A New Challenger Approaches!

The MMA market is one of the fastest growing sports demographics out there. And part of this has to do with the strong showing by some brands in the digital realm. More often than not though, these MMA games are difficult for newcomers to pick up and play and even more difficult to master. But there may be a new contender stepping into the cage to finally appeal to those casual fans out there that are looking to just jump in and dish out a good ol’ fashioned beat down.

Bellator MMA Onslaught is the partnership between Bellator Fighting Championships, who just kicked off their sixth season this past weekend on MTV2, MTV Tres, Epix, and Spike.com, and fellow Viacom property, 345 Games. Looking to try to be a bit less of a simulation like UFC and more of an old-school arcade fighter, Bellator MMA Onslaught looks to differentiate itself from its competition primarily via its arcade-like controls and RPG style fighter leveling up system. This, and the fact that unlike UFC where the fights are picked by management, Bellator lends itself more naturally to the fighting game genre with its eight-man tournament style set-up to determine champions and number one contenders. I had a chance to jump into Bellator’s cage and see first hand just how this game looks to merge modern MMA and the classic fighting game.

The first thing I picked up on was the quicker pace of the matches. This gave a better sense that a fight could end literally at any moment as even when my opponent or myself decided to try to slow things down, there was a tension there that you only feel in the tightest of fighting games. This also allowed us to get more matches in during a shorter amount of time to really determine some bragging rights. One fight isn’t enough. Winning three out of four on the other hand is something to write about.

The next thing I noticed is something that most players complain about still with other MMA franchises and that is the way Bellator controls, especially in terms of player feedback. The punches and kicks were crisp and three, four, and even five hit combos could be strung together if you were fast enough with your inputs, allowing you to turn the tide should you have left yourself open one too many times. But the biggest concern with MMA games typically is the ground game. Much like UFC’s amateur controls though, a simple flick of the right joystick allowed my players to perform some fluid takedowns and easily transition when on the ground. But more so than in UFC, I felt like that it was actually doing something. Again, faster model movement here was a factor in this where it seemed that every flick I made gave me a more clear and instant response, even when being countered by my opponent.

And since we’re down there, let’s stay on the ground. The submission system was likely the best I’ve seen yet in terms of conveying a fighting game, as it was a classic button masher mechanic instead of a confusing mini-game. By mashing the four face buttons to fill up your tap out bar first, you’d either make your opponent tap or you would escape their hold. Again, clear feedback on what I needed to do and how my button inputs were affecting my fighter. And obviously the fighter’s submission ratings, which you can level up when you create a fighter, affects the ease or difficulty it is to fill up that bar.

The presentation was also something that gave the game a fighter’s feel as the HUD featured your classic health and stamina bars. It also featured a balance bar that showed how close a punch or kick was to knocking you off your feet or if you throw a haymaker and miss, how out of position you are. That one was still a work in progress I was told, but the mechanic definitely came across as I started to wobble a few times after failing to block a three-hit combo.

My only real concern is the fact that the game is only shipping with eight fighters at launch and you typically want a larger roster for any fighting game. Of course, with online and offline tournaments, the create-a-fighter mode should supplement this in many ways as I’m sure most people would rather play as themselves if afforded the opportunity.

All in all, although still touted as an early build, I was very impressed with Bellator MMA Onslaught, especially considering this is going to be a PSN and XBLA title. I’d still like a more in-depth look at the create-a-fighter and leveling up system before I comment on them, but promises of being able to customize everything about your fighter, even crossing up several different martial arts when creating your repertoire of moves, has me salivating at the idea of creating a hodgepodge fighter that no one will be able to predict when this game drops in Summer 2012.