UFC Undisputed 3 Review
It's probably outside the scope of a video game review to talk about the downfall of boxing as a major spectator sport and the rise of mixed martial arts, and whether those two things happening simultaneously is somehow connected. Suffice it to say that over the last fifteen-plus years, what once was a little-known organization called the UFC has been putting on bigger events and becoming more widely accepted as a major American spectator sport. Even today with all of the rules and regulations involved, mixed martial arts takes a direct line straight to the core of why we watch sports: physical conditioning and mental dominance, all focused towards beating up the other guy in the cage. On top of that, we all know that many sports are violent and quite damaging to athletes' bodies, but MMA is more up-front about it; combat sports put that kind of violence on display rather than try to hide it. Through reality shows, mergers, FOX deals, and a move to a truly international audience, the UFC has broadened their appeal immensely. Amongst all that, a multi-year video game deal with THQ was made and the UFC Unleashed series came out of that deal.
We're now three games into the series, and it's clear that THQ and Japanese developer Yuke's has learned a couple of lessons since the first two. The most important lesson is that UFC games can be popular, but the sport's just not quite big enough yet to fully support a yearly game franchise. There was about a year between the releases of the last two editions of UFC Undisputed, and while hardcore fighting fans like me enjoyed what few tweaks were made between them, many gamers who aren't dedicated MMA fans had a hard time telling the difference. With UFC Undisputed 3 however, the team has taken 21 months in total to re-work and really improve the game from the ground up. Their efforts have largely succeeded, although there are still a few rough edges that could keep casual players away.
I want to get this out of the way right now: UFC Undisputed 3 may seem to have elements in common with fighting games like Street Fighter and Soul Calibur, and many will be unable to avoid the direct comparisons between them. But this is more of a sports simulation, and the controls and complexity of MMA's grappling and submissions make this a bit of a mismatch for the dedicated fighting game crowd. UFC 3 would not work well in a tournament scenario because matches can take up to ten minutes to complete, making it a nightmare for tourney organizers to juggle.
So while the versus and online play is slicker, smoother, more polished and potentially far more balanced than before, the glory you get in this game will probably be limited to online win streaks, being on top of the leaderboards, and having bragging rights against your real-world buddies. There won't be a truly competitive scene for this game the way that the fighting game community has one, nor will it make it into regular rotation over on Team Sp00ky-streamed tournaments or anything like that. It's a wonderful game that encompasses the drama, strategy, and excitement of the sport pretty nicely, but it's just not going to be embraced by the fighting game community well at all.
Despite some serious attempts this year to help new players, UFC Undisputed 3 is still a difficult game to learn to play. It starts out easy enough, with kicks and punches on the face buttons and movement on the left stick, but then you've got blocks and modifiers on the triggers, grappling options on the right stick, and a ground-fighting system that, even in the third game, still probably makes no sense to a casual fan because a few basics about MMA in general still aren't explained. Sure, you can now use a very simplistic transition system where flicks up and down on the right stick perform transitions, but the game doesn't really take the time to properly explain why being in someone's full guard on top is not nearly as dominant as being in the mount, or how transitions, blocks, and reversals work when put together with everything else. All you get is this disjointed tutorial that overwhelms players with information, forces them to play in tiny and useless snippets, and doesn't let them slowly build new moves into their ongoing arsenal. Admittedly, it's hard enough to explain the intricacies of MMA to a casual watcher without having them play a video game at the same time, but having pop-up prompts and providing two-second gameplay tidbits for upwards of half an hour is just not productive.
THQ might fail to reach new players with its re-worked tutorial, but they also made other efforts to help people learn how to play on the fly. There are pop-up tips that automatically pause the game in single player modes and tell players what they can do when they get put in certain positions (like when they get caught in the clinch, or when they get taken down), and yes, you can disable them if you already know how to play. They can be pretty helpful here and there, but there's simply no substitute for someone actually explaining things and visually showing you how to play. If you are thinking of picking up UFC 3 but haven't played either of the past two games, then try and find a friend that can teach you to play, whether it's in the same room or in a casual online game.
The bread and butter of UFC games has always been, in my opinion, the career mode. After some iffiness late in the second game's career, I was wary about it this time around, but THQ has put in the effort and thought to make things more balanced and enjoyable. You get to spend more time in the Octagon (or Pride ring, if you decide to join a Pride Fighting tournament during your career) than ever before, and your training does an even better job this time of teaching you things while it's pretending to teach your on-screen fighter new stuff as well.
As before, you can create your own fighters using some fairly versatile tools for face and body tweaking, and a quietly-added new feature in this game is the ability to take any licensed roster fighter and start over their career from scratch as well. You can build their skill and move sets entirely different from the real-world fighter if you want, try to recreate the fighter's arsenal and stats as accurately as possible, or just mix and match as you see fit. For me, this makes the Title and Title Defense modes (which mimic the rudimentary arcade mode in fighting games and are the only other solo modes that allow you to use roster fighters) almost completely obsolete, since now you've got a much deeper mode for licensed fighters.
You start out in the World Fighting Alliance, a little league-style fight organization, and after several wins (or if you get the WFA championship belt for your division), you'll get the option to move up to the UFC. Career-mode fighters still have to hit the in-game gyms to spar and train in between fights, but players don't have to deal with a "stamina" stat or having to rest before fights anymore. Each training activity still takes you just a minute or two to complete, but you do fewer of them between fights and each one has a larger impact on your fighter than in past games. And now, a selection of stats and skills will both rise and fall based on which training activity you choose (rather than on a general "decay"), and nearly all training activities affect one or two core stats and at least a few fighter skills simultaneously. So, if you do some ground sparring, you'll get an increase in your cardio stat and in skills that have to do with grappling on the mat, but your standing strike skills might drop just a tad. You still have to spend time visiting camps if you want to learn or improve specific moves, and just like before, it's crucial to build a competent move set that, by the end of your career, leaves your fighter as a true mixed martial artist and not a master of only one trade.
On top of all this, the game now includes things like ring entrances and fighter banners, and you can customize those as well as pre- and post-fight behaviors and the like. Eventually you'll be forced to choose a camp and then stick with them for the rest of the career, but you'll get bonuses when learning moves with them as well. Other tweaks here and there more correctly mirror the more public trials and tribulations a fighter goes through, although there are plenty of challenges fighters have behind the scenes that I doubt any video game will be able to properly deal with anytime soon.
Not everything's peaches and lollipops with the career mode, unfortunately. With all of the tutorial videos and briefings narrated by Mike Goldberg on topics that seemed mostly self-explanatory, I thought the developers would explain the training sessions a little bit better, but instead we're left in the dark on what the goals are or what exactly we're supposed to do to succeed in them. This can lead to a few failed training sessions spent just trying to figure out what to do, which is always frustrating. On top of this, the new game plan system feels like a bit a gamble, as training with a game plan and executing it during the fight (which now gets you additional bonuses!) can lead to rewards or failure for seemingly arbitrary reasons sometimes. The problem is that the goals required to get full bonuses for some game plans can be strange, difficult to complete, or seem to be in contradiction to the name or intent of the plan as it's advertised.
Possibly the biggest issue with the career mode is the way you're set up for failure if you try and mindlessly climb your way up the rankings as quickly as possible. Taking your rise up the ladder slowly allows you time to have more training sessions to build your skill and win later fights more readily, but that means you have to take what are called "tune-up" fights early on, and maybe hang around as a WFA champion for a half-dozen fights and use the gym as much as possible before getting called to the UFC. If you do not do this, and just beeline straight for the UFC as fast as possible, you'll likely find yourself staring across the cage at a high-80s legend of the sport when your stats are still only in the 60s. The game seems to do this to teach you a bit of a lesson and dump you back into the lower ranks so you can get more training, but if you want to go undefeated, I recommend slow-playing your career progress to maximize skill gains before jumping up to the UFC.
Pride Fighting Championships was a Japanese MMA organization that saw broad, worldwide success up until five years ago, and despite the death of the promotion, it lives on in people's memories as the source of some of the most beloved moments in the sport. The UFC bought the rights to Pride a while back, and to date, Pride Mode in UFC Undisputed 3 could be the UFC's biggest love letter to Pride fans around the world. Not only did THQ get the original commentating team of Bas Rutten and Stephen Quadros into the studio for a large chunk of entirely new voice commentary, but they got the crazy-lady introductions for the full range of fighters, too. The Japanese introductions, ref, and ring are in, and the developers even re-did the lighting to give Pride fights a wholly unique look with its bright lights (arguably, Pride mode actually looks better in-game than the UFC's comparably dimly-lit Octagon) and boxing ring. Fights play out differently due to the game's unique rule set, too: you can't elbow opponents on the ground in Pride, but you can stomp or soccer kick their heads. And when grappling, you can throw knees or kicks to the head of a downed opponent. These rule changes dramatically affect which grappling positions are more or less dangerous to be caught in when compared to the regular UFC gameplay.
What I really like is that UFC 3 treats Pride as if it was still around today, so not only can you bring today's latest-and-greatest fighters into the Pride ring, but some of the fighters actually have two "versions", one from the old Pride days and one from today's UFC era - and yes, they come complete with different trunks, younger/older looks, and even adjusted stats. THQ really went above and beyond in creating Pride mode in UFC 3, and I think that it'll be a favorite in online play and with serious, old-school MMA fans.
For this third game, THQ has put a lot of effort into making the versus experience both more functional and more even for its players. New features like mirror matches, Equalized Stats, Competition Mode (which removes random elements like flash knockouts and cut stoppages), and Simulation Mode (for more realistic stamina that drains much faster - and more realistically) all allow players to tweak the experience to make fights a little more fair if they like. There's a new "paper doll"-type feature that gives players more feedback as to their health, stamina, and damage, as well. These features work in both offline and online versus matches, and Simulation mode can be enabled in career mode as well.
Online play has gone through extensive testing before the game's release, and with the retention of the full feature set, including clan-like fight camps, along with smoother-running online play, I think UFC 3 should be a hit on PSN and Xbox Live. The games I played online all went pretty smoothly, with the only hiccups coming with the odd session where I knew the connection quality wouldn't likely be amazing. The only way to know for sure whether the servers will truly handle the strain is to see how the game runs on release day, but at the very least, THQ has been putting in a lot more work in getting online infrastructure just right this time around.
UFC Undisputed 3 is an all-around major improvement over previous games in the series. The roster is more well-rounded, the visuals and audio have been improved, and the gameplay is more balanced with a wider range of options. Despite issues with the game trying and often failing to help new players learn the ropes, and a few pitfalls for players that go wild in the career mode, I can still say that this is easily the best UFC game yet. Of course, many consider traditional fighting games to be direct competition with something like Undisputed 3, and those games have improved immensely (and they're more numerous) in the last several years, so this game has a lot of competition to face right now. Despite all that, UFC 3 is a shining example of what a sports game developer can do if they buck the yearly trend and spend an extra chunk of time adding features and tweaking gameplay from the ground up. Get your four-ounce gloves on, gamers, as this one's a winner - once you learn how to play it, that is.
Disclosure: This review is primarily based on an Xbox 360 review copy provided by THQ, and we also played a PS3 review copy that was provided by THQ.