Demo Impressions: A Year Off Did UFC Undisputed Good

There’s a reason most annual-iteration sports franchises don’t take a one-year sabbatical, no matter how badly some titles could use the extended retooling window.

True die-hard sports fandom often begets marking time by tournaments, races, rivalry games and other calendar highlights that practically take on the significance of holidays. That following of this or that yearly staple of athletic competition has come to often include symbolically passing each season passes with games including the most current competitor roster – not to mention, ones  that have been made increasingly immersive and realistic in looks and features.

Mixed martial arts presents a different animal. There really is no annual mark-time event, save maybe the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s annual Super Bowl Weekend show. Other sports have seasons marked by drafts, college signing days, definitive championship contests and the like; skip a year of signings, playoffs, championships, retirements, injuries and new draft classes, and it suddenly feels like a lifetime has passed between games. It’s suddenly like a completely different league.

With such a fluid void of a year filled with events that don’t really lead to one definitive one like World Wrestling Entertainment’s Wrestlemania, the UFC and THQ knew they could afford trying something daring among sports titles: take a year off, bide the extra time and put out a UFC Undisputed that wouldn’t receive the tepid, sometimes just disappointed response fans gave the sophomore UFC Undisputed 2010.

It’s been a marked difference.

The UFC Undisputed 3 playable demo that hit the Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network this week lets players take on a single round in either the traditional UFC-rules mode or the debuting, nostalgic Pride-rules format, following an introduction and primer on the simplified submission system by UFC play-by-play announcer Mike Goldberg. As with most wrestling/MMA/boxing game demos, it presents limited fighter options but the ones chosen best accentuate what THQ has learning during the developer’s nearly two years developing this installment.

Go ahead, true UFC fans, and be honest – you drooled buckets when you entered UFC mode and were given the choice of the youngest Light Heavyweight Champion in UFC history, Jon “Bones” Jones, of five-year reigning Middleweight Champion and owner of a 14-0 winning streak since his UFC debut, Anderson “The Spider” Silva. It’s a dream fight whose chatter snowballs with every opponent either dominates, and the demo lets the dynamic style each possesses flaunt looser, more intuitive controls that mimic the chess match of an MMA bout closer than anything so far.

If there’s a complaint to be made at all, it’s that the Octagon-walk clothing textures look pretty thrown together. It’s forgivable that the entrances couldn’t include signature tunes for fighters who always enter to the same signature music – what a mother the licensing fees would be just to have Silva walk to the Octagon to DMX’s “No Sunshine” – but a cue from THQ’s WWE franchise and having a mode to insert ripped tunes from a hard drive doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

It’s another nice added touch having color commentator Joe Rogan break down each fighter’s strength as they enter the staging area. Once more, THQ has recreated the cage-side atmosphere of fight night to a “T,” right down to animations of the cut man dabbing Vaseline onto each fighter, ritual hugs from trainers before entering, and even the way each fighter gets loose shuffling or running a lap around the Octagon.

After all, the beauty of a UFC event is the unique atmosphere, and THQ’s dedication to recreating that speaks volumes for wanting to make the deepest possible experience.

For the demo, you’ll be fighting in the UFC’s longtime home at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Though you’ll apparently be given the option of even choosing your referee – which may mean that at least in exhibition mode, I’ll never have drooling man-child of a ref Steve Mazzagatti looking over my shoulder – for this lone round, you’re stuck with Yves Lavigne.

For the most part, controls feel unchanged from Undisputed 2009/Undisputed 2010. But the game does prod you to eventually go after a submission. Do this. Try out the new system. Behold the wonders of keeping it simple.

As Goldberg explains during the opening package, the “Shine” submission system of working for a submission or to escape one by continually rotating analog sticks (or if either a newbie or just a veteran SoulCalibur player, button-mashing) is dead and gone. It’s been replaced by a mini-game in which both the attack and fighter defending maneuver bars colored with each fighter’s respective corner color around the outside of an Octagon. The attacker’s bar shrinks with time, at a rate varying depending on submission attribute, fighter position and the fighter’s energy level. The defender’s bar is affected by energy level and submission-defense rating. The attacker’s goal is to keep his bar over the defender’s until an indicated meter fills up. If it fills up with the defender’s color, the defender escapes and gets a dominant position.

Though I personally didn’t mind the Shine system, desperately twirling the analog stick rapidly left me feeling like I might just break a controller. What’s more, it wasn’t really a very involved mechanic that belied the skill and savvy of the ground game in MMA. This one parallels the constant maneuvering two fighters perform on the ground for dominant positions. What’s more, submission attempts do gradually wear the opposing fighter down. As Jones, I went continuously after the same hold and by the third attempt, Silva was worn down and I nearly made him tap out. But likewise, the attempts also tired Jones. The fighter selections made for an excellent demonstration, due to Silva’s notorious submission defense and Jones’ proficiency at locking in chokes.

The striking game is equally stellar. The sway mechanic is back – complete with a companion ground-sway maneuver that lets players dodge ground-and-pound blows – and thank God, because fighters like Silva and Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar just don’t feel the same without replicating their respectively active head movements. It’s the signature strikes that really make the battle, though. Jones threw plenty of his trademark spinning back-fist blows, whereas playing as Silva let me unleash jaw-dropping spinning heel kicks, flying knees and a switch front-kick that only “The Spider” has the striking chops to pull off.

Come for UFC mode. Stay for Pride mode.

A brief history lesson: think of Japan’s now-defunct Pride FC as WCW to the UFC’s WWE, if you’re a wrestling fan. If you’re a football fan, the AFL to the UFC’s NFL. To hoops aficionados, the ABA to the UFC’s NBA. Before being bought out by UFC parent company Zuffa, Pride boasted a different MMA animal of a product. In fact, many UFC fans for years have clamored for the UFC to adopt Pride’s more relaxed rules allowing stomps and knees to downed opponents’ heads and soccer kicks (they’re exactly what they sound like.) There’s even been some speculation about whether the UFC’s more stringent, safety-aware “Unified” rules of MMA have handicapped fighters such as Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and “The Ax Murderer” Wanderlei Silva since each made the jump to the UFC from Japan.

Not only does Pride mode replicate Pride rules right down to a longer 10-minute first round and fights taking place inside a ring instead of a cage. Not only do the demo fights take place inside Pride’s famous Japanese home inside the Saitama Super Arena with announcing by Mauro Ranallo and Bas Rutten and ring authentic theatrical entrances and Japanese-language screaming ring announcements. Atop all that, several current UFC fighters even receive makeovers that replicate their looks during their Japanese days. It’s a trip seeing Quinton “Rampage” Jackson donning Apollo Creed-style red, white and blue in place of his more familiar camo trunks.

Best of all, those authentic strikes? Every ounce as brutal as they should be. Pride could be hard-hitting and cutthroat. And the demo duking it out as either Jackson or Wanderlei – perhaps Pride’s most storied rivalry that even carried over to the UFC – will be a throwback for fans with a sense of history, and an education for newcomers.

So far, there’s really not a bad thing that can be said yet. The worst being this: I really think the character models in 2010 or perhaps even 2009 looked sharper – at least, Jones and Silva’s representations. Wanderlei and Jackson actually looked fantastic, whittled to the last facial line and defined muscle. THQ also seemingly has this nagging issue with not making women look like humanoids with soul-sucking eyes. If I were UFC ring girl Chandella Powell, I’d actually be a little bit taken aback. Still . . . it’s not like developers have ever consistently made WWE’s Trish Stratus look her real-life part, either.

UFC Undisputed 3 hits stores everywhere for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on Feb. 14.

 

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