Back when weekends involved nothing more than GoldenEye and Mario Kart, I remember renting a Dreamcast after my stingy parents refused to upgrade my N64. One of the games that came in the box was the intriguing Ultimate Fighting Championship. As a group, my friends and I had a fair amount of experience with Tekken 3 and WWF War Zone, but UFC was unlike anything else. The standing combat was a less flamboyant Tekken, but the intricacy of the ground game eluded us almost entirely. If one player managed to pin the other to the floor, frantic button-mashing ensued, with the dominant fighter usually battering his opponent for a KO. It clearly had depth that rewarded skill and good timing, but ultimately I was too smitten with Soul Calibur to care.
Skip forward some eight years and we have UFC 2009: Undisputed. Many developers have had a crack in the intervening period, with the likes of UFC: Tapout, UFC: Throwdown and UFC: Sudden Impact, all of which met with critical apathy. But regardless of how the specialist press rates UFC in videogame form, they must have sold alright, because THQ has taken the publishing torch and tasked Yuke's (Rumble Roses XX, WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009, etc.) with developing Undisputed.
My impression has always been that UFC is similar to boxing and wrestling, but rather than focusing on a strict rule-set or soap-opera styled entertainment, it aims for more anything-goes combat. Of course, around 40 rules are in place to minimise the risk of combatants killing each other - i.e. no biting, eye-gouging, throat-striking, rabbit punches, fish-hooking, kicking a downed opponent, etc. - but unlike a single styled martial artist or boxer, the predominately MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) UFC fighters will use any means necessary to win. Even if this does often translate to fights ending after a quick takedown manoeuvre and follow-up submission hold.
In Undisputed, players each pick a real-life fighter from the same weight division (there are five in total) before moving to the octagon arena to do battle. The left analogue stick is used for movement with quick taps for sidesteps and dodges, whilst pushing the analogue stick down allows for running and speedier evasion. The face buttons, in classic Tekken style, represent an attack for each limb, with hook, jab and kick variations achievable by holding different directions. Simple combos can also be strung together for a sustained assault.
Up top, the right bumper and trigger are used for high and low guards respectively. Holding the left trigger will switch your fighter's attention away from his opponent's face and upper torso, with kicks and punches then aimed at legs and midriff. By holding the left bumper, players can also open up more devastating techniques like backfists, haymakers and roundhouse kicks, which are easier to defend against and punish, but are good for the odd match-winning KO if timed correctly. And there's something really satisfying about kicking an opponent full-pelt in the face.
In keeping with the MMA spirit of UFC, each fighter has a standing and ground style that corresponds to real life. Michael "The Count" Bisping for example, has kickboxing techniques on his feet and Brazilian jiu-jitsu moves on the mat. The rest of the 80-plus roster, including the likes of heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar and ex-light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, each have boxing, kickboxing or Muay Thai as their standing style. Boxing and kickboxing are relatively self-explanatory - the first allows you to dominate from mid-range with every punch imaginable, and the latter supplements the boxing basics with an extensive variety of long-range kicks - perfect for zoning. A Muay Thai fighter is an expert at close-quarters combat, and can land a multitude of knockout blows with knees and elbows. They can also repeatedly knee their opponent in the head with the Muay Thai Clinch - irritating if you can't figure out how to escape.
As the fighters brutally batter each other within the three five-minute rounds, they become visibly more fatigued, with faces bruising convincingly from poorly blocked uppercuts and knee strikes. The combatants also move and execute techniques in a way that closely mimics reality, with muscles visibly expanding and contorting beneath the skin. Undisputed is in a similar league to Fight Night Round 3 as a game to showcase on your 50" 1080p monolith, which, when you consider that it has more than double the roster, is a fair achievement. My only real criticism is a lack of momentum behind the punches, although it may just be that I'm so used to instant dragon-punch gratification.
So far then Undisputed sounds like a kickboxing version of Fight Night with less emphasis on leaning and swaying, which as a summary of the standing game is reasonably fair. But it's the use of the right analogue stick and its transition from the standing game to the ground game that sets Undisputed apart and represents its most tactical mechanic. Tilting the right stick towards the opponent sends your fighter in for a cuddle, and, if successful, catches your opponent in a standing clinch hold. From here you can try and take the opponent to the floor or just beat on them with strikes - all the while he can try to counter the clinch.
A more aggressive tactic would be to attempt a double-leg takedown, driving the match instantly from standing to ground, by holding the left trigger and pulling the right analogue stick down/towards your opponent. This is risky because it's easy for a skilled player to punish, but if it hits un-countered will put your fighter in the advantageous guard position - i.e. the opponent on their back with the player kneeling upright between their legs.
Although it's likely most players will initially ignore the ground game and just batter each other until someone flukes a KO, Undisputed only really comes into its own in the ground game. For example, from the common guard position, both fighters are able to strike and guard using the same principles as the standing game - although the top player will more likely dominate when trading hits. With good timing it's also possible for a player to catch the arm of a striking opponent and put them into a submission hold like the armbar. This technique is one of the most common submissions in the UFC and a favourite among Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners.
Once a ground game is initiated, both the dominant and defending player can attempt minor and major position transitions - either to increase the chances of a KO/submission, or in the case of the defender, to execute a position-reversal or escape, and this is the hardest mechanic to successfully manipulate. Initially dominating in the standing game against the AI, I was often taken down to the mat, swiftly manoeuvred into increasingly indefensible positions, before being pummelled into submission.
Minor transitions, like going from guard position to half guard position, are done by performing 90-degree motions on the right analogue stick, vaguely mimicking the real-life manoeuvre. Major transitions, including guard position to side mount, are executed with a 135-degree motion. The defending player can try to reverse these transitions by performing the appropriate counter on the right analogue stick, like reversing a guard position by flipping the opponent onto their back. But as it stands, no amount of guesswork will prevail over a player who's done their homework in the training mode. Undisputed's success is going to pivot on how fair and intuitive the transition system turns out.
As with the offensive standing game styles, each fighter has a proficiency in wrestling, judo or Brazilian jiu-jitsu for advanced grappling manoeuvres. Wrestling seems to be the easiest style to implement, with techniques that focus on taking a standing opponent to the ground - usually with lots of momentum. Combine wrestling with a boxer's knuckle-based repertoire and you have a dual style which, although not the flashiest, focuses on overwhelming and out-powering your opponent.
Comparatively, a judo fighter has many techniques that allow them to easily take down an opponent during a clinch, and, once on the ground, execute a variety of different submissions from joint-manipulation to choke holds. Brazilian jiu-jitsu, meanwhile, is all about controlling the ground game; pulling off technical submissions in positions that would be disadvantageous in other styles.
With all this in mind, for the majority of European gamers, who may have heard of Ken Shamrock but don't have a clue what the difference is between a back mount, rubber guard and north-south position, the appeal of Undisputed could largely be lost amongst the more familiar Fight Night and the more entertaining Soul Calibur IV. But for hardcore fight fans who like their games all kinds of Virtua Fighter 5 technical, Undisputed could provide a more realistic alternative. And for those who've seen UFC 1: The Beginning right up to the most recent UFC 97: Redemption, Undisputed has the potential of being the first worthy UFC MMA fighter.
UFC 2009: Undisputed is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 22nd May.