Exit the Dragon, enter the freestyle wrestling kickboxers!
I bet every single one of you has had the "Bruce Lee vs. Anyone Else" conversation. Usually a result of one too many margaritas, this discussion is often prompted from a commercial of the latest Jean Claude Van Damme movie. "Yeah, he's pretty tough," your friend concedes, "but he couldn't kick Bruce Lee's ass."
Back and forth you go, coming up with dream matches featuring Bruce Lee against an assortment of modern day fighting masters. Inevitably, the conversation breaks down, because it's really hard comparing different fighting styles. A Jeet Kun Do master vs. a Jujitsu champ? Who knows?
The UFC, that's who. Started way back in 1993, the Ultimate Fighting Championship brought the arguments of a million drunk college men out into the spotlight, pitting world class fighting masters of every imaginable discipline in a series of brutal, full-contact matches. Pretty much Bloodsport for the masses.
And if ever there was a "sport" just crying out to be made into a game, this is it. Crave's Ultimate Fighting Championship recreates the energy and brutality of the event with brilliant graphics and innovative gameplay. While not the ultimate fighter, it certainly has a winning record.
The gameplay is similar to other fighting games only in that your object is to knock out your opponent. In every other sense, UFC represents a new take on fighting by placing the emphasis on tension and timing rather than button mashing and Dragon Punches.
This is due in part to the incredibly simple controls. You've got two punch buttons and two kick buttons - and that's it. You don't use the triggers whatsoever, a strange occurrence in a fighting game. The key lies within the button combinations. Each fighter and each fighting style has a unique move list, and learning the particulars is the only way to win.
UFC bears similarity to Dead or Alive 2 by utilizing a reversal system. But where the latter simply touched upon reversals, the former moves reversals to the forefront. Every single move - be it a kick, punch, throw or submission hold, can be reversed and turned into disaster.
Since a submission hold can win or lose the match in a matter of seconds, the gameplay is built around tension (initially touched upon in the PSX Bushido Blade games). One slight error in timing can have enormous consequences. If you try to catch a punch and miss, you'll inevitably end up swallowing some blood. In this sense, learning each fighter's moves and really understanding the timing is the key to victory - not who can throw the most fireballs.
The game features 22 different UFC fighters, including reigning champion Tito Ortiz, or as I like to call him, "Mr. Ortiz, Sir." You can choose to play as any of the fighters in a variety of modes, from basic Training to your own custom Tournament to the grand UFC mode, which rewards you with a silver belt if you win. Silver belt winners can then enter the Champion mode, where they must defend the belt againt 12 contenders in a row, thereby winning the coveted gold belt and bragging rights.
Then there's the Career mode, which lets you create a fighter and increase his stats through 31 levels of sparring. But it's really just a long training mode, a place to beef out your fighter before taking him to the UFC mode. I was a little let down by the somewhat paltry amount of options - you can't change his look at all, aside from different color schemes. Compared to the genius player creation in games like WWF Attitude, this one falls a bit flat.
However, the wide variety of fighting styles is nicely represented. You can be a kickboxer, throwing knees and elbows around like a Muay Thai madman. Grappling is your thing? Then choose a wrestler or submission fighter and try your best to bend your opponent's finger into a pretzel. There are also a million shades in between, and the better balanced you are, the better prepared you'll be to take on the different guys.
To match the cool gameplay, UFC features some of the most impressive character modeling in town. Fighters move with realistic fluidity and the facial mapping is spot-on. Referee John McCarthy looks like the real guy and the ring girls are actually kind of hot. A few clipping errors aside, the gameplay graphics are really good.
The camera stays pretty stable when you're both standing, but as soon as you start grappling, it switches to a more cinematic view. This often looks cool, but sometimes makes it hard to see what's going on. Occasionally the ref completely obscures the fighting, causing you to lose the match. Other times, the camera zooms in too tight, making it difficult to see your opponent.
You are also treated to replays of the last moments of each fight, but these are fixed and are not user-controlled. I would have preferred the ability to control the playback speed and cameras of replays, a feature found in most sports games.
Considering how violent the real UFC can get, the blood is barely noticeable. You can up the amount of gore, but it only results in brief, random blood splattering that quickly fades away. It's obvious that Crave is being sensitive to the current debates over violence in video games, but c'mon - this is a UFC game. No one watches the UFC to see the clash of styles; they watch it to see the clash of red blood on white canvas. Some may call this nitpicking, but if you're going for realism, then, well, go for it.
Additionally, fighters don't show any damage modeling - no bruises, no cuts, nothing. If they can do it in Ready 2 Rumble (and even Knockout Kings), why not here? Smashing a forearm right between a guy's eyes 6 times should result in at least a bloody nose.
Also, UFC is hard. Really hard. Defeating the 12 fighters in a row to get the gold belt is quite a task, even on the normal difficulty setting. Not a game for the amateur gamer. But if the single player gets too tough, you can always duke it out with a friend, as the multiplayer is plenty of fun.
UFC is an interesting game, one that should certainly be checked out by fans of the fighting genre. It's not a flawless victory, however, and in the end doesn't quite reach the plateau of a masterpiece like Soul Calibur. Though I wonder if it could kick Bruce Lee's ass?