Version tested: Xbox 360
All sport is a metaphor for combat. The team games - football, rugby and so on - are sprawling battles; attackers and defenders ebb and flow up and down the field in a clash of will and power, led by steel-eyed captains. American Football is a series of frantic First World War-style scrambles for territory measured in 20-metre increments. Tennis is a pistol duel, squinting shots lined up in the glare of a high-noon sun; foot races are breakneck chases between predator and prey.
But while there's always risk, sometimes injury and occasionally death, sport largely remains metaphor. This is how some have argued that boxing falls outside sport's definition. There is, detractors say, no metaphor: it is deadly, brain-injuring combat, killer blows softened only by the padding on each fighter's fist, a concession to civility perhaps only introduced so the participants live long enough for promoters to make extra cash from intermission snack sales.
If you baulk at the lack of metaphor in boxing, then the unflinching brutality of mixed martial arts will scramble your mind. While the UFC - both in reality and in this game - assumes the glitzy presentation of the WWE, underneath the hot lights, pomp and swagger, stand two men entirely uninterested in providing entertainment. There is no metaphor: each eyes the other weighing in the mind how their own rock, paper, scissor combination of martial arts proficiencies might bring the other to a state of unconsciousness as quickly as possible.
Perhaps for that reason, the UFC delivers mixed entertainment for the viewer. For every scintillating match that rotates between show-boating roundhouse kicks, rapid-fire pummels up against the arena wall and chess-like wrestling transitions on the mat, there's an unshowy first round tap-out from a vicious arm lock or ankle twist hold.
And therein lies a great deal of UFC's appeal as a videogame. Each match has the scope for the kind of upsets that boxing rarely offers, where wearing your opponent down blow by blow into a hazy submission can often become a repetitive chore.
In MMA, by contrast, you might go multiple rounds on your feet, zoning your opponent with high kicks and Muay Thai-style knees to the torso. Or you might spend four minutes on the floor, trading positions in a celebration of Greco-Roman wrestling while attempting to get the upper, strategic hold. Or you might score a Flash KO three punches in with a well-timed sway and counter-combo that strikes your opponent in just the right way to send them reeling down the tournament ladder. These kind of unpredictable outcomes define the game, and help keep it interesting (and occasionally frustrating) long after developer Yuke's bread-and-butter wrestling titles may have dulled in appeal.
The controls are logical but take time to learn and absorb, especially as the style of play differs greatly between fighting on your feet and fighting on the ground. As in Tekken, the face buttons are each mapped to a limb, and standard attacks are modified with trigger and bumper presses to aim high or low on your opponent. Blocks can be integrated seamlessly at the end of basic combos, but it's the reversals and counters where the high-level game really opens up, with a well-timed flick of the analogue stick allowing your fighter to grab an incoming kick and hurl the opponent to the ground in a single fluid motion, if you can spot the opening and react in time. The ground game, by contrast, consists of a series of safe-cracking quarter- and half-rotations of the analogue stick, characters vying for positions of dominance before attempting the occasional submission hold.
The key to lasting the distance is in managing stamina. Attack too hard or whiff moves and your stamina will deplete fast, only refilling when you back off and defend. While your health will chip away every time an attack lands, if you don't settle into the micro-rhythms of attacking and recovering you'll weary your fighter and leave him open to a Flash KO or hazy stun, even if his health bar is well-stocked. In this way, the game seeks to mirror reality, where a flurry of red mist attacks would leave any opponent open to a deadly surgical strike, and it provides a neat way to discourage button-mashing and force beginners to weigh the wisdom behind each blow.