No game took an emerging sport to the mainstream in its first edition like UFC 2009 Undisputed did last year. But once you join sports gaming's A-list, even in your rookie year, you have to start making sequels.
THQ, known for delivering annually on the WWE Smackdown series, poured development into UFC Undisputed 2010 to deliver a second game with mixed martial arts' top stars and branding, and cement its position as the definitive MMA publisher, since later this year it will no longer be the only one. By the end of the year, EA Sports will enter into this high-growth market.
For now, THQ must follow its own act, and learn how title defence can be tougher than taking the first one.
In the Attack: UFC Undisputed 2010 is an excellent dissipater of aggression. Strikes, especially the fist strikes, have a very satisfying impact when they land cleanly, speaking highly of game mechanics connected to the violence you wreak. This year's game adds new cage interaction animations, providing a greater sense of yeah-got-him-now in your clinching strikes - or if you manage to pound your opponent into the chain-link. Ground-and-pound mechanics are just as breathtaking in their raw brutality. The game maintains what made its predecessor such a breakout hit with crossover appeal to fighting and sports genres - the chance to hit someone as hard as you can, as often as you can and finish a fight with unilateral violence. Its basis in a real sport provides a thrill of victory different from that of arcade fighters tied to super powers and special moves. UFC Undisputed 2010's physicality has a very seductive appeal to it - especially for those who like it rough.
Let's Call This a Career: While I'm not a devotee of MMA, I know that the up-from-nothing story - for both the fighters and the sport - is its emotional fulcrum. Career Mode delivers a total story by placing your created fighter in situations beyond bouts and attribute-generation. Interviews aren't an interstitial diversion; the game invites you to make respectful or disrespectful comments about your opponents, with lasting consequences flowing from that, in both your fighter's credibility and popularity attributes and how the fans and commentary react to you. Career mode has been lengthened by five years to 12, and now includes an amateur preamble, allowing your fighter to test his strengths against the game's four difficulties before picking one and turning pro. Reviewing UFC Undisputed 2010 I had to hustle through a lot of this mode, but even now I want to return to it - to do it right - and tell my story to a sport I hadn't really thought about before.
It's Showtime: Mixed martial arts is a made-for-television spectacle and UFC Undisputed is a very worthy video game companion, from the broadcast quality openings through the ring introductions, helmed by the authoritatively suave Bruce Buffer. Announcers Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg occasionally talk over one another or misapply a comment (a weak or measuring strike called a powerful one), but their pre-match commentary is outstanding, and in tournament or career modes they'll even identify the tactics you used to win past matches. Replays remain a weakness, but a forgivable one, given the difficulty of identifying key moments other than a knockout. Still, at the end of a gruelling round, or fight, there is plenty of satisfaction in feeling like you are participating in more than just a match, but in something to be watched, which entertains you on two different levels.
Controls - on the PS3: This game is a handful, moving nearly every body movement - positioning, running, a new swaying system, transitions, reversals - to the right analogue stick, with the intent of a player popping out of one move and into another. In clinches or on the ground, the designers' intent is for you to hit that a-ha moment and instinctively feel how to position yourself, open your foe's defence and hammer him into the canvas or cage. If I had those moments it was on the PlayStation 3's DualShock, whose analogue sticks are better suited than the Xbox 360's to subtle position changes without overwinding them. But a visit to the practice cage is definitely in order, to get a sense of how the controls should feel when properly executed. In the heat of the moment, you're probably not going to learn.
Stylish Fighting: I can't credibly address the realism of the actual fighters' moves and behaviours, or the appearance and effect of the techniques themselves. I can, however, say that this game offers a staggering diversity of combat styles that, combined with an a la carte assigning system, allows for the creation of a truly unique fighter. The game helps novices by providing several MMA templates to start with - adding in karate, wrestling, sambo and other fighting styles. And training with other fight camps in career mode allows fighters of both persuasions to be introduced to methods and moves they may not have considered.
Online Fight Camps - In Theory: UFC Undisputed 2010 includes an Online Fight Camp mode that I'll praise in theory, rather than by direct experience, because of how camps work and because of the game's multiplayer connectivity issues (see below). Players may align with training camps, a good idea that shrewdly delivers some cooperative multiplayer aspects to a strongly competitive title. In camps, you spar together, share tips and advice via voice chat, and your fighting record is aggregated into the camp's overall record. You also get a nifty custom banner that appears behind you during your bout introduction, imparting some team pride when you're off fighting by yourself. Unfortunately, you can only start a camp or be invited to one. There's no option to create a publicly joinable camp. Of course THQ wants everyone in the enterprise to get along, but a straight novice isn't going to do well as the leader of his own camp, and should be able to ask into one by some means other than begging a guy over voice chat. Still, cooperative multiplayer aspects in sports games are depressingly rare, and seeing a mixed martial arts game make the effort to include it deserves commendation.
Multiplayer's Missed Connections: The Xbox 360 version has been beleaguered by online connectivity issues since the day of release, and Thursday evening they had only marginally gotten better. Linking up with the THQ servers poses problems for more than just multiplayer - if the console's connected, the game will try to connect to a server before you are able to do anything in the main menu. (This is not a requirement to have an always-on Internet connection.) That creates some inscrutable and infuriatingly long load times, upwards of one minute, just to get to the game's first screen. Some people are also getting error messages at the UFC Online menu, saying their router's NAT setting is not set to open. I spent an hour trying to figure out how to change that because the URL for troubleshooting this issue, supplied in THQ's error message, was not even active until Thursday morning. Following THQ's instructions I could find no error or setting that needed changing. Forum threads in the UFC Community are seething with anger at connection problems and crippling lag, which seem to be influenced by geographic distance between the host fighter and his competitor. Finally, in prime time Thursday night I was able to connect to a ranked match, and saw the lag for myself, although it did improve somewhat as the bout wore on. The good news? I had no trouble with multiplayer on the PS3 - connected to the same router and the same network, of course. There were some common and minor lag issues - I had a couple of fights go against me at a critical moment due to it. Still, it was nothing like the utter fiasco that is Xbox Live multiplayer with this game.
UFC Online: We've been over this before. But it's a sick joke that, after the games community had to discover for itself - rather than through a forthright announcement by THQ - that multiplayer access would be limited by a one-use code, it was treated to a fundamentally misleading code redemption process and then, for Xbox 360 users, broken multiplayer. The implementation of all this reeks of last-minute panic and is a serious black mark against this game and the UFC and THQ brands.
No Defence: Can I talk about the gameplay for once? Sure. What frustrates me the most about UFC Undisputed 2010 is how disconnected it feels from its defensive moveset and, to a lesser degree, the grappling. defence is indispensable to winning at the higher difficulties of a combat sport, and leaning into the right analogue many times produced no discernible result to me. In clinching or pummelling, you're given two basic gestures, major transitions and minor. Major is activated by dragging back at a 45-degree angle and winding up. Minor is accomplished by dragging straight back and winding up. I could never tell if I'd commanded the game to do what I want - or even what the hell difference a minor transition made as opposed to a major one - mostly because the difference in gestures is subtle and executing one properly requires some deliberation that many forget in an urgent situation. Defending takedowns and against your opponents transitions requires holding the stick in one direction or the other. Timing them for a reversal also felt disconnected. These actions would feel much more definite if they were mapped to buttons - and the button-based brute force escape from the mat is gone from this game. The one part of defence I didn't have a problem with was blocking strikes - because that was mapped to the right bumper and trigger. I can take getting my arse kicked in this game or any other, but I need to know it's because I made a poor decision or neglected some critical aspect of strategy. The right analogue makes it hard to tell if I'm even doing what I'm supposed to. Worse, you'll encounter plenty of novices online who've given up and decided their best defence is an offence, and just spam attacks at you all day long.
Not Really a Knockout: This year's version toggles off fighters' health and stamina bars by default, and raises the possibility of a spontaneous knockout at all times in the game. These design choices definitely conform to the anything-can-happen quality of a live UFC fight, but in a video game, too many KOs come completely out of nowhere, at times that just don't seem justified within that bout's narrative - both for and against you. I also didn't see much diversity in the knockout animations, which seemed to be mostly carry overs from last year.
Many will come to this game as complete beginners, either catching the mixed-martial arts wave, or because they heard about last year's great game and want to give the latest one a shot. They need to know they're in for something that is very much a sports game, more so than being a straight fighter. If their intent is to fight other humans online, they should stay away from the Xbox 360 version until THQ addresses its multiplayer issues and sounds a definitive all-clear to gamers when they are resolved.
Despite its shortcomings, which range from some excusable less-than-cutting edge animations to the inexcusable multiplayer issues at launch, the heart of a truly great fighter is still present in UFC Undisputed 2010. Taking the time to understand it, to learn from it (or from others, as the Online Camps are meant to do), and to build up a fighting style, not just a set of attribute scores, can still deliver the thrills and fulfilment that made UFC 2009 Undisputed such a breakout hit.
UFC Undisputed 2010 was developed by Yuke's Future Media Creators and published by THQ for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on May 25. Retails for $US59.99/$AU109.95. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played all game types in both single and multiplayer modes.
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