We climb into the octagon, turn Japanese, and step on faces with our latest look at UFC Undisputed 3.
UFC Undisputed 2009 was lauded for its faithful re-creation of a sport where blood flows like wine at a wedding, and the difference between being carried out a loser and walking out victorious is measured by the sound of bone snapping. Almost a year to the day after its predecessor UFC Undisputed 2010 was released, THQ again managed to hit the right notes. The development team at Yuke's Osaka, however, wasn't ready to rest on its laurels and settle into a yearly franchise with minimal updates. The team has been given an extra 12 months to build the next version, and, from our latest hands-on time with this third series instalment, UFC Undisputed 3 is shaping up to be a different, more refined game taking steps in the right direction.
The list of fixes and new features is lengthy, but we've selected a few notable standouts. The "shine" mechanic used to jockey for body positioning in clinches, and to perform submissions, has always been a polarising feature with players. Rather than remove it entirely to appease fans after a more arcade-like experience--and, in the process, risk alienating those that have taken the time to learn the process--UFC Undisputed 3 adds a new user-selectable simplified control system. Where previously you would have twirled and rotated the stick to jostle for a more advantageous mount position, with the new system enabled, you can perform minor and major transitions simply by flicking up or down on the right analog stick. Once you've got your opponent where you want them, you can thumb-stick click to begin the submission, which leads into a new mini-game.
In previous games, your only indication of success in arm and leg locks was to watch the animation play out in all of its agonising glory. Thankfully, here there's a much clearer way to monitor your fight when a submission begins, with a top-down 2D octagon displayed on the screen. The aggressor is marked by a set of parallel bars, and the defender is represented by a solid colour. The aim is for the attacker to chase the other player's bar around the octagon border until they successfully overlap. Stamina and the type of submission being used both play a critical role in the speed at which your marker will move, and the size of your bar. Successfully covering your rival's bar and staying on top powers up a meter at the bottom of the screen. Success results in a snapped limb or a limp body, or forces the character to tap out of the bout. Even after a few games, and knowing which colour ring corner we were fighting out of, it took a few seconds for us to work out which bar was ours each time, at which point we began our pursuit, or fled to avoid being broken like a toothpick. Luckily, if you spend more time taking punches than dishing them out, this year you'll be able to dodge and weave with your back on the canvas, rolling out of the way of incoming hits.
In addition to the new submission system, the team in your corner and the commentators rocking the microphone will make suggestions during the fight about areas of your game that are in need of improvement, and will praise the things that you're doing well. Replays now finally include commentary voiceovers, and post-match statistical breakdowns show where you landed your blows and the effect they had on your competition. Taking too many body shots? Drop your guard and protect those vital internal organs. Yuke's also plans to release regular, free game updates that will adjust fighter attributes, reflect current win and loss ratios, and alter real-world physical appearances as they change on the fighters. For those after the most accurate UFC experience, the game will also ship with a new simulation mode. This cranks up the realism further still, meaning that if your character is on the receiving end of just a few well-timed punches to the face, you'll be making friends with the mat.
Character customisation has been around since day dot for the series, but the latest game seems to have been keeping close tabs on the WWE products coming out of Yuke's Yokohama studio. The result is a more personalised fighter experience, allowing you to select your own entrance music as you strut your way to the cage. Unfortunately, players won't be able to choose the licensed music that accompanies real top-tier fighters heading into battle. However, used in tandem with the new entrance animation sequence, where you walk through the crowd, interact with team members, and get a quick medical before entering the ring, it all helps to give the game the broadcast look of watching the sport on TV.
While all the above are welcome changes to the UFC formula, the biggest change to the Undisputed 3 package is the inclusion of Japan's now-defunct Pride MMA league. For those who are unfamiliar with the discipline's intricacies, it was similar in nature to current UFC rules, but allowed more leniency with certain fighting styles, such as stomping on and kneeing the head of a downed opponent. Pride matches run slightly longer than their UFC counterparts, with the first round taking 10 minutes, followed by two five-minute rounds; compared to three five-minute periods. While the fighting in the ring might be similar, if a little nastier, Pride brings with it a completely different brand of Japanese spectacle, and the introduction of the referee head cam.
THQ hopes that Undisputed 3's technical submissions, considered striking, and new feigned punch and kick systems will all make it an attractive candidate for tournament-level play. The game will ship with an Advanced Competition mode that normalises fighter stats and makes for a level playing field for competitive play. Only time will tell whether it's as warmly embraced as its cartoon brawling equivalents.
The move away from an incrementally updated sports game to hone in and focus on key areas means that UFC Undisputed 3 is already shaping up as a real contender. Of course, it helps that no one else has access to the UFC's fighter stables, and that no one is making a licensed competing product. That said, from the matches we played, animations looked smooth, fights remained as brutal as ever, and, with months of polish time still left up their sleeves ahead of its January 2012 launch, we're already impressed with what we've seen. Stay tuned in the coming months for details on which faces you'll be able to pulp when it ships next year.