With a number of well-known UFC stars crossing over to feature in mega-budget action flicks, with UFC octagon girl Arianny gracing the cover of the latest Playboy magazine and THQ’s well-received if somewhat flawed UFC Undisputed 2010 flying from shelves worldwide, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s exposure is at an all-time high.

What many won’t realise is that there are sizable competing promotions in the mixed martial arts world which are marginalised by the UFC’s expanding empire. Strikeforce is probably the UFC’s largest stateside competitor and EA MMA is the first videogame it has endorsed. Featuring far fewer big names (many of whom are former or current UFC fighters) and much lower brand recognition, its work is cut out for it to win the attention of the public.

For EA, the advantage of being second out of the blocks is that you get to see where the first offering has fallen short and can take a crack at besting them in those areas. One near-universal criticism of UFC Undisputed 2010 is that the controls lean a little too far towards “space shuttle” on the complexity continuum, and that too much time is spent micromanaging fighters’ statistics, which, handily, would drop precipitously if you neglected to train for more than the lifespan of your average aphid.

Striking in EA’s MMA is certainly a more streamlined beast than that of its UFC counterpart, though not as simple as the “push a button and then I’ll tell you what it does” tutorial would have you believe. Borrowing the analogue stick Total Punch Control (here Total Strike Control) from EA’s own Fight Night and using a similar yet simplified block, parry and weave mechanic, the stand-up game in MMA feels familiar and intuitive. Special attacks from spinning backfists to flying knees are easy to unleash, merely requiring their own pattern be inscribed with the right stick.

Successful strikes deplete an opponent’s constantly recharging stamina bar, which they rely upon for speedy attacking, movement, defence and consciousness. Three secondary bars may also be reduced via fleshy impact: head, torso and legs. No prizes for guessing how that system works.

As simple as striking is, clinching and the ground game are where EA has really sought to make things easier for beginners. Essentially, positions are advanced by pressing A, advances are defended by pressing B, and you can’t block while doing either. Stacked against its tangled UFC equivalent, this system is slicker, and means rookies won’t find themselves completely washed out to sea on the ground, as it were.

Submissions are similarly easy to clamp on, and trigger one of two minigames – a stamina conserving battle in the case of joint locks, a semi-circle-off in the case of chokes. While the former is a clever mechanic that favours strategy over button mashing, the latter – where the goal is to locate an evasive sweet spot before your opponent – can be frustrating.

Sadly, like its UFC counterpart and particularly when using Total Strike Control, MMA responds sluggishly, the impression being that one is wrestling an opponent and the controller simultaneously. This is particularly apparent at higher difficulty levels, where opponents constantly beat you to the combo simply due to the time it takes to move the analogue stick to attack. This is mostly remedied by switching to the classic controls, whereby the face buttons strike and the right analogue stick grapples, but then you may find that your sprawl occurs a split-second too late instead.

Another small gripe: we are repeatedly told that the game is all about stamina management – which it is – yet it takes more stamina to throw a knee in the clinch and have it blocked than it does to get punched in the face. A lot more. It’s also common to rain elbows and hammerfists upon an opponent from full mount for an entire round yet not even scratch them (against the computer at least), and, occasionally, it’s unclear who has been rocked by a big punch, silly as that sounds.

There aren’t enough flash knockouts either, a big contrast to the UFC’s KO-fest, although it’s nice to see that switching stances can be used to disguise some strikes or to protect your front leg from further damage.

One thing EA certainly nailed: the Strikeforce commentary. Much like its real-world counterpart, it’s truly abysmal. Unfortunately, muting it also gags the ring announcer, referee and all your trainers.

Career mode behaves as we have come to expect from these sorts of affairs. Fighter creation allows for the selection of all the usual stuff, but knowing the effect (if any) body shape, stance, weight and height have on your fighter’s abilities would have been nice. MMA one-ups UFC with the inclusion of EA’s Game Face technology which allows you to upload and fit photos of your or your dog’s face onto your fighter’s head like a digital Buffalo Bill. The results are far from perfect; many will swear they are better looking than the creepy-stare clay-face that emerges, but the idea is solid.

MMA also trumps UFC by allowing you to select your walkout music and your demeanour (“douchey” or “über-douchey”), but in truth you’ll be bored halfway through your first ring entrance, and all the cursing has been removed from the music, an interesting move given the violent nature of the game.

But more important than aesthetics in a fighting game is your fighting style. Nine specialties are on offer here, from boxing to judo, brawler to wrestler. You can even specialise in being a generalist. As you’d expect, each style possesses its own strengths and weaknesses, but some of these seem downright arbitrary; according to EA, all wrestlers have a “glass jaw” and jujitsu fighters “can’t take a hit”. Style choice also puts a ceiling on certain statistics and removes some special moves from the pool, a disappointing feature given that the game is based on a sport that favours diversity over specialty.

Your Frankenstein’s monster created, you are placed under the knowledgeable and somewhat annoying tutelage of former UFC heavyweight champion and commentator Bas Rutten. You then choose from one of two fighting leagues whose differences are purely cosmetic, and commence training for your first fight. This consists of eight virtual weeks in which you perform timed minigames loosely related to the skills you wish to boost.

Casual gamers will be happy to hear that there are a mere handful of attributes to wrangle rather than the truckload found in UFC 2010, and you don’t start nearly as underpowered as you do in THQ’s title. As with UFC 2010, you can travel to other camps to boost your statistics faster and to learn special moves.

Acquiring your first championship belt is a piece of cake, at which time you are prompted to choose another league. This time around length and striking rules vary. Win at this level and the big-time beckons – Strikeforce or the Japanese Mystic league. Throughout this ascension, your efforts are chronicled by a blogger whose articles are perusable but comically dull. Sadly, so too are Bas’ generic texts and voicemail messages. Much like UFC 2010’s fan-boosting minigames, these add-ons quickly become an annoyance rather than an insight into how the rest of the fighting world is responding to you.

This is handled much better online, which is where this game holds the most promise. Beyond the expected options is “Live broadcast”, a section where you can watch or participate in regular events that EA have promised to hold. These bouts come complete with player hype videos and live commentary, and look to be a good way to keep people interested beyond singleplayer.

MMA is solid but unfortunately for EA the spectre of the UFC looms too large. The graphics don’t rival UFC 2010’s, most of the big names here have been or currently are UFC fighters, and there are even nods to the UFC in things like stance, where you can select “Hawaiian Prodigy” for example.

Fortunately, MMA shines online or when scrapping with a friend in the same room and the simple controls will be infinitely more appealing to all but the most hardcore fighting gamers.

In spite of speculation that EA MMA would be dead on arrival there’s a very satisfactory entry here, one worthy of any fighting gamer’s consideration and one EA would be remiss to abandon next year.