Version tested: Xbox 360
Why isn't the UFC as popular as boxing? Are the MMA (mixed martial arts) fighters of the UFC not superior in overall combat, demonstrating that fighters of a single discipline invariably have inherent weaknesses when their respective rulebooks are thrown out of the window? Well, the UFC certainly fields some of the world's most talented combatants, but it doesn't always deliver the most entertaining fights. For every bloody slugfest - where two stand-up fighters beat each other senseless for three rounds - we get a first-round submission finish, where a dominant ground fighter trips up his opponent before forcing him to submit with some manner of ankle or arm lock. An impressive demonstration of hand-to-hand combat, yes, but not as entertaining as seeing someone knocked out with a tornado kick to the face.
In videogame terms, the challenge Yuke's faces with UFC 2009 is even more daunting. Gamers, rather than being limited to what the human body is physically capable of, can dragon punch a giant Russian wrestler 40 feet into the air. With a character wearing little more than an Elvis costume, they can shrug off several hits from a claymore - whilst wielding nunchaku with even more flair than the late Bruce Lee himself. Comparatively, a UFC game must toe the line of a simulator like Fight Night. Its value is measured on how well it represents the sport, but it must also be entertaining to play. Thankfully, then, UFC 2009 is a more enjoyable experience in terms of tightness and entertainment than any wrestling or boxing game I've ever played (with the notable exception of Fighting Mania).
Undisputed's fighting system focuses on the six main standing and ground styles used in the UFC. On their feet fighters have a proficiency in boxing, kickboxing or Muay Thai. And whilst grappling or wrestling on the floor, fighters can utilise techniques from wrestling, judo or Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The dual styles of your chosen fighter generally dictate your best chance for victory. If your style is kickboxing and judo, you'll be able to zone your opponent with long-range kicks, and should you get in close, you'll have the means to throw them to the ground for a submission. In contrast, Muay Thai and Brazilian jiu-jitsu is all about in-close fighting with deadly knees to the face. And if a judoka or wrestler takes you to the ground, jiu-jitsu gives you the means to dominate with counters and submissions - even if in the defending position.
Despite being effectively mapped to the pad, understanding Undisputed's many systems will take some time. Dead or Alive this certainly isn't. An Undisputed novice will get to grips with the punches and kicks of the standing game relatively quick. The face buttons each represent a limb - ala Tekken - and can be used to string together basic combos. Attacks are normally aimed at an opponent's face or chest, but holding left trigger will aim your attacks at the legs and midriff. Right bumper and trigger can be held for low and high guarding. Although Undisputed aims for a more seamless approach to combat by removing any onscreen health bars, I'd recommended first-time players turn on the stamina display in the options menu. Training with it gives a better understanding of the importance of stamina.
Stamina and health are intertwined, because the maximum amount of stamina a fighter has is equal to their remaining health. Offensive techniques drain stamina, but stamina can be recovered safely by guarding or backing away. However, as a fighter takes damage their health gradually lowers and they become exhausted more rapidly. A player with stamina in the red is significantly more susceptible to submissions and knockouts. I've played a few online matches where the opponent, even though close to full health, was knocked out in the first minute after completely draining their stamina and failing to recover it.
Light punches and kicks are incapable of putting an opponent to sleep, but are quick and hard to counter. By holding a direction, the fighter's punches and kicks gain more weight, and if the conditions are right, have KO potential. Even more flamboyant techniques are opened up by holding the left bumper, which accesses style-specific strikes. These include flying knees and superman punches. If you miss, the recovery time is typically punishing. However, all strikes can be countered by flicking the right analogue stick up for high attacks and down for low attacks. Implementing this into your game is crucial, especially against a strike-happy opponent. Thankfully the counter window is quite generous. Catch a foot and you'll take the opponent to the ground. Whereas catching a fist puts you in the clinch.
Outside of countering, a clinch is performed by pressing forward on the right stick - but is easy to counter with an elbow to the face. A variation "striking" clinch is performed when combined with the left bumper. Clinching refers to two fighters grappling on their feet, and if they're either a wrestler or judoka, is an optimum position for flooring your opponent. Much like the real UFC, five three-minute rounds rarely end with both combatants having been on their feet from start to finish. A takedown attempt can be made at any time by holding the left trigger and flicking the right stick. And once on the floor, Undisputed's fighting system is at its most impressive, but equally, its most confusing for beginners.
In the ground game, one fighter is dominant (on top) whilst the other is defending (bottom). Generally the ground game will start in what's referred to as the open guard - where the defending player still has their opponent caught between their legs. This isn't a major disadvantage for the defender as the dominant player is outside of effective striking range and can only attempt basic submissions with a low chance of success - combatants are not allowed to punch each other in the balls. However, by making 90 and 135 degree rotations on the right analogue stick, the dominant player can attempt to improve his position via major and minor transitions. This can take him to half guard (pinning one leg), side control (side-on to the opponent) and north south (pinning the opponent's head and chest).
The most dominant position in the game is the mount (sitting on the opponent's chest). Once here the defending player has few options left and will likely be pummelled unconscious or submitted with an armbar - unless they fluke an escape or catch the opponent's punch with a counter. However, to stop their opponent reaching the mount, a player can perform counter transitions either to stop the opponent from transitioning or to reverse the dominant and defending positions entirely. Brazilian jiu-jitsu players are particularly annoying for this. For a novice who doesn't yet grasp the input times for transitions, or the most effective way to get back on their feet, it can be frustrating to play against an opponent who goes straight for the ground and pound. But for players who've invested in the training mode, unravelling the mysteries of Undisputed's fighting system, fights turn into a very tense experience.
It's all about managing your stamina effectively, mixing up your strikes so as to avoid a counter, predicting and countering your opponent's strikes and - should the opportunity present itself - taking down your opponent and dominating in the ground game. Indeed, Undisputed really shows its value going into the third round with an evenly skilled opponent. By this stage both fighters will be visibly damaged and low on stamina. In the last minute the opponent attempts a knockout roundhouse kick, you dodge back with it missing your face by inches. You immediately counter with a jaw-shattering superman punch to the face, and as you watch your opponent's legs buckle under their own weight, the sense of elation in a hard-fought victory is immense.
Right, that's over half the review spent trying to convey the tightness of the gameplay and how well it comes together - the most important factor in any fighting game. But what about all the other stuff? As well as an Exhibition mode for fighting against the CPU or a friend, Undisputed also has a stab at the often ill-fated Career mode. Rather than picking one of the 80+ real-life fighters from Undisputed's roster, the Career tasks players with creating their own fighter. As well as choosing their two primary fighting styles and weight division, you're also required to put points into their attributes and skills. In terms of attributes, strength governs how hard you hit and grapple, speed dictates how quickly you dance about the octagon and cardio represents your fighter's overall fitness and stamina recovery.
Fighting skills come in 16 flavours and include "standing striking offence", "ground grapple defence" and "clinch striking offence". Both attributes and skills can be maxed out to 100. But a new fighter can only allocate 30 of his few starting points to a specific skill or attribute. Undisputed also allows players to tinker with their fighter's appearance. Muscle tone, tattoos, jaw size, etc. are all catered for, although due to the serious tone you can't make them wear silly hats. Plus hairstyles are mostly restricted to everything between skinhead and crew-cut.
Once you've bundled your creation into a fresh pair of shorts - my Dave "The Doctor" Davidson looked particularly fetching in his navy-blue full-length efforts - your UFC career can begin. The Career mode revolves around a calendar and email system. You're scheduled to fight every 10 weeks or so, with in-between weeks used primarily for training and sparring. Training requires no player input and is used to raise attributes - normally one to three points for each week. Depending on how hard a training session is undertaken - light, moderate and intense sessions are available - a certain amount of stamina is drained. Half your stamina can be restored by taking a week off to rest.
Alternatively, a week can be used to spar against an opponent in a non-competitive bout. And depending on your performance, you'll get a certain amount of points to invest in skills. The key to training before a fight is to use the weeks to build up points, crafting a fighter that will be effective for your style of play, but also making sure you've rested enough to have full stamina before the fight. Go into a ranking fight with low stamina and you'll likely be knocked out in the first round. As you gain more credibility or "cred" as a fighter, you'll also receive virtual emails offering extra fights, sponsorship deals and training sessions with renowned fighting schools - the latter is the only way to unlock new style-specific moves.
Because your fledgling fighter starts out with very low attributes and skills, they'll struggle to take down an opponent with substantially higher statistics. For example, if you win your first five fights against similarly skilled opponents, you might receive an email from Dana White offering you the chance to fight the likes of Thiago Silva. Even on the easiest difficultly setting this can be very challenging if your stats are less than half that of your opponent's. You could dominate with all your best moves for two rounds straight, then get caught in the final round with a KO punch even with a full bar of stamina.
Although the Career mode isn't massively engaging, playing through the fighting schools and learning from your mistakes is an effective path to better understanding of the gameplay. Plus once you've filled your trophy case with various trinkets, not least of which the title belt, it can be fun to see how many consecutive title defences you can manage on the harder difficulties. But the main question I keep asking myself about Undisputed is how could it better replicate the UFC experience onto the pad and screen? Apart from the ability to attempt illegal moves like a downward elbow strike or rabbit punch whilst the referee's vision is obscured, I can't really think of any.
I do have some minor niggles outside of the fighting system. Most notable of which are the loading times. Going into an Exhibition match, whilst mashing face buttons and Start to select the default characters and skipping all the introductions, it took over one and a half minutes from when the game loaded to throwing the first punch. Installing Undisputed onto the hard drive on Xbox 360 didn't seem to make any difference either. As a point of comparison, and to make sure I'm not going off on one for no reason, Street Fighter IV only took 32 seconds for Abel to throw a punch in arcade mode. Also, although it goes with the territory, the music is an acquired taste at best. The commentary, at least, is varied and genuinely interesting to hear.
Overall, if you find UFC boring to begin with, Undisputed is unlikely to change your mind. But if you're looking for an equally tight and complex fighting game that leans towards simulation, rather than all those crazy Street Fighter IV Ultra combos, then there's a lot to like about it. That said, the ground game, in particular, is hard to judge so early. The balance of a fighting game can only truly be weighed several months after it's unleashed to the masses when it's possible to identify broken techniques that can be abused in high-level play. But first impressions so far are very promising, and Yuke's should be commended for crafting not only the best UFC game ever, but perhaps the best fighting system ever for a (wait for it) "real-life fighting simulation game".
If you're comfortable enough in your sexuality to be able to play game where muscular men regularly tussle with each other on the ground, as well as beating each other senseless, then Undisputed comes highly recommended.
8 / 10