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Up until a few years ago, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was a sports league defined by the controversy it created. It wasn’t until a change in management breathed life into a company on the verge of becoming a punchline that people began to take the sport of mixed martial arts seriously. Unfortunately, the one area where the UFC failed to improve was in its licensed video games. Unable to capture the true feel of the action inside the octagon, previous titles bearing the UFC name were executions in futility. When THQ was handed the developmental reins, things started looking up. Now, UFC 2009 Undisputed has entered the ring, but after nearly an entire year since it was announced, was it possible for the game to live up to its own hype?
As soon as players enter the octagon, the incredibly robust control scheme of UFC 2009 Undisputed takes center stage. Not a single button is wasted in the easy to learn, challenging to master system. Striking is mapped to the face buttons, and is pretty straightforward. You modify high and low attacks by pulling the left trigger, and block with the right shoulder buttons. You can attempt a strong attack while holding the left bumper, and the correct button pressing combination can unleash a quick combo. Of course, like the real UFC, any strong strike can end a fight in an instant, provided it’s timed just right. The different types of grappling disciplines, wrestling, Muay Thai, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, add variety to the standing holds and throws you can attempt, with the ground game being the only time any type of repetitiveness sets in. That’s not to say this aspect is poorly designed; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Taking your opponent to the mat is one of the only occasions you’ll see similar move sets from fighters. Positioning and transitions can mean the difference between a win and getting knocked out, particularly if you end up on the bottom after a takedown. By moving the right analog stick in the right pattern, you can adjust your fighter to a more advantageous offensive or defensive position. The major and minor moves you can make when working the ground and pound have varying degrees of risk, but can potentially reap great rewards. When on top of an opponent, you’ll be working for a full mount so you can rain blows down attempting the knockout. Should you end up beneath another fighter, your primary focus is escaping, though you’re not just limited to defense. If you time it just right, you can click the right stick to attempt a submission. They’re tricky, and just as hard to pull off in the game as they are in real life, but there’s no more rewarding a feeling than making an opponent tap out. Every action you take has an impact on how the fight will end, and while it seems like a lot to take in, the system is quite intuitive. More importantly, it creates the closest representation of the real thing that fans have seen to date.
UFC 2009 Undisputed boasts some of the most impressive fighting game graphics this or any generation of consoles has ever seen. The 80 plus virtual fighters represent their real life counterparts nearly perfectly, with only a handful of models looking a bit awkward. Sweat glistens as fights make it into the later rounds. An open cut will spurt blood with repeated contact, and splatters on the fighters and mat alike. Dealing damage to the same part of a body over and over causes bruising in real time, and some of the welts are eerily accurate. The animations and physics of the game are equally impressive, proving that THQ can rival any of its contemporaries in those departments. Fighters in UFC 2009 move around the ring very fluidly, and never feel stiff under your control. Not every punch or kick connects perfectly, causing attacks to glance off fighters. Though they’ve had trouble with clipping issues in their other major fighting franchise, WWE Smackdown vs Raw, this game’s collision detection could go blow for blow with EA’s Fight Night series. Even though you may run into the occasional knockout without any contact being made, the rest of the in-ring physics are incredibly impressive.
The loading screens before and after the fights are very bland, and it seems like not much effort was put into keeping you interested while you wait, but once the fight is about to begin the television style presentation replicates a pay-per-view just about perfectly. Despite the fact that there are no entrances, Bruce Buffer appears, lending his vocal talents to pre-fight introductions. Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan also make an auditory appearance, and with few exceptions, provide a solid variation of color commentary during each bout. Between round replays do a nice job showing that great punch or kick you threw, but strangely, all the damage modeling always shows up, regardless of whether or not a cut or bruise was actually received after the fact. It’s a minor gripe, but noticeable nonetheless. Slow-mo replays of particularly damaging blows and knockouts are impressive, but are sometimes canned animations, which can take away from an otherwise stellar presentation.
There are a decent amount of game modes available, but they’re not anything you haven’t seen before. Exhibition allows you to play against a friend or the computer, Classic Fights puts you into some of the most memorable fights in recent UFC history trying to recreate the outcome, Career has you creating a fighter to take to the top of the ladder, and playing online allows you to test your skills out with players from around the world. The Classic Fights would be great, if you didn’t have to recreate the results down to the letter. Completing any of the twelve memorable match-ups the way they actually went down unlocks a highlight video of the real deal, which is more than enough motivation to try and complete all of them. It would have been nice to try and play from the opposite side, preventing what originally occurred, but it’s still a great way to practice, particularly if you’re working on improving for the higher difficulty levels without affecting your virtual career.
Career mode is pretty interesting once you get past the shortcomings of the create-a-character. It’s not that the character creation is terrible; it’s just not up the standards THQ set with their WWE franchise. Despite your best efforts, your custom fighters will often look identical, unless you opt to go to extremes physically. While trying to forward your career, you’ll be given plenty of training options to help move up the ladder. Once you sign a fight, you’ll usually have a few weeks to prepare in which you can train strength, cardio, or speed. If you’re up to it, you can spar for a few minutes to try and earn some more attribute points. Occasionally, offers to train with real UFC fight camps will come, and you’ll be able to improve your skills in a particular discipline. Instead of fighting for cash, you’ll earn cred, which opens more sponsors and training options as you progress. While the menus are very stale, the career mode actually has a decent amount of options to offer you.
The online isn’t all that robust, with your options limited to ranked or unranked battles. The great thing about the online game is there are little to no lag issues, and fights aren’t bogged down by long load or connection times. While you can opt for a quick rematch with the same player, you’re limited to fighting in the same weight class over and over until you back out and change the match settings. It’s not really an issue for playing strangers, but when playing with friends, it gets a little annoying having to constantly invite them to play. It would have been nice to see an option to create your own pay-per-view, allowing you to set up a number of fights in a row, but hopefully it’s something that will be included in the next iteration.
To put it plainly, UFC 2009 Undisputed is not only the game that fans have been waiting for, but it’s also the game that the sport deserves. UFC 2009 is intense, addictive, and acts as a great showcase of how MMA is much more than the brutal bloodsport many detractors claim it to be. Sure, the game modes aren’t very deep, and the create-a-character is so-so, but as soon as you step into the ring, all of the minor gripes fade away. Many of the issues can be attributed to growing pains, but hopefully this franchise continues, and THQ is able to address the small problems that crop up. In the end, this game delivers the goods in the octagon, and that’s really the most important thing.