The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) continues to be a phenomenal success. For years now, mixed martial arts has increased in popularity and the UFC has been leading the charge. A few games based on the organization have been released, dating back to the Dreamcast, but UFC 2009: Undisputed is the first from publisher THQ and famed developer Yuke's. As the first UFC title in five years, and the first in a new series, Undisputed demonstrates that there is a lot of life left in the franchise.
UFC 2009: Undisputed starts off strong. A series of tutorials and trials provide some much-needed information on all aspects of the combat system - striking, grappling, the ground game, combos, and basic footwork - making it one of the most approachable Yuke's titles to date. The information is given in a clear, concise manner, and goes a long way in helping to tackle the complex fighting system. I am genuinely surprised at how well put together the tutorials are, and they are a great asset to novices of mixed martial arts. It didnít take long before I found myself enamored with the system.
The mechanics behind combat are fluid, intuitive, and daunting. Nearly every movement and combination on the controller does something different: the right analog stick can grab, deflect, and even determine punch type. The system makes sense, and it doesnít take long before it begins to feel natural. Combinations are fluid and accurate, and there is even a brief window during a move to queue a follow-up, allowing for complex maneuvers. The animations and sound do a great job in conveying the weight and strength of the attacks as well, from the grunt resulting from a hard kick to the midsection to the jelly legs from an uppercut. Your opponentís reaction to blows does a good job in conveying the effectiveness of your attacks, and what areas are open for a successful successive strike.
The fighting mechanics will be confusing at first, even after going through the tutorials. Thankfully, a practice mode has been included to help you brush up on your skills. Aside from the basics, the game is true to the mixed martial arts fashion with fighters that focus on boxing, judo, kickboxing, wrestling, and so on. Each style has form-specific moves, such as the Ďsupermaní for kickboxers, which are easy to pull off and pack a punch. All of the moves can be defended against with a quick tap of a button or flick of an analog stick, and with practice you can either absorb a blow with your arms or avoid the limited damage by deflecting and grabbing. If your timing is particularly good, you can also counter by landing a blow as your opponent initiates their attack or striking immediately after a block. Striking and defending are their own games, with a laundry list of moves for each fighter that will require practice and patience; properly defending takes a while to learn as well, since recognizing an incoming blow and moving to counter isnít as easy as it initially seems. And then there is the ground game.
During a UFC event, you inevitably see fighters grapple each other on the ground and beat the bejeezus out of one another. The ground game is definitely present in Undisputed, and it is very difficult to master. There are minor and major transitions, requiring quarter and three-quarter spins with the analog sticks, and numerous positions; as well as defensive and offensive moves, disengaging, and the struggle to get onto the ground. The computer is eerily good at getting you on the mat whenever it feels like it, shrugging off deflects with a noticeable doggedness, and it can end the match before you know whatís going on. I am aware that quick victories happen in fights, but the protracted ground struggles you see on TV were pretty rare during my fights: I was often unable to get to a downed opponent fast enough, and they either let me up or pounced and ended the match within a few seconds.
Quick matches are actually a big problem in Undisputed. One aspect that makes quick bouts particularly frustrating is just how unoptimized the game is - menus and loading screens are all over the place. I counted 14 screens from leaving the gym in career mode to the start of a match, as I skipped Ė but had to wait for each to start Ė numerous introductions, stat cards, breakaways, logos, etc; this authenticity might be great for the hardcore fan, but I was ready to skip the rigmarole my second time in the octagon. There are a disturbing amount of knockouts as well. Both knockouts and flash knockouts, when an unexpected knockout occurs, are frequent, resulting in a fight of about 30 seconds and then having to wade through the endless stream of menus and load screens between going to the gym and the next fight. Knockouts are mentioned in the manual as being able to occur at any time, hence the stamina bar and your fighterís physical appearance being the only indication of damage, but it happens way too often. After my first few unsuccessful fights in career mode, I focused on strength during my training and ended up winning the next six consecutive fights with first-round knockouts. Aside from that being very odd from a 0-3 fighter, it also meant spending a lot of time doing nothing but skipping cutscenes and dialogue boxes.
In a strange twist, it isnít Undisputedís complex fighting system that holds it back, as it is a phenomenal debut, but everything else. The classic match and exhibition mode are good, but the career mode, the heart of the game, is merely so-so. Character creation is very limited, with everything from hometown to body features being restricted to a handful of options. Itís hard not to be disappointed by the limp character creation portion, especially if youíve spent any time with MLB í09: The Show - or nearly any other recent sport offering. Because of the limited audio recordings, you are also limited to a handful of generic nicknames for the announcers to use throughout your career. As an example of how weak the nickname selection is, I went by ďThe Fury.Ē What should have been a unique selling point for the game ended up being a nonevent.
Your character gets 30-40 matches to make a name for themselves, before having to retire. To that end, you will be introduced to trainers, receive sparring partners, purchase new equipment for the gym, and be offered marketing deals in-between matches. Emails and newsletters arrive regularly to update you on recent events. The newsletters cover the league while emails from Dana White, with his strained Ďattitude,í cover your performance and potential opponents are offered by coordinator Joe Silva. Fights are a few weeks apart, which gives you time to train and rest. Itís crucial that you budget your time properly, otherwise you wonít get enough rest and you will have low stamina during the next fight - stamina is effectively your life gauge. You can train in strength, cardio, and speed, with each having three levels of intensity that drain more of your stamina, for a boost to your stats before a fight. There is also the option to spar, which drains a lot of stamina but also results in additional skill points. Skill points are distributed based on how you perform with your sparring partner, and they that can be spent towards a range of attributes that range from standing kicks to ground strikes; and the greater the proficiency, the larger amount of points required to advance. Matches will also be offered if another fighter is injured and a replacement is needed, which are great ways to kill time before your next scheduled match but, from my experience, not the best way to properly prepare. There are also marketing options that will help increase your credibility (cred).
Your fighterís cred is important for their advancement. By winning matches, sponsors will approach you to take pictures, sign autographs, and give interviews for websites. This takes time away from your schedule, but it increases your cred. Sponsors will also sign on to have you sport their decals on your shorts, in a laborious process that is about five steps too long, which will give cred bonuses at the end of a match. Your performance in the fight itself will also increase your credibility, which will lead to refined training through better equipment for the gym, additional sponsors, and new sparring partners. Itís also important to accept matches with fighters that are near your rank, because you also gain credibility by going after the top-tier talent. This system is pretty interesting, and it is implemented well in career mode.
Retiring a character doesnít mean you have to start all over. Retired characters can be used in the other modes, particularly online in multiplayer. The computer AI can be sometimes surprisingly good, but sometimes you want to go against a real person. I had better luck finding ranked matches rather than random bouts, with quick searches less successful than custom searches, but in all the online component is as you would expect. Online is a different beast altogether from singleplayer, though, with many exceptional players that will not hesitate to get you into a protracted, and sometimes infuriating, ground game Ė very different from what I experienced in the offline bouts Ė or just dominate with an intimacy with the combat system that is frightening.
In an attempt to deter cheating, for both single and multiplayer, honest gamers are limited by the inability to copy save games. This means that you canít simply copy over the save with your custom character to a memory unit and load them onto a friendís system to have a one-on-one against each otherís UFC counterparts. Instead, you have to challenge your friend online, which not only limits a significant aspect of the game but also makes multiplayer needlessly cumbersome. Fighting strangers with your character is all well and good, but sometimes you want to head down the street and put a friend to the test. I really hope that save game copying is patched in at a later date, because the game deserves it.
Fans will have a hard time complaining about the production values. Despite the limited options when creating a character, slight robotic look during close-ups, and pixilated mat logos, the action really looks fantastic. The animation is as fluid as the controls, and the fightersí unique movements give them a bit of flair. Fights look, feel, and sound great. The audio commentary is a bit limp due to the announcers having to use nicknames during bouts with custom characters, and at times are a little lethargic, but the inclusion of both Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg no doubt help with immersion. I wouldíve gladly given up all of the intros to cut back on some of the loading, though.
Overall: 8/10UFC 2009: Undisputed scores high primarily on its fighting system. Itís not that the modes are particularly bad, but itís just that they all pale in comparison to the fighting mechanics. What should have been the hardest part of the design was pulled off with aplomb while the rest peaks at adequate. This is undoubtedly a great start for THQ and Yuke's, but I hope subsequent releases donít muddle the fighting system with needless complexity for the sake of progress Ė it already had me jumping out of my seat in excitement - and addresses the outside-the-octagon game, particularly the customization options when creating a character. And for the love of everything, for 2010, please optimize the menus and loading.