UFC 4 Review: Best of the Series, But Still No Champion

UFC 4 improves key gameplay systems and places Career mode at the heart of the experience. Read our review of the new MMA game.

UFC 4 Review
Photo: Electronic Arts

Here’s a brief summation of my Career mode experience in EA Sports UFC 4 over the past week: My fictional fighter, Cullogan Ogle, began his career with a kickboxing background. He stormed through the amateur scene and first few professional fights in the UFC, tenderizing opponents’ thighs with a brutal array of leg kicks, lead leg side kicks, and nasty oblique kicks.

But along the way, behind the scenes, Ogle spent much of his training camps working on grappling. He drilled armbars, kimuras, and d’Arce chokes, steadily leveling them up to become more effective. Ogle got so good at them, and I enjoyed chasing submissions so much, that by the time he had earned his legacy as the Greatest of All Time, the ex-kickboxer had secured way more subs than KOs and TKOs.

No way would I have taken the grappler’s path in any previous EA Sports UFC game. The submission system from the first three titles, released between 2014 and 2018, was far too obtuse. The fact that it was scrapped entirely by the developers for UFC 4 says everything you need to know about its popularity.

In its stead, two new mini-games were added to the mix in UFC 4, one each for choke and joint submissions. Both mini-games pit players in cat-and-mouse chases using colored bars. The attacker aims to overlap the bars long enough to secure a tapout, while the defender must evade long enough to escape. Finesse is key, so button mashers who go crazy on the inputs won’t last very long. It’s a much easier system to explain to someone than the old mini-game, which should never be spoken of again. The finesse element also makes sense to anyone who has grappled before (this guy right here).

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The choke mechanic utilizes the left stick to smoothly move the colored bars around a ring-shaped overlay. The fact that the choke submission game converted my Career fighter from a kickboxer to a submission ace should speak volumes about how much I embraced it. The featherweight division knew to be wary of my array of unorthodox windshield chokes and Peruvian neck ties. As a gamer who has earned his Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt, I’ve been waiting for a grappling system I actually enjoyed playing. It’s here in UFC 4, and I’m glad to have it.

Chasing joint submissions, with their entirely separate mini-game, is a different story. It’s simple enough, with players using the left and right triggers to move those colored bars along a smile-shaped arc. At first, I really enjoyed it, even preferring its pressure-sensitive input execution to the choke attacks. But I eventually found that, even on lesser difficulties, AI fighters had little trouble escaping no matter how well I executed the mechanic. Mind you, Ogle’s submission attributes were maxed out, and opponents’ often were not. I hope the developers can patch this to make it a more viable option in Career fights. Fingers crossed.

It’s puzzling that there are two separate submission mechanics to begin with. Those who opt to play using the new, simplified Grapple Assist controls on the ground will have to pay attention to which submission the AI selects when they hit the sub input. You wouldn’t want to start using the triggers while going for a choke. Why not go with just one or the other? How about giving players the option to use their favorite mechanic for all submission types? It’s weird.

Release Date: August 14, 2020
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), XBO
Developer: EA Sports
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Sports

But enough about the ground game because, judging by online player tendencies during the pre-release EA Access and review window, UFC 4 bouts will usually resemble kickboxing contests. Turns out that real people just want to hit each other in this game, which is nothing new for EA’s series.

Also not all that new is the striking in UFC 4. It’s not untouched from the previous game, which was released about two and a half years ago, but it feels a bit too familiar given the amount of time that has passed since UFC 3’s release. Some of the most complex strike inputs have been simplified by a difference between pushing and holding, say, the X button. But the system is still dense, necessitated by the number of different strikes fighters have in their arsenal. As UFC president Dana White is wont to say: “It is what it is.”

Happy to report that the microtransaction farm known as Ultimate Team has been retired. Instead of using real-world cash to build a stable of fighters, UFC 4 has gone the trendy route of allowing players to buy coins to cop swag for your created fighter/avatar. And, because this game allows fighters to compete in the cage wearing masks, shirts, and other gear that doesn’t comply with the UFC’s Reebok uniform policy, there are plenty of ways to deck out your fighter in a way you like. Currency can be earned in-game as well, at a much slower rate, so it’s not a necessity to spend extra cash just to customize your fighter with Super Saiyan Green hair.

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And that ties into the fact that UFC 4 is built around Career mode. Visual customization is a part of it, but the bulk is, of course, building your fighter into the GOAT. The premise is familiar to anyone who played UFC 3, but it’s unfortunately not much more cinematic than that game, either. You’ll get a few cutscenes early on and one at the very end, but on the whole Career mostly involves navigating menus and going through training drills between fights. These UFC games could use a more story-driven experience, a la FIFA, NBA 2K, or even the old Fight Night Champion boxing game that many from the UFC development team worked on nearly 10 years ago. 

What I did enjoy was the Fighter Evolution system, in which performing actions leveled up moves. Make an opponent or a training partner tap to an armbar or drop him/her with a crane kick, and those moves will level up. Every time a move levels up, you earn points to distribute to broad attributes like Recovery or Takedowns. It’s a pretty sweet and intuitive system that offers a great feedback loop, at least until my fighter hit an overall five-star rating, with about 12 bouts to go before retirement. After that, it was a slog to the finish line.

The rest of the UFC 4 experience is a mixed bag. Sure, there’s plenty to like, such as the addition of Daniel Cormier to the commentary team as well as the new, unique Kumite and Backyard fight venues. Some fighter models are phenomenal doppelgangers, but others are lesser copies. And, unfortunately, hardcore MMA fans will cry foul when they find some glaring misspellings among customization options (Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, not Hua, no matter how you say it out loud). That one ticked me off and hopefully will be patched ASAP. 

But, all in all, UFC 4 does indeed add up to the best iteration of the EA Sports UFC games. It just has a long way to go before it’s ready to stand among the other sports titans.


3.5 out of 5