There’s a bit of a love-hate thing I have going on with THQ’s more realistic (as much as pro wrestling can be called realistic, anyway) fighting games. They’ve made some absolute classics, and they’ve made some absolute shit. And they’ve gone from awesome to awful in two years sometimes (Smackdown vs Raw 2007 to 2009). Now we’re looking at another UFC game, and I can’t think of a good one since Dreamcast. So it’s with no small amount of trepidation I approach UFC: Undisputed…
…and with little reservation, I declare that I love it. Mostly. The meat of the game, definitely, but not um…everything else around it.
Starting with the awesome: fighting. Man on man mostly anything goes, minus, say, eye gouging, fishhooking, and apparently kneeing the skull of someone who’s on the ground. You know, things that are explicitly likely to kill someone. Otherwise, have at it!
UFC:Undisputed is kicks to the face, knees to the ribs, and driving elbows to the nose when you’re sitting on someone’s chest. It’s struggling for position and to stay on your feet, or on the opponent, trips, throws, clinches. Brutal, close fighting and splattering blood. Testosterone ahoy!
UFC:Undisputed is, while not without room to grow, the kind of thing we’ve been waiting for.
Okay, so the fighting? Awesome. Really awesome. Marathons on couches of friends fighting will happen repeatedly. UFC isn’t the kind of thing where you can rush in, throw a bunch of punches and walk away victorious. Usually. It’s about smart fighting, reading the opponent, keeping him offbalance, and making smart strikes. Throwing randomly will run out the stamina fast, and no stamina means no strength. No hard hits, no ability to take a hard hit.
So when the fight starts, there’s a lot of probing, there’s in and out combos, a lot of grappling and trying to be at the fighter’s optimum range, and, when things go right, a big kick to the head that the opponent moves into. UFC’s system takes into account placement of a hit, velocity, opponent movement, stamina, and damage to the area already done. Cut and swollen areas hurt a lot more to take a solid hit to, and a hit to the temple is going to do more than the shoulder certainly, or even the cheek. One hit knockouts DO happen in the game, though they’re rare, and it’s far from unheard of to end a fight in under a minute with the right strikes and wrong dodges. Even with meters on, you can’t guarantee that next hit won’t take you down, meaning there’s a CONSTANT tension to fights. And this is all just the stand-up game.
When the brawl really gets moving, players will end up on the ground, and there’s a deep, intricate system going here. All the major positions, different ways to get into them, different ways to get out, and a lot of damage to do or defend against. Most of the time the ground fighting starts off a good clinch leading into a throw, or a countered kick. Of course, old fashioned takedowns work just as well, and hard hits WILL send people crashing to the canvas. Once down, it’s time for someone to get the mount and start working through the defense.
MMA afficianados can tell you, on your back is the last place you want to be, and it becomes a struggle between players to get a better position where devastating ground strikes can be launched that use the full weight of the torso to deliver kinetic energy to the face, to move up to a harder to defend against place, and potentially to get a submission. On the bottom, players are trying to defend, strike back and keep the attacker off balance, wiggle back to their feet or even flip the fight over, taking dominant position with reversals or advanced techniques. Or, of course, to counter a hit and move into a submission hold, particularly effective on a fighter who’s punched himself out on top.
Excellent detail in character models and damage modelling really tops it off. Fighters will get bruised up and battered, and real damage will open cuts and gashes which seem to appear almost anywhere on the face, though, as is reality, they tend to open up around the temple and forehead most. Varying damage to an area will result in gashes of different sizes, more prolific blood spray on impact, and provides a nice target to keep sending elbows to. The blood spray itself is particularly well done, and splatter can hit and stick to players. Do a lot of damage from underneath someone and your chest will get some blood on it. Pound on the side opposite a wound on the ground, forcing a cut into someone’s raised defense and that shoulder can turn red.
Perhaps the highest compliment to the game is that it became a game played in a group, a round-robin handoff, and everyone was enthralled even out of the fight. The consensus was immediately that it was as good as watching the real thing. And frankly, it was. The announcers even are better than most sports announcers in a game. They’re dynamic, refer to past fights, and even get it wrong sometimes. “Hits him with a right, I’m sorry, a left elbow!” It adds another dynamic, but realistic element. And every fight is intense and exciting since players are giving it everything with no regard for injury or what’s coming next time, but that thought leads to one of the game’s downsides, the career mode.
The skeleton of the game’s career mode is solid enough, honestly. Go between sparring, training, events, and resting to work your way up the ranks. You start off with low skill and earn more as you go. Early in, it’s a good mode, but the more you progress the more the flaws show. Early on it’s easy, not too much time management, just train a lot, spar a lot. But the game quickly starts to run out of time to do important things, and it becomes increasingly difficult to get a decent result from a sparring session. By the end of the game a player’s skills can be further out of line with the competition than at the very beginning, and that’s a recipe for disenchantment. There’s also the fact you do so much sparring it just gets BORING. It’s frustrating and annoying quickly, just grinding up skill points, and it’s too variable if you’re getting them. Even when you’re destroying the competition, that damn sparring partner can wreck you.
There’s also the constant loading and slow slow menus, especially checking email, which most players will simply stop doing because it’s NOT worth the time to see rankings change. Getting to a fight just takes too damn long, despite the good idea underneath it. In this case, raw simulation should have been dumped in favor of a more practical approach, a minigame set to improve skills and stats, like Fight Night, with an unlimited option for practice fights. Instead, there’s far too much luck and grind to improve a fighter, and it really, really stops being fun once players get the title, there’s a feeling of “Why bother?”
Another career issue is the levelling up of a style. Most of the time goals are reasonably accomplished, but sometimes players are given tasks to perform in a 5 minute sparring session that just don’t happen. Often they’re defensive achievements that the CPU never provides a chance to perform, such as escaping from a certain hold or countering a certain attack. It comes down to luck far too often in such cases.
There’s also the fact that beyond stamina decreasing, there’s nothing really that happens between fights. Fights are, simply put, one off. No injuries, no skill increases, no rivalries forming, no consequences beyond a changed ranking number. What makes this more apparent is the fact that NPC fighters get injured CONSTANTLY, though never during the fight. Sometimes players just get a sudden email asking them to fill in for a fight that’s just a few weeks away, and that’s it. Severe injury, rare as it is in the UFC, is a definitely missing piece in career mode and normal fights. The next iteration of UFC:Undisputed needs to throw in that occasional broken rub or even limb that ends the fight, or a section of a career. Granted, since the career mode has an arbitrary time limit, it would possibly work against players too much in that mode. Still, it’s a key detail missing from the simulation approach taken otherwise, what with no tangible consequences from a significant loss or getting carelessly kicked in the head.
One other point of frustration, and this sadly applies to the regular combat as much as career. Submissions. The idea isn’t bad, but it’s inelegant. Brute force escapes that are just an escape are done by button mashing, technical escapes, harder but often ending with a full reversal, are done by rapid right stick rotation. But versus CPU, or just particularly fast opponents, it’s a cheap, frustrating loss. Submissions require strength, but they’re an application of technique as well, and the game needs to reflect as much. A gesture and button matching system (perhaps matching movements made by the offense even) would have worked much better, in this reviewer’s opinion.
Beyond that, there are two complaints which are minor but SO constant they turn major. First off, the music. It’s not that it’s bad, at least the licensed music, but you hear ONE song generally, the one that loads when you start the game, and it’s the weakest of the licensed tracks by far. Or becomes such when you hear it for the 500th time. Otherwise, there’s a simple neutral loop that plays, occasionally with voiceovers from UFC highlights past thrown on top. Meh.
And yes, the other complaint is the menus. The Yuke’s standard complaint. There is NO streaming, at all. Every menu is ONE level, and as soon as you click any option, you go to a load screen (sometimes, that is, after a few seconds of black. Yes, loading a load screen. This does NOT improve with an HDD install on 360, I can’t vouch for PS3 if it’s an option, but the demo seemed to indicate the problem remains). I understand a bit of loading when loading custom characters, or the fighter list in a weight class, but it’s never that simple.
Getting into career mode involves main menu to “career mode”, load. “Load career”, load. Sillohuettes of custom characters pop up, pick a fighter, select “yes” when asked to continue career, load. “Continue career”, load. Finally, you’re into career mode, at least the calendar.
EVERY button press in the game results in a menu load. There’s even a load when you go from picking a weight class to deciding on round numbers, referee, and venue. And after a match, you can go to rematch or you have to go through the arduous load process to pick new fighters instead of a quick menu. Again, I understand and expect loads at some places, but it’s a constant annoying load, and when you have to load once per button press (NOT an exaggeration), something has gone HORRIBLY wrong.
UFC: Undisputed gets four out of five stars. The combat itself is spectacular, and being a fighting game the bulk of what matters, fortunately. The issues of no grievous injuries and annoying submission systems are a drag, though. There’s adequate character creation, but the constant loading (even then) is a tremendous, tremendous annoyance. So much so to take another half star to match the submission issues.