How far the Ultimate Fighting Championship has come. In its inaugural showcase in 1993, a man called Art Jimmerson fought with one boxing glove, and a skinny Brazilian in a karate gi beat everyone by fighting on his back.
Some 20 years on, the UFC and Mixed Martial Arts is now the world's fastest-growing sport. Big enough, in fact, to have it's own EA Sports-branded videogame. After THQ flogged the license during its unceremonious clear-out a couple of years ago, the UFC got into bed with EA, the very company that UFC president Dana White swore he'd never, ever work with. Uncle Dana, as he's affectionately known, makes promises like this about twice a week, though, and as always, money talks. So now the heralded Fight Night team are on board and looking to create the finest digital recreation of cage fighting yet seen.
And you certainly can't fault the way it looks. During a recent hands-on event in Central London, EA Sports UFC's creative director Brian Hayes keenly showed off the quite remarkable graphics engine that's powering his new game. You can see from the images on these pages how lifelike Jon Jones, Alex Gustafsson and Anthony Pettis look, but seeing them move in-game is something else.
This is EA's first next-gen-only project, and it shows. Hayes threw around terms like 'sub-scattered lighting', but all that really matters is how they look in the cage. They move like real fighters - skin contorts, veins pulse, flesh actually moulds around flesh. It's phenomenal technology, truly.
Saying that, the game could be more handsome than UFC fighter GSP in his speedos, but none of that would matter if it didn't capture the aggression, technical mastery and raw athleticism of this most incredible sport. While the code on display was shaky, with myriad bugs and glitches, a creaky framerate and a few key features missing (including the ability to rush a fallen foe and finish them on the ground), it's easy to admire EA Sports UFC's potential.
Stand and bang
If MMA bouts take place in three positions - standing, the ground, and the clinch - the game has all bases covered. No surprise there. What the team has worked hard on though, is managing the transitions between those three areas - how kickboxing moves into jiu-jitsu, or how wrestling becomes dirty boxing (scrapping in the clinch). The stand-up fighting is already very competent, as it should be from the team who built Fight Night and the creative director of Round 4 and Champion.
Each face button represents a limb, Tekken-style, and triggers modify your strikes. Every fighter has his or her own arsenal, but in our demo we took time with Jon Jones and his lengthy jabs, standing elbows and irritating oblique kicks. They're all present and correct - beautifully animated in fact - and allow you to actually role-play the fighter you're in charge of.
Quick jabs of the stick let you leap in and out or move laterally with pace, and you can bob, weave and slip by holding down the left trigger. Catching your foe with a well-placed counter shot after they've swung is the key to scoring heavy damage, and it's tremendously satisfying to watch your opponent's knees buckle after a flawless counter uppercut to the dome.
Sadly, the clinch game was barely working in this build, so we couldn't test fence-fighting and dirty boxing. But it was still possible to take the fight to the ground with a well-timed takedown and start working on the floor like a black belt. The ground game is probably the most difficult aspect to program, and in EA Sports UFC, probably the most impressive part. Recreating the subtleties of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a thankless task - this is an art based around leverage and timing, small movements and near-infinite positions.
Unlike THQ's games and EA's own prior MMA effort, EA Sports UFC allows a much subtler grappling exchange on the floor. There are multiple guard passes (getting past your opponent's legs), hip escapes for the guy on the bottom (a fundamental jiu-jitsu manoeuvre that has never been captured properly in a game before) and the ability to shrug off submissions before they're locked in.
As for the subs themselves, well, they're a little odd at the moment. They involve a mini-game that hugely distracts from the on-screen action, as the attacking player has to play a Simon-says light-matching game, while the defender uses the right stick to move a cursor around an Octagon on the HUD. If the attacker wins, the submission advances a stage, if the defender is victorious he or she escapes. It's very complicated and makes the subs look rather daft (anyone who trains or even watches a lot of MMA will baulk at the half-locked in kimuras and armbars), but it's still the main area Hayes and company are fine-tuning before release.
If everything does fall into place as it should before EA Sports UFC's nebulous 'Spring' release, then there's no reason this won't be the strongest MMA game yet. In around an hour's play, the game showed glimpses of greatness that suggest this could sit alongside Fight Night at the top of the sports-cum-fighting game pantheon. A Benson Henderson knee clattering into Pettis' sternum as he attempted a Capoeira kick; a perfectly-timed Jon Jones takedown against an over-committed Gustafsson; a crushing Johny Hendricks left hand. These are the moments UFC fans want to recreate and experience for themselves. EA Sports UFC has the potential to bring the fight to the competition. Just like Uncle Dana.