“Alright, your turn. Remember your posture and go at it.” These were simple instructions from a man who's stature was as proportionately tall as thick, and who's shadow seemed to possess more destructive force than I could ever hope to personally wield. His mere demonstration of a few boxing and martial arts techniques left a sturdy heavy bag pocked with dents—I couldn't imagine what someone would look like if he was really unleashing on them.
One, two, three. One, two, three.
Straddled atop the same punching bag my instructor had just leaped from, I practiced hastily learned combinations composed of two punches and a vertically slicing elbow attack. This was my ground and pound session courtesy of Todd Duffee, UFC newcomer with the sport's fastest knockout—seven seconds. Surrounded by game and mainstream journalists alike, not to mention Spike TV crew, we were at “The Ultimate Fighter” headquarters in Las Vegas to get a physical taste of what we were to play virtually in Yuke's and THQ's UFC Undisputed 2010 later that evening.
Taking a breath some 30 seconds into the combination drill Duffee glanced at me, catching an expression taking hold of my face, not of exhaustion, but disappointment and snide confusion: I was throwing what were like butterfly kisses compared to his strikes of 20-pound sledgehammers. Eyebrow raised, shoulders pinched near my ears, I preempted his forced words of encouragement with a truthful resignation, “I'm not a fighter.” This fact obviously didn't escape him as he politely replied, “I know” and returned his attention to others more in-tune with their inner manimal.
Despite my lover-not-a-fighter disposition, our 'taste' and first-hand experience left me with a better impression of what Yuke's has done for the sport of MMA as a videogame developer. Their 2009 Undisputed title was well-received despite a rough interface, laborious loading times, and mysterious hit detection (for a fighting game nonetheless). Yet, as an inaugural outing, the game was for fans of mixed martial arts as what Madden is for football fanatics; and when it came time to finally go hands-on with this year's sequel, it became clear just how similar the two franchises are to each other in regards to iteration and innovation.
With the gloves packed away, towels thrown to corners, and recovery tonics of mid-level liquor and name-brand cerveza in hand, our gang of indoctrinated fighters took our newly learned skills to Xboxes and Playstation 3s. A glance around the Vegas suite where our event was held awarded all not only with a view of the Strip's famous architecture, but enough flat panels adorned with Brock Lesnar's Drago-like pose on the game's title screen for everyone in attendance. Accompanying each station sat a 15-page document detailing the laundry list of tweaks, additions and major differences made for this year's release. We were there to play the game, but before we had the chance to, we were to be made sure 2010's edition is a major improvement to the franchise.
Between a thirty minute presentation and a few hours creating a fighter, losing a couple of bouts against fellow writers, and finding an even greater, somewhat convoluted depth to this year's game, I can't say I don't agree with PR hype. The most stark contrast between the subsequent releases is obviously the revamped Create-a-Fighter (CAF) and, vis-a-vis, Career play. Sure enough strategy and customization are still handled by managing menus and sub-menus, but this time loads between each take only a fraction of the time from before and now include a level of interactivity.
Honestly, from what I experienced, there's a more dedicated direction towards immersion in this year's Career gameplay. Navigating menus may be how you build and maintain your fighter's skills and repertoire of moves, but by giving your character one of five voices and allowing him to actively participate in pre and post-fight interviews, media workouts and weigh-ins, there's a prospect of drama in character development. Your career isn't just about winning fights, it's about dissing or respecting your opponent in RPG-like fashion as you answer questions posed by commentator Joe Rogan after dominating your Main Event bout. Choosing to totally humiliate your inferiors may lead to high 'CRED' and better paychecks, but doing so comes at the cost of respect from your peers and thus invitations to training camps or better sparring partners to learn and refine your fighting techniques.
As you build these friendships and create rivals, the game watches you and tracks your history. Each fight is said to affect the comments made by Rogan and fellow commentator Mike Goldberg, teaching the AI how to deal with your fighting style for each card. It was impossible to get a good judgment on such a feature in the limited time I had with the game, and while such a proposal is promising, I remain skeptical. Will the AI only take advantage of your data here and there, or will it use it to toy with you? I know we're not talking Sky Net self-awareness here, but such a promise is both exciting and unnerving.
More concrete examples of improvement came from the game's revamped fighting physics and controls. An impossible feat to pick up and play, and a beast to master, Undisputed 2009 was a jumble of move sets more nuanced than Mortal Kombat's Fatalities, which resulted in canned animations that often didn't match your onslaught and left you with burnt palms. While calloused paws will most certainly remain advantageous this second time around (with new posturing and submission systems carried out with frantic stick rotations) at least advanced executions will be rewarded with physics-based reactions from reeling opponents. Connections between fist (or foot) and body felt tighter, and coupled with animations, more believable as each blow seemed to better affect your opposition's stagger.
To vary your fighting style, and thus deal more unique damage, changes made to camp invites and workouts allow for focus on more specific attributes and an a la carte style of learning new moves. No longer are you tied to predetermined fighting disciplines, now you can learn different fighters' signature moves and dedicate skill points to groups of characteristics (standup offense/defense, etc.).
Things seemed to get a little too ambitious, however, with the addition of degrading character statistics. Like real-life fighters, should you neglect a certain workout regimen or set of skills, expect to lose your expertise in that area of your fighter's attributes. Such a dynamic seems as though it will contribute to the long-term development process of a created character, something that makes sense for an increase in career cycles from 7 to 12 years. This stress on maintenance also discourages players from being able to easily build super-soldier fighters; instead, they'll have to tailor each character to different career paths with different strengths and weaknesses. But, despite having benchmarks that keep progression from falling below certain points, the system seems susceptible to becoming too much a distraction from enjoying the improved in-fight gameplay.
Truly, this is only a shortlist of changes made to the Undisputed series; changes, ultimately and seemingly, made for the better. Things like expanded rosters (rounded out with exclusives for the PS3 and pre-orders), more legendary fights to participate in, in-game events coinciding and based on real-world match cards, and more are all examples of how Yuke's and THQ aim to deliver to fans of the sport and game franchise a more robust experience. The 2010 edition of Undisputed undoubtedly remains a niche title with a steep—and I mean steep—learning curve, but this second installment is set to outmatch its predecessor in every way possible on May 25th.
How have your past careers in Undisputed 2009 gone? Based on what you've heard, do you think you're going to change up your character's usual career progression? Let us know on Twitter @Gamers_Hell