"In Undisputed, the tendency is toward striking battles, rather than toward what that particular fighter is actually most comfortable with or known for. Fortunately, this flaw won’t matter much for most gamers because the average MMA fan is still far more enamoured of fisticuffs and the sudden violence of knockouts than of rolling for submissions, which presents a decisively more subtle savagery. Besides, as with most one-on-one contests, the main draw is beating up on friends – not the computer."
“So you wanna be a UFC fighter?” asks the CGI version of Dana White, bald-headed vanguard of the fastest growing sport in the world: MMA (that’s Mixed Martial Arts, in case you’re uncool and didn’t know). White’s UFC brand is not synonymous with MMA, but it may as well be. The UFC rules the cagefighting roost, and the hope is that the reinvention of their videogame franchise with UFC 2009: Undisputed will find similar success.
What strikes me first about Undisputed is the degree of authenticity in the presentation – fitting, for an effort from a company whose motto is AS REAL AS IT GETS. Raging, angsty rock music marks the introduction; colour man Joe Rogan’s squealy proclamations, “THIS GUY IS FOR REAL!” paired with commentator Mike Goldberg’s Captain Obvious style observations “he caught him that time, Joe,” follow closely.
Character models are as detailed as you’ve heard--Brock Lesnar is every bit the hulking WWE-convert we love to hate; George St-Pierre (or GSP, as he is affectionately known by his fans), is the very picture of unbridled athleticism. Lightweight king BJ Penn shows off his pair of cauliflower ears like trophies, and pound-for-pound great Anderson Silva is appropriately lanky and unassuming. Half the fun of a game like this is the joy of discovering that omigosh, yes, they look just like they do on TV!
Of course, for that joy to last, it would help if the extensive and good-looking fighter roster boasted UFC warriors that behave as impressively as they appear. It is in this department that UFC 2009 Undisputed has the most room to improve. While GSP’s stand-up game looks the part, replete with trademark Superman punches and bruising body kicks, and his takedowns have you wondering if you’re watching a Pay-Per-View event rather playing a game – the implementation of those skills by your computer opponent isn’t what it could be.
Staying with the GSP example, you would expect the French Canadian to mix up his world class Kyokushin Karate-cum-kickboxing game with well-timed, explosive single-leg wrestling takedowns – versatility and unpredictability are what makes him one of the very best MMA fighters in the world, and further, what make MMA what it is. Remove the ground game from MMA, and we’re essentially left with rudimentary, but underwhelming kickboxing. Remove the stand-up game, and we’re left with a wrestling or submission match.
In Undisputed, the tendency is toward striking battles, rather than toward what that particular fighter is actually most comfortable with or known for. Fortunately, this flaw won’t matter much for most gamers because the average MMA fan is still far more enamoured of fisticuffs and the sudden violence of knockouts than of rolling for submissions, which presents a decisively more subtle savagery. Besides, as with most one-on-one contests, the main draw is beating up on friends – not the computer. Two-player fights are where the game really shows its depth and accessibility: two beginners can stand and bang, while two gurus can engage in a counterpunching chess match on the feet or a contest of technical jiu-jitsu wizardry on the ground. The sky is nearly the limit when playing with a pal.
And while the striking on offer is satisfying, allowing for uppercuts and overhands, blocks and counters; it is in the technical jiu-jitsu wizardry that Undisputed has made the greatest strides in comparison to previous UFC outings, and any other fighting game on the market past or present. For those who crave the intricacy of securing a takedown and working from guard to half-guard to full mount to rear naked choke; or from guard to half-guard to Kimura; and so on, Undisputed offers the full gamut of ground positioning and defensive and offensive transitions for those who are so inclined to explore them, pairing tight, quarter circle right analog stick maneuvers with a healthy dose of button mashing. Of course, the less ‘hardcore’ of us can simply score takedowns and beat up on our grounded opponent from the advantageous top position – literally ground-and-pound, as the style is called – satisfyingly, the way we administer beatings is up to us.
Once we’ve honed our wide array of fighting skills in Training and Exhibition modes, we’re set for Career mode, which is arguably the main attraction of the game. Here, you can design a fighter who looks like you, only with a six-pack in place of your single keg, and customize him as you see fit. Currently, I am enjoying quite the winning streak as Marc “The Fury” Golding. Your fighter will be an expert in one striking discipline, (choose between boxing, kickboxing and Muay Thai) and one grappling discipline, (choose between wrestling, judo and jiu-jitsu). You’ll have to allot skill points (strength, speed, stamina) and attribute points (striking offense, defense; submission offense, defense; and so on). The way you marshal points determines what kind of fighter you end up with. The Fury, for example, is a mean kickboxer of my design who is in big trouble if he gets taken down, because I put all my eggs in striking-related baskets. (My next project will be a submission expert who can’t punch to save his life--ah, the joy of customization!)
All in all, UFC 2009 Undisputed looks amazing, animates authentically, has a deep roster across all weight classes to play with and boasts a rewarding striking department and innovative grappling controls. It’s easily the most complete MMA game available (which, admittedly, may not be saying that much). Computer-controlled fighters might not behave as true to life as hardcore fans might like, the clinch game is handicapped by the lack of cage tactics (e.g. cage-bullying), and the glut of menus and slowish load times make a pick-up-and-play experience more trying than it should be – so the product isn’t perfect. But Undisputed’s missteps won’t ruin your party, and should easily be addressed in future iterations. And we know there will be future iterations. Because UFC Undisputed 2009 is a more than worthy resurrection of the UFC name in videogames, and a remarkable foundation upon which to build a new sports series to be reckoned with.
Freelance review by Marc Golding (June 05, 2009)
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