If there’s one fighting sport that’s bucking the current downward drift toward ridiculously theatrical overtones, it has to the mixed martial arts Ultimate Fighting Championship.
And if there’s one videogame series that accurately captures UFC, it has to be THQ’s Undisputed. It’s therefore time to limber up those thumbs and prime those game faces, because Undisputed is stepping back into the octagon looking leaner and meaner than ever.
Undisputed 3 is not the simplest of fighting games. Nor, as videogame flagship of the globally acclaimed MMA franchise, should it be. Despite its complexity, the action is faithfully re-enacted and flows smoothly once the basics are mastered. Developer Yuke's has countered any inaccessibility by including 62 tutorial exercises that should give newcomers a bit of a leg up. Most however, will probably opt for the trial-by-error approach often used to beat down friends, flatmates, and spouses.
Taking an opponent to the ground has been opened up by the inclusion of Pro and Amateur controls, which dictate how much movement on the right stick is needed to switch guards. The latter arrangement allows players to adjust their position on the ground with a simple up or down movement – which should help novices adjust to the style of fighting – whilst Pro offers a little more control for more seasoned MMA junkies.
While the basic premise of beating the other guy senseless remains the same, the fighting has been given a little polish. Lighter jabs are useful as a means of opening adversaries up before landing stamina-expending haymakers, and leg TKO’s are now possible. The art of swaying - rather than simply blocking - remains a tactically important means of keeping momentum. If timed correctly, the results are gratifyingly devastating. Coaches also provide feedback between rounds, which is helpful for determining areas in need of improvement.
The cramp-inducing, frantic stick rotation used for submissions in the previous games has been replaced by a slightly simplified yet intuitive octagon graphic that allows players to visually gauge how effective their submission attempt or escape is going, to the collective joy of gamepads and physiotherapists everywhere.
The introduction of Pride mode offers the chance to relive the early heydays of televised MMA. Based in Japan, Pride ran for ten years and was the world’s biggest MMA organisation until it was bought by the owners of the UFC franchise in 2007. Many contemporary UFC legends such as Mirko ‘Cro Cop’ Filipovic and Wanderlei Silva took their first few stumbles to international fame in the square blue ring. Hallmarks of the Pride era such as characteristically techno-tuned intros, hysterical Japanese announcers and alternate rules (head kicks on the ground are permissible, for one) provide a bit of variety from the main attraction.
The total roster of fighters in Undisputed 3 has been bumped to over 150 with the introduction of the bantam and featherweight classes, and extras are set to be added in DLC packs slated for March and April. Disappointingly, New Zealand’s own UFC contenders, James Te Huna (Light Heavyweight) and Mark Hunt (Heavyweight) are missing from the final line-up, although Hunt does feature in Pride mode.
If the roster fails to sufficiently impress, custom fighters can be designed from the ground up and used online or offline for title and career mode, although it should be said that multiplayer is occasionally an exercise in frustration due to intermittent connectivity issues.
Career mode itself now forgoes previous titles’ overemphasis on statistics, and has been streamlined so that the focus is now on time spent in the octagon, but there’s often still a dizzying swathe of load sequences to get past before the bell can ring. Customisation has been given a wider scope this time around, covering everything from fighting styles and opponents to sponsors.
Adhering to certain conditions such as following pre-fight game plans and repping sponsors throughout bouts can be rewarded with advantages. These advantages consist of temporary fight bonuses and increased Cred - the currency accumulated through fights that can be used to purchase condition upgrades and improve physical statistics in some of the 14 training mini-games.
There are also varying training camps, participation in which can gain exclusive moves, so as players move forward from humble beginnings in the World Fighting Alliance to the primetime of UFC they'll have full control as to how their chosen fighter develops.
Small documentary style clips from real UFC fighters that provide perspective on various aspects of fighting life are spaced in between career progression – it’s the small pieces of collaborative effort like this that really deliver a sense of authenticity to Undisputed 3.
Title Mode returns for custom and roster fighters, but it’s doubtful whether most will have the commitment or the patience to defend that hard-won title through 100 back-to-back five-round matches, as the game requires the defence challenge to be completed in a single run.
There’s also the opportunity have a second go at some of UFC’s more infamous clashes via the ‘Ultimate Fights’ mode. The goal is to re-enact key moments from the bout – such as Wanderlei Silva giving “Rampage” Jackson 20 withering knees to the face – within a certain timeframe. The re-enactment challenges can be taken on all at once or individually, and once all challenges from the fight are complete, persistence is rewarded with clips from the actual fight. However, it is disappointing to note that of the 24 Ultimate matches available all but five require DLC to be unlocked.
Visually Undisputed 3 is as sharp as ever, but don’t expect to find any major graphical improvements from past titles aside from some minor buffing. Animations are a tad smoother as a result, with the exception of knock-out kicks and punches that aren’t quite as satisfying when replayed through slow motion. Even so, the series doesn’t seem far off from becoming a near photorealistic rendition of its namesake.
Aside from a few minor hiccoughs, UFC Undisputed 3 undoubtedly retains its title as the heavyweight champion of MMA games currently available, and is a must for diehard fans or gamers looking for a little more out of the fighting genre. Whether wading straight into battle through exhibition mode or steadily chipping towards glory in career mode, there’s something quite endearing about a fighting game where cuts can be opened and opponents can be felled like so much deadwood with a viscerally brutal kick to the head.
Undisputed 3 is a hearty revival of a franchise that has successfully managed to bottle the essence of a sport rapidly growing in popularity, and the brutal strategy contained within offers a little bit of everything for stalwarts and newcomers alike.