Real... … …ly.
Let’s dissect one commonly used but often abused word: “really”. Now, any serious book on proper writing would demand the fine-tuned obliteration of adverbs and phrases that are generally used to add emphasis and tolerability but actually show weakness – “very”, “quite”, “frequently”, “sort of”, “kind of”, “really”. In fact, the state of video game journalism is apparently so inane and unprofessional that Stephen Totilo at the Game Critics Rant panel at the 2009 Game Developers Conference devoted all of his time covering the basics of writing, including the removal of said adverbs and phrases. [Do we get to punch people in the face soon? ~Ed]
So feel free to admonish me for writing the following sentence: UFC 2009 Undisputed is really, really good.
[image1]Okay, so I don’t have an excuse for using “good”, the worst adjective in the history of language (aside from “pimp”), but let me explain. I mean “really” in its purest form, as in describing something that is thoroughly “real”-istic to a fault. For that is what UFC 2009 Undisputed is: a complete, no-holds-barred, in-your-face, unforgiving, with-blinders-on adaptation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in its rawest, most technically merciless form. Multiply the difficulty of any UFC title (plus Pride FC) on Dreamcast or PS2 by at least two, and you’ve got a good idea on how challenging it is. If you haven’t played any of those titles, that’s fine; you’ll understand just by going through the monstrous tutorial.
Put bluntly, this is not your everyday friendly fighter with standing attacks, a few crouching moves, some energy blast specials, and a couple of buttons you can mash – try doing that for more than three seconds and you will be grabbed in a single tie clinch, forced onto the ground into a rubber guard, and strangled in a triangle choke hold faster than you can say “pwned”. There are no gravity-defying juggles, no 105-hit combos, no flashy costumes, no over-the-top fight choreography with dramatic plot twists. Just two guys, one caged octagon, and all skill. That’s it.
As you might expect, there is an inescapable element of right-to-the-bone hardcore that pervades the gameplay: If you don’t want to take the time to remember at least ten different movelists, then don’t move the difficulty level past the first few notches. No other game asks you to recall such a stunning array of button presses and joystick wiggles, including inputs for a body modifier, strong modifier, step modifier, special modifier, clinches, minor transitions, major transitions, submission attempts – all of which can change depending on how far you are from the opponent or in what ground position you are in. And those ground positions depend on whether you’re on offense or defense, what ground specialty you practice, and whether you’re in guard, half guard, side control, north/sorth, mount, back mount, back triangle, or sprawl. (You sweatin’ yet?)
In the world of mixed martial arts (MMA), fighters need to master both the standing and the ground game, if just to know how to defend themselves against their weaknesses. A world-class kickboxer without any experience with grappling is ground meat. Learning how to transition fluidly from one position to another, let alone recognizing what each position is before your opponent drags you into a different one, is the key to controlling the match. Boxers, kickboxers, and muay thai specialists will want to keep the fight on their feet, with boxers aggressively closing the distance to get within reach of their combos, kickboxers keeping the opponent at bay with ranged kicks and surprise roundhouses to the head, and muay thai fighters bashing the opponent in the clinch with their knees.
[image2]But since every move – punch, kick, or takedown attempt – can be blocked, countered, or reversed, you will wind up on the floor eventually. Of course, if you have devoted time into studying judo, wrestling, or Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), that’s part of the plan. On the ground, you either want to strike your opponent with a few blows or attempt to transition into a more favorable position, moving up the pyramid of dominance on the floor from open guard to full mount.
It’s difficult to remember which minor or major transitions, all done by rotating the right stick by a certain number of degrees (though the input difference between them is only 45 degrees), lead to what ground positions at times. But in general the more major transitions you successfully execute (and the opponent unsuccessfully guards against), the better your position. That means more damage on your ground strikes, less damage on your opponent’s ground strikes, and a higher success rate on your submissions. In other words, if you have reached a full mount, your opponent has become, well, the full mount.
The boldest choice, however, is the lack of a health gauge; in fact, the screen is essentially HUD-less aside from the timer, unless you turn on the stamina bar. Instead of telling you how many hit points and stamina a fighter has, all you have to do is look at the fighter models themselves – cuts, bruising, arms sagging, punches softening, legs weakening, lungs heaving. Show, don’t tell - it’s amazing how effective that phrase is no matter the artform.
Just when you think the near-photorealistic characters, apparently made with around 30,000 triangles, couldn’t get any better, they morph. Not only will sweat form as the match progresses, but their bodies will react to where they have been hit, not just a preset hit animation. And all without any clipping whatsoever.
[image3]Justifying the removal of a health gauge, a fighter won’t be knocked out if he has low health, unlike in other UFC titles; instead, health and stamina determine how likely your fighter will be incapacitated. That means any fighter can be knocked out with an opening Superman Punch or head kick, but it will have to hit the exact sweet spot to do so. As unfair as that may seem, that’s exactly how matches in the UFC work, so if you have problems with that, you can take it up with reality.
Authenticity firmly grasps every facet of the presentation, holding onto a simple yet effective scheme that genuinely mimics a real UFC pay-per-view on television. The swooshing loading screens, Bruce Buffer as the ring emcee, Joe Rogan as a play-by-play commentator, audio clips drawn from the actual recordings of UFC bouts – THQ shows its attention to the UFC brand with full force. Most of the menus are clean and crisp, accompanied by a soundtrack that you could imagine a UFC fighter listening to right before they enter the octagon.
Some flaws, however, detract from the authenticity: the lackluster crowd, comprised of models that pale in comparison to the fighters, and a dearth of sound effects for pain. This might have been a deliberate decision to emphasize the made-for-TV aesthetic – you don’t hear the fighters grunt and grit their teeth unless they are close to the camera microphones – but hearing them wince and heave in the game would have made such visceral bouts much more engrossing.
Interaction with the cage is also absent, as if there is an invisible wall between the fighters and the steel cage. As any viewers of UFC will note, some matches take place entirely against the cage, with a fighter scrunched into a post trying to get out of the position. It’s not a feature that is necessary, but for the future, several positions that involve the cage would fit well with the faithful design.
[image4]More to the point, the “that’s how it happens in real life” philosophy doesn’t always work in video game design. Where this nearly blind commitment to the UFC really strains the game is in the lack of options. Why can’t fights go for one or four rounds? Why can’t I control the time limit or at least the speed at which the timer counts? Why can’t I have two different fighters from two different weight classes fight each other, especially since they have similar stats and there’s an exhibition mode? It would be understandable if there was an “Official UFC” ruleset that restricted career mode, ranked matches in online mode, and Classic Fights mode which asks you to recreate pivotal historic matches in UFC history, but the rule restrictions dash the hopes of fantasy match-ups that video games usually allow players to make. (Where’s the Achievement/Trophy for beating Brock Lesnar with BJ Penn?)
Knockouts don’t have enough punch, either. Again, it’s realistic for fighters to be coldcocked without slo-mo, facial rippling, and stretched sound of “uhhhhhh”, ala Fight Night – it’s more of a heavy, bludgeoning thump and then it’s lights out. But the lack of emphasis on the knockout makes it feel mundane and uneventful.
Thankfully, any aspirations for climbing up the ranks and claiming the title belt for yourself have been preserved with the create-a-fighter and career modes, the latter of which asks you to train an original fighter from a 20-overall wimp into a 99-overall weapon of human destruction (WHD). Sorry, you won’t be following the journey of Forrest Griffin, George St. Pierre, or any of the other 80 UFC fighters on the roster, nor will you go through the reality TV series The Ultimate Fighter. The create-a-fighter options are hardly as comprehensive as those in WWE Smackdown vs. RAW series, particularly not being able to tweak the proportion of any body part aside from the face, alter the weight to one that isn’t the standard for each weight class, and expand the size for tattoos beyond the small box that bounds them. That said, the create-a-fighter models aren’t meant to be exaggerated and look like they belong with the other fighters on the roster.
[image5]Career mode is structured around an RPG-light frame that focuses its attention on the matches. Physical training boosts standard stats – strength, speed, and cardio – whereas sparring improves fighting skills - offense and defense in striking, in the clinch, on the ground, and in submissions. As you rack up wins, you’ll gain CRED or reputation which will earn you sponsorships, invites to training camps with notable fighters to improve your technique, and move you up the ranking ladder until you get a title shot and hopefully win. Defend the title enough times and you’ll enter the UFC Hall of Fame at the end of your seven-year contract. All the while, you’ll need to manage your stamina, making sure that you enter the octagon at your best, whether it’s sparring or the real deal. Although the bombardment of email notifications and the removal of the general action list during training camp challenges are irritating, the career mode offers hours of content with the reward of retiring a high-tiered original fighter to become available on the roster.
UFC 2009 Undisputed is exactly what the UFC series needs, after a long hiatus since the mediocre UFC: Sudden Impact in 2004, and what THQ needs to get back on its feet. As unfriendly as it is for beginners and, well, anyone that isn’t used to pressing every button and moving the joystick on the controller in every which way, that’s just perfect for a brand that is “as real as it gets”. The first year of THQ’s contract with the UFC concentrates on shaping and refining the gameplay without any bells and whistles, and while it's successful, it sacrifices a bit too much for the sake of keeping it real. But as a foundation for what is to come, it ranks as one of the most important revitalizations of a series - and I would even say - in video game history. Really? Really.