A target appears on your back when you’re a long-reigning champ. No longer the enigma you once were, contenders begin studying your body of work to figure out the path to ending your time at the top. The best way to fend off would-be challengers is to continually build and evolve. Developer EA Vancouver seems to understand this because while no legitimate contenders have emerged in the mixed-martial-arts genre, EA Sports UFC 5 retools several key areas to show the franchise isn’t resting on its laurels.
Like its predecessors, UFC 5 aptly captures the thrill of stepping into the Octagon. After thankfully truncated pomp and circumstance (gone are the grating pre-fight emotes from the last game), the fast-paced fistfighting had me on the edge of my seat until the final horn. I love that the licensed fighters are programmed to behave like their real-world counterparts, forcing you to solve a different puzzle with each new encounter. The action satisfies, particularly in striking battles, though the occasional glitched fighter, unnatural limb contortion, and awful camera swing break the immersion in frustrating ways.
Momentum is a key factor in the simplified grappling system, and longtime UFC players will need to retrain their brains to defend takedown attempts. Once on the ground, you choose the position or submission you want to pursue, and the game determines your success based on stamina, fighter attributes, and whether the defender acts properly. The resulting grappling exchanges can lead to awe-inspiring scrambles that are much more natural-looking than anything we’ve seen in the series before. On top of that, I do not miss the annoying submission minigames from the past UFC titles one bit.
Sticking to your game plan is crucial. But in MMA, even the best-laid plans can disappear in the blink of an eye; I went into a fight with a kickboxer with the plan to take him down, tire him out, and submit him. However, I got caught by a knee to the face on a takedown attempt, changing the complexion of the fight.
Each exchange has fight-ending or fight-altering potential, and the newly implemented Frostbite Engine does an exemplary job of showcasing the action. Scanned fighter models look incredible. Standing across the cage from a superstar like Israel Adesanya or Max Holloway is surreal, thanks to the intricate details that UFC 5 captures. Unfortunately, that means the gap in visual quality between the real fighters and the created fighters is immense; my created fighter looks like he was pulled from UFC 2.
UFC 5 is the first M-rated entry, allowing fighters to sustain more realistic damage. I loved seeing deeper cuts and more swelling develop during the firefights I found myself in. If things get too brutal, a doctor can even intervene to determine if the fight should continue. Thankfully, this is a rare occurrence; in my experience, fighters almost always succumbed to the damage before a doctor had to step in.
The M-rating also means the trash talk and in-game cinematics have more authentic language. While I enjoy hearing fighters and coaches talk the way they do in real life, the in-game soundtrack feels like they went out of their way to include explicit songs to a tiresome extent, which is particularly noticeable as you spend so much time in menus during Career Mode.
The Career Mode keeps the same basic format as the previous releases. Using a created fighter (or blank-slate licensed fighter), you work your way to the top of the UFC rankings with the ultimate goal of becoming the greatest of all time by breaking a set number of UFC records. You start with a low-stat archetype of your choosing, then develop them over the course of several in-game years. I love that throwing a lot of hooks in fights and training sessions develops your hooks while training with a real fighter lets you learn their signature moves.
However, over the course of a Career, the repetition sinks in fast. Sparring the same partners, tackling the same challenges, and navigating the same menus becomes a monotonous affair in the weeks leading up to your fight. You can simulate a lot of the sparring, but you might end up with worse benefits. Even outside of training, you take part in the same binary social media trash talk and menu-based activities. The mode doesn’t go nearly far enough to replicate the UFC’s personality-driven drama.
I grew tired of the weekly grind after about 25 fights in Career. Thankfully, a suite of other modes allows you to jump right into the action. Online Career and Ranked Championship give you longer-term online experiences, but my favorite online mode is Blitz, where you compete in rapid-fire elimination tournaments. If you’d rather avoid the sometimes unstable online connections, you can keep the action offline by taking part in one-off fights with custom rulesets, creating your own events, or even playing curated fights based on real-world cards.
Unfortunately, the launch roster has a few glaring omissions. While all the stars are there, a few highly ranked contenders and several up-and-coming prospects aren’t included, while various fighters who are no longer with the UFC are. I like having legacy fighters available, and EA Vancouver has a proven track record of post-launch updates, but it’s disappointing to be missing so many at release.
Even with its shortcomings, EA Sports UFC 5 delivers an exciting MMA experience regardless of the mode in which you compete. Fighting your favorite UFC stars never gets old, and the adrenaline rush that comes with knocking your opponent out in a fierce back-and-forth battle makes it hard to resist the allure of stepping back into the Octagon for one more fight.