UFC 2009 Undisputed Review
While boxing fans patiently wait for the June 30th release of Fight Night Round 4, gamers that follow mixed martial arts are salivating over the impending release of UFC 2009 Undisputed. We've seen a few MMA games come out over the years and the best one was arguably the first UFC game back in the Dreamcast days. Since then, none have really lived up to the not-very-high bar set almost 10 years ago now, but the first game to truly take charge of the MMA fighting genre in video game form is set to be released this week. UFC 2009 Undisputed has great physics-based striking, dozens and dozens of fighters, a fantastic set of moves, and a deep wrestling and submission system that keeps you coming back even after the sixth time Wanderlei Silva knocks you out with about five powerful knees from the Muay Thai clinch.
Plenty of effort has gone into the game's basic fighting between no less than 80 real-life UFC fighters, and this is what the classic fights mode, exhibition play, and online matches pull from. You can also create your own fighter to participate in online and exhibition modes, and then there's the career mode where you'll create a fighter (yes, you have to play a new one - you can't pick up an existing UFC fighter's career) and fight and scrap your way to the top of the ladder. While it might be compelling to start off as one of the UFC's best and it might be interesting to set up dream matches inside each of the five weight classes included, you'll quickly find yourself wanting more out of the rather basic Exhibition or Classic Fights modes - and that's where the career comes in.
Career Mode has you creating your own schedule where you assign one week at a time training up your character's three major stats (Strength, Speed, Cardio), sparring with an AI opponent to build sixteen fighting skills (offense and defense in various types of stand-up and ground fighting), participating in the big fights, and going to optional publicity events like interviews and photo shoots in order to gain popularity. You'll need to rest for a week or two after serious physical exertion so that you'll be at 100% for your next sparring sessions and fight nights, and in between you'll have the choice to accept offers to become a short-notice replacement for an injured fighter. All of it boosts a Credibility score that measures your popularity in the UFC, and as you gain popularity, you can pick up new sponsorships and go to fight camps to train and build your character's main fighting disciplines.
In the career mode you'll fight no-name characters as well as the top guys, and you'll quickly find that while the game doesn't perfectly mimic each fighter's distinctive styles and quirks, it does do a pretty good job. Each real fighter looks fantastic and here and there will include custom animations for their signature attacks and taunts, and the stat system that ranks everyone and quantifies each fighter's abilities is fairly spot-on. Of course, some fans will complain that this guy's kick offense is too high and this other guy's takedown defense is too low, but that's always part of the debate in sports games, isn't it? Either way, if you do hop into the Exhibition mode and take the controls of a real UFC fighter, you will often be required to fight the way he does in real life if you want to survive.
Unfortunately, the only decent way to learn how to beat a specific fighter in career mode is to smash your head into his knee repeatedly until you find another way around it. The game's sparring mode says it'll train you to defend your next rival's attacks, but all your sparring partner will really do is try to kill you in the ring just like your opponent will. Since you gaining fighting skill points in the sparring mode, this becomes a very important activity, and going offensive so far seems to be the best way to gain training points. While I commend Yuke's for making training activities that involve zero button mashing, Quick Time Event, or Simon Says games, it also still doesn't actually help me train for a fight beyond a few very basic moves the sparring partner tries to pull. Luckily, the fight camps you'll be invited to generally do a good job of teaching you how to employ both basic and advanced moves.
All fighters in UFC 2009 employ one of three stand-up disciplines - Boxing, Kickboxing, or Muay Thai - and one of three grappling disciplines: Judo, Wrestling, or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Each has unique moves tailored for various situations both on the ground and while standing, and it's going to be up to you to maximize the use of these powerful techniques while minimizing the impact or viability of your opponent's best attacks. Overall, each style feels very powerful and fairly balanced, and while there are plenty of fighting styles in the real world that are missing here, you'll still find plenty of great moves, combos, grapples, and submissions to use to win, and most of the unique ones for each discipline are forces to be reckoned with.
The ground game is an entirely different experience from stand-up fighting, and skill and timing are most definitely the biggest deciders in a match when it's on the mat. The whole thing is framed in this pyramid-like system where the fighter in the dominant position is trying to improve his situation, and the one in the disadvantageous spot is trying to either reverse his opponent's moves, transition him away from the better positions, or force the fighters back on their feet (either by kicking the opponent off or having the referee step in and stand you up). The whole thing revolves around using quarter-circle motions on the right stick to transition, or holding a direction on the right stick to block the opponent's transitions (but that leaves you open to strikes while you hold it). While most every fighter's dream position is the open mount - kneeling on top of the opponent with his legs out of the way, raining down power punches - it never lasts very long against a good player or smart AI opponent, so you'll have to take advantage of it for the short while it's available to you.
The Classic Fights mode includes 12 of the best fights in recent UFC years - but only the recent ones, as the developers wanted the game to be a snapshot of what's happening today. (That's why you won't see fighters like the Gracie family included in UFC 2009.) In each of these classic fights you can take on each side either against the AI or in a local two-player match, and if you control the historic winner of the match against the opponent AI and win in the same basic way that the real fight happened (like, say, a TKO in the first round) then you unlock a video clip showing off the real-life result of the fight. Unfortunately, that's about it; I'd have loved to be able to unlock these fighters for career mode or something similar.
While the career mode will likely eat up many hours of any willing player, the real star power in the UFC comes from the big names in the sport, and the best way to pit them against each other is in the exhibition and online modes. Going head-to-head locally is fun and very crazy (and can make you some enemies if you keep landing Kimuras), and taking your fighters into Xbox Live and PSN play is generally fun, but there can be some real mismatches online and the game's instant knockouts can turn decent players into gibbering piles of expletives if you score one on accident. And that's the one big disappointment I've found during the action: the instant knockouts that can happen seemingly at any moment and result from a weak strike just as often as they will happen after a really powerful hit. It adds a level of unpredictability to the fight, which is fine in the real-world UFC, but in a video game it's just a dice roll. It's not really satisfying to win this way, and it's infuriating to lose instantly like this - especially if you're beating your opponent when he slips some weak hit in and gets a magic win. There's no option to disable these knockouts in any mode, so they're just something we have to live with.
UFC 2009 does have a fantastic presentation that really feeds the authentic feel of the whole experience. From the menus to the introductions to each fight, it looks and sounds like a real pay-per-view broadcast. Three of the sport's best referees are included, Bruce Buffer does the announcing, and both Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan are in there doing the commentary. And the commentating is absolutely wonderful, as there are hours and hours of speech by these guys that not only yell out when someone goes down, but talk about the pluses and minuses of certain styles and moves - and have no problem barking out a wealth of knowledge on each of the game's 80 roster fighters, too. But there's a technical aspect of it all that's great, as well - Rogan might be giving us a history lesson about a fighting style when you land a head kick that sends the opponent reeling backwards, and just like in a real broadcast, Goldberg will interrupt him and they'll start screaming about how the fight's about to go south for the guy that just got rocked. And yes, Goldberg will often yell "AND IT'S ALL OVER!" at the end of every fight, and you'll get an earful of this catchphrase as the game replays audio clips of big knockouts of UFC's past in the menus.
In a game like this, all of the authentic looks and sounds will do you no good if there's no fun to be had in the actual fighting, and luckily UFC 2009 has done a great job. It's easy to start picking out the game's shortcomings - minor bugs in the career mode, no southpaw stances, instant knockouts ending matches before their time, cuts and blood looking great but being only cosmetic, unwieldy menus and way too many dialog boxes confirming the goofiest of things, and other relatively small issues - but in the end, this puts 80 of the sport's top guys into the Octagon and has them fight it out in a very convincing fashion. Sometimes it's easy to get hung up on its failings, but if you're like me you'll keep coming back because this game is chock full of great action and deep fighting for both casual fight fans and the purists out there. THQ and Yuke's have already confirmed that another UFC game is being started almost immediately and that they have a pretty good idea of what to work on for the next game, but that's no reason to wait. I am having a blast with UFC 2009 Undisputed right now and plan to keep at it during the weeks to come.