strike while circling to safety. It’s a level of strategic striking that I never thought that I’d experience in a videogame, a game with the UFC license especially.
The combination system in the game rewards well-thought-out, realistic combinations. Firing off rapid-fire jabs only to follow up with a kick to the body flows. Throw a front leg head kick and whiff you can immediately follow up with a spinning backfist while still in motion. It feels like the team actually watched a lot of fights and analyzed what works and prioritized those combinations in the game. Without having to worry about being parried also allows you to piece together these combinations without worrying that because it’s relatively easy to read that a jab is going to be followed by a straight, that your opponent will simply parry the follow-up.
Now, parries do happen in real life, but they are far more rare than they occurred in EA UFC games prior. You can still sway, as you can see from the video above, but it’s far more realistic in both execution and how you can follow through after doing the sway. In EA UFC 2 swaying would essentially leave the body open for damage and only leave the head open if it was either on the way down or up from/into the sway.
There’s still a lot more to explore in the game during the closed beta, hopefully if you wanted in you pre-registered. If not, hopefully they open it up after a few days to the general public and most betas are prone to doing. We’ll be playing more and streaming the sessions on Twitch over the span of the beta.
But, for now, it feels like perhaps the best kickboxing simulation that has ever happened in a videogame. You can watch our session from the first night below.