Review / UFC 2009 Undisputed (Xbox 360)

With mixed martial arts becoming the new boxing of the world it was about time that the UFC, the largest MMA fighting promotion in the world, got its act together and released a video game. Okay, yes, this is actually the sixth UFC game but who’s kidding who? The other ones were quick and dirty cash grabs that failed in most every respect. To launch what looks like a yearly franchise (what with the year in the title and all), the UFC turned over their license to THQ and fame wrestling developer Yuke’s. The fruits of this venture is UFC 2009 Undisputed, the best fighting game I’ve played in years.

And yes, I’ve played Street Fighter IV. I actually traded it in to get this. I didn’t expect anything from this game. In fact, I had sort of already concluded the game would most likely suck upon first hearing it being announced. I didn’t even bother downloading the demo for fear of angering my ISP. Then I saw it at the local EB and gave it a whirl.

The biggest plus this game has is its fighting system. At first dauntingly complex, once you understand the flows of combat and the nuances of the grapples, punches and kicks, I would go out on a limb and say this ranks among the best fighting systems ever. This is the one fighting game I’ve played that button mashing will almost always get you knocked out or submitted. There is a clear and distinct difference between someone who has spent time learning what to do in each situation, and someone who just runs in Superman punching non-stop. With punches and kicks designated to the face buttons, the shoulder buttons go towards modifying the type of punch or kick that’s thrown. It makes it a game upon itself to know when to block high or low, or when to go for that sweet take-down once the opponent leaves his guard open after a missed strike.

And it’s the grapple that makes this system great. The right analog stick is designated to controlling the clutch, with both fighters vying for superior ground position to either submit the other or to get a good ground-and-pound going. Although a beginner can probably settle for wild analog spinning to get by and succeed against like skilled players or the computer on a lower difficulty setting, it’s knowing how to motion into transitions, as well as being able to block an opponents transition, that makes the game a great rock-paper-scissor experience. It’s about anticipation and lightning fast reflexes. If you lose after getting taken to the ground, you know it’s your fault and not the game being cheap.

What will leave the greatest impressions, though, are the flash KOs.  However, it’s also the game’s greatest weakness. Attempting to simulate the UFC as much as possible, Yuke’s implemented spontaneous knock outs that come out of the blue from one good strike to the head. Although extremely satisfying when you land one, it’s infuriating to be nailed by one, especially in the career mode. My biggest complaint about the fighting system is that flash KOs come way too often and way too randomly. Though there are understandable moments like nailing someone right after they whiff on a kick, more often than not a flash KO comes from a regular hit to the head.

To supplement the fighting are the basic modes, with exhibition that allows you to pit fighters from the same weight class against one another, a training mode, a classic fights mode and the career. The classic fights open with a video introduction showing you how the fight went down and it’s your job to recreate a similar outcome. There are a bunch of fights to choose from, but there’s no reason to come back for more. The career is definitely the highlight, but there’s something a little lacking from it. The create-a-fighter isn’t nearly as diverse as other sports game create-a modes. When you have a fighter, you do the usual training and sparring to prepare for bouts. You eventually get sponsors but I found putting sponsor logos onto your trunks was such a convoluted hassle that I never bothered to. You fight, you win, you become champion, you fight some more, then you retire. That’s it.

Career introduces you to one giant hassle – could a game save more often? It seems like every single move you make in career mode the autosave boots up, and three separate saves commence. Altogether each autosave probably only takes 10-15 seconds, those seconds add up when you see it so many times between fights. The menus also move as slow as molasses, with a noticeable lag after you press a direction. This is weird because the fighting itself is so smooth and precise.These aren’t game breaking problems, but they’re really annoying. The online play can also get laggy sometimes, messing up the timing of blocks and reversals.

A lot of attention was obviously paid towards the graphics and the fighters all look great. Now, I’m not familiar with every single fighter in the game but Georges St. Pierre and Matt Hughes all looked spot on. Chuck Lidell was missing his patented beer keg, though, replaced with inexplicable abs. The ring looked like it should and the referees, ring girls and Bruce Buffer are given just as much detail as the fighters. What’s really stunning is the game doesn’t suffer from the clipping problems that Yuke’s WWE titles have. Punches and kicks don’t go through body parts or faces. Everything connects, especially the occasional slow motion replay of a punch to the face (sorry, no replays for kicks). And the way a body crumples lifelessly from a flash KO is just satisfying in so many ways.

But not all is well in the land of looks. The blood and damage detail leaves a hell of a lot to be desired. The blood comes in drops and hit the mat in little photoshop-like splotches. After Fight Night Round 3 revolutionized messing up a polygonal characters face over three years ago , it’s a shame to see UFC skimping on the devastation. Cuts mysteriously vanish between rounds, playing no role in the actual fight. The crowd is also laughable. The UFC has some of the more rowdy crowds, what with the wanton violence at hand, but here they’re little more than cardboard cutouts. The presentation is as minimalistic as it can get. You have a ring, you have fighters and that’s pretty much it. No ring entrance, no default stamina bar, nothing.

Soundwise, the game is entrenched in the “extreme” rock crap that has always been associated with the UFC.  Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg do the commentary, but you can tell Rogan would rather be spending time with his, ah, plants then to sit around and speak into a mic. The game get’s the sounds right where it matters, though – the fighting. Hits sound right, as are slams and take downs. The big shots sound appropriately brutal.

If you’re a UFC fan, you probably already own this and know what I’m talking about. For those who are still on the fence, try the demo. Don’t ignore it just because it’s a UFC game. It’s not the most feature rich sports or fighting game, but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in sheer fun. We should expect a much more diverse game next year.

+ Extremely addictive gameplay
+ Great fighter models
+ Submitting a button-masher a minute into a fight

– So many loads, saves and slow menu navigation
– Lacking a substantial career mode and compelling features
– Getting knocked out by an errant punch despite dominating a fight