Game Review: UFC 2009: Undisputed
Seeking to shake things up in the ring, the longtime developer of WWE Smackdown is throwing blows for another fighting franchise this year with UFC 2009: Undisputed. With a fresh new face and a deep combat system, this next-gen re-entry of mixed martial arts is shooting for success. But will the so-called "fastest growing sport in the world" be just as quick to pin down fans on the consoles?
Though its Osaka-based dev team, Yuke's, worked on a number of past WWE games, make no mistake about it: Undisputed is no wrestling game. Much like the sport it's based on, Undisputed draws on a diverse set of disciplines to forge its dynamic and true-to-life style of play. There'll be no chair swinging, table smashing, or partner-tagging shenanigans to take part in here. Inside the octagon, it's strictly business.
You'll find out exactly what this means when you rumble through the game's main play modes. In exhibition, you can go at it as any of the 80-plus UFC fighters included in the game. Career mode, meanwhile, frames the game's core experience in a sim-style campaign, allowing you to custom-tailor your own homegrown fighter. Custom contenders can vary in size, weight class, and appearance, but the real detail to take note of is your scrapper's fighting style, which encompasses real life disciplines like Muy Thai, boxing, and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.
The differences between each style are subtle, but evident. Muy Thai practitioners emphasize the use of flying knees and clinch strikes, while judo and wrestling fighters make use of throws and slams to capsize opponents. Being able to mix and match these disciplines at your leisure turns up some interesting variants of conventional and unorthodox style combinations, affecting how certain characters are played and how you approach certain matchups.
From there, it's up to you to build up your character's rep in and out of the ring by duking it out in matches, training in the gym, and even taking some time out for the occasional photo-op. The more of an impression you make, the more your cred builds. Cred gives you access to all sorts of benefits like better training equipment, or visits from fighting coaches representing various schools that can teach you new techniques.
If you've played a lot of wrestling games, then the framework behind Undisputed's career mode might feel a little familiar. But it also benefits from a pace that's far more brisk, allowing players to get in and out of matches quickly without having to deal with too much micro-management. Thoughtful, well-placed touches pick up the slack, like training camp drills, which help you reinforce your basic style foundations, or the sparring matches you can participate in, where you'll get pointers on how to approach your next match-up.
The attention to detail carries over even into Undisputed's interpretation of the classic fighting game challenge mode. Classic fights mode tasks you with recreating the exact conditions of legendary UFC matches. If you're successful, you're rewarded with a highlight reel of the actual bout.
Undisputed's overall structure doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel, but with finely-polished features and a well-implemented style system, the game still manages to deliver something that feels new. And with online multiplayer thrown in the mix, players can at least know full-well that their UFC experience will extend past butting heads on the couch.
Undisputed is a ring fighter with an emphasis on two central aspects of MMA: the stand-up game, and ground game. If you're not prowling around the ring, looking for a chance to land a knockout blow, you're on the ground, aiming for that submission and subsequent tap out.
Punches and kicks are mapped to face buttons, with shoulder buttons delegated to high and low attack modifiers and blocking positions. The right analog stick governs everything related to grappling; flicking it in a specific direction allows you to counter incoming strikes, while pushing forward lets you go in for a clinch or shoot. The control scheme initially feels like a mouthful, but it's simple enough to grasp within your first round in the ring.
Once both fighters are on the mat, the game's pace does a complete 180, becoming all about mounting a solid offense or maintaining a strong defense by way of transitions. By timing circular thumbstick motions, you're able to secure better offensive and defensive positions to lay on the pain or escape. If you're feeling particularly ballsy, you can even try to catch your rival's fist mid-air for a chance reversal. Just be mindful of your stamina; every punch and kick you toss out will make you increasingly susceptible to a TKO by submission.
Undisputed's fighting system is no doubt intricate and seriously daunting for anyone that wants to completely digest its nuances. Many moves require modifier buttons, and in one case, you're asked to use the right analog stick and face buttons at the same time. Yet there's a tremendous amount of scalability that makes it possible for players of all skill levels to get into it. Playing cat and mouse with your opponent's striking distance is a game all unto itself, and the nearly-endless variations of counters, reversals, and transitions make high level play feel very cerebral.
Above all, the fighting system makes you feel like you're truly in a fight, where every victory and loss is a direct result of your actions. Not a lot of competitive games manage to achieve that, but Undisputed has it down to a science.
No matter how you look at it, Undisputed is definitely a crowd-pleaser from all angles. Each of the game's 80-plus fighters is rendered with impressive detail and convincing physics. Sweat glistens, shorts crumple, and flesh ripples with incredible believability, and the fluid animations behind each ground transition are smooth as butter. The collision-detection is also surprisingly spot-on. Glancing blows will miss, and well-timed haymakers will hit, resulting in airborne mouth guard ejections and satisfying playbacks of your coup d'grace.
Undisputed also sounds great, with seamless color commentary from UFC broadcasters Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan. The crowd reacts to each blow, whether it misses or lands, and the uproar that commences after a match-winning ground and pound is nothing short of magical. One ding is that it fails to really capture the electricity of a real UFC fight. There are awkward, silent loading screens that zap matches of some of their momentum.
Beneath its standard run of modes and a fighting system almost too big to contain is an extremely fun and well-thought-out brawler that, even without the UFC license, would stand very strong. It's incredibly complicated, but that's also what makes it as deep and strategic as the real thing. Even if you aren't particularly fond of sweaty men pummeling the snot out of each other, you'll be surprised just how fun it can be.
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 3.