UFC Undisputed 2010 is set to be released May 25, but I was fortunate to get an early hands-on preview as part of a THQ media event out in Las Vegas. After getting a crash course in Jiu-Jitsu, Boxing and Kickboxing as part of a mini-bootcamp, all of the attending journalists were given extensive time to play through the enhanced Career mode with the latter part of the evening devoted to an elimination style tournament between the journalists. How did yours truly do in that tournament? I'll get back to that later, but first let me give my impressions of the gameplay changes and new features.
In a word: AWESOME. As long-time friends and readers know, I am as passionate about the burgeoning sport of MMA (mixed-martial arts) as I am about video games. I consider the 2009 edition of UFC Undisputed to be a landmark title for both the genre of fighting games and the sport itself. I wasn't alone in that sentiment and THQ was rewarded with such remarkable sales that UFC franchise is now considered a stabilizing cash-cow for the publisher. Despite being a success right out of the gate, the 2009 edition of Undisputed was like many first game titles in that it had its fair share of issues. What's great about sequels is that developers have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, improve features and implement new ideas—all of which should elevate the franchise to higher levels of quality. As it stands, Undisputed 2010 in on track to becoming the kind of sequel that take things to the next level.
In the training and fighter leveling parts of the Career mode, there are three things that have been dramatically altered: Conditioning/Fatigue, Stats Decay and Camp Invites.
Conditioning and Fatigue effectively replaces what was once just Stamina. Stamina was incredibly simplistic in that you had to rest before you could train properly again. What's intriguing about Conditioning and Fatigue is that they affect each other inversely when a player trains. The goal of going into a fight is having max conditioning ("peaking" as fighters call it) with minimal fatigue. Stats Decay means that fighter skills and attributes will gradually decay if one doesn't train in those areas. Focus purely on strength training and you'll see your speed and cardio stats atrophy. Favor your striking game while ignoring your ground game and you'll find yourself with zero skills in the grappling department.
As I played through the night, I struggled to balance out these new concepts. I inadvertently let most of my fighter's skills decay way past the point of no return and it probably would probably have been more productive to start a new career. I did eventually discover the right groove for training, but there is a bit of a learning curve even for diehards like myself. What's great about managing these new tricky dynamics is that it's true to the ideals of being a balanced and successful MMA fighter. It also adds an addictively challenging dimension in managing one's fighter leading up to fight night.
For learning new striking and grappling moves, Greco-Roman Wrestling, Karate and Sambo fighting styles have been added into the mix. The concept for Camp Invites closely resembles the previous version in that training with other camps upgrades techniques, but where 2010 differs dramatically is that rather than leveling up an entire style of fighting like Jiu-Jitsu or Wrestling, a fighter learns and/or levels only one new move in his arsenal. No longer are fighters tied to only one style for striking and grappling. Players are free to mix and match moves from all disciplines and develop each move into a trademark attack and/or style. This change allows for more fighter customization and once again is consistent with the ideals of being a true mixed martial artist.
Getting into the Octagon, I found quite a few things to be different with the fighting engine. Brute Force submission escapes are gone entirely and players are left with only the finesse spinning the right-stick "shine" method. I actually thought the Brute Force escapes made a bit of sense because it happens all the time in the actual Octagon, but apparently developers felt it made things too easy and unbalanced for strength-based fighters (i.e. Brock Lesner). I also noticed that grappling transitions were a little more nuanced and direction specific. Initially, I struggled to transition from side-mount to full mount. One of the developers on hand explained to me that I was doing the transition motions on the right-stick in the wrong direction. I could no longer rely on my generic any-direction major transition input to get to full mount. I need to do a minor transition in a specific direction in order to gain full mount.
Once I was in full mount, I also struggled to sit up and rain down punches. This was due to the new Posturing System. Assuming your head is free from your opponent's hold, you can now posture up or down with the left stick on any top position. Posturing down is more akin to safe, but boring lay-and-pray strategy while posturing up is necessary to rain down more vicious TKO strikes, however, doing so makes the player more vulnerable to escapes and reversals. I found it quite a challenge and perhaps a tad frustrating to employ a consistent ground n' pound strategy, but it's hard to fault the developers for more MMA accuracy and once I did finally TKO someone on the ground, it was exhilarating since it was so hard fought.
Standing defense in Undisputed 2010 has also evolved beyond simple high and low blocking. Players can also bob and weave (a la Andersen "The Spider" Silva versus Forest Griffin) via the Sway System. Bobbing and weaving can be chained to counter attacks for increased damage however before players start repeatedly shucking and jiving, the Sway System has a "risk/reward" effect as described to me by the developers—meaning while using these counter attacks leads to more powerful attacks, it also leaves the user more vulnerable to more damage from counter attacks as well.
The last set of noteworthy changes to the fighting engine includes revisions to the Clinch and the new Cage Interaction System. I didn't get a good feel for either of these changes during my play time, but my understanding is that the Clinch positions have been completely reanimated, there are new Clinch positions and transitioning between those positions now mirror the same control inputs as ground transitions to streamline the control setup. The Cage Interaction System is basically a new position to contend with. It allows players to pin opponents up against the cage in either standing (a la Randy Couture) or ground positions (a la Tito Ortiz) for striking and/or takedown advantages. The cage can also be used for defensive purposes like preventing takedowns.
After getting a feel for the Career mode, the second half of the night was devoted to multiplayer elimination-style tournament between all the journalists. Everyone was separated into brackets and my first opponent was Paul, a kind gentleman from Extreme Gamer who was my neighbor for most of the night. Paul was an admitted newb when it came to MMA, who kept referring to Muay Thai as "My Tai" and the Clinch as the "Clutch" all night. I had little trouble getting him to the ground and tapping him out with a rear-naked choke in the first round.
My next opponent in my bracket was none other then Jujitsu instructor Marc Laimon from Cobra Kai Jiu-Jitsu (yes all you Karate Kid fans, he named his dojo after the "bad" school). Marc appears in the game as the player trainer and also served as a technical MMA advisor for both the 2009 and 2010 versions of the game. Marc's entrance into the tournament created a little bit of stir since people thought he might have been too much of a ringer. Marc picked hot up-and-comer Jon "Bones" Jones as his fighter and I picked P4P legend Anderson "The Spider" Silva.
Our match started with us exchanging blows standing and I was getting the better of the exchanges due to Silva's renowned striking prowess. It wasn't before long that Marc was taking me to the ground in an attempt to pound me out. Having played the 2009 version extensively, I'm no stranger to the ground game and was able to defend myself adequately. It also helped that Marc was struggling to transition to full mount similar to the way I struggled earlier in the night in the Career mode. Marc wasn't aware of the changes made to the ground game controls that I had discovered earlier. That gave me some time to shake off the competition jitters, time my ground reversals and survive into the second round.
The start of the second round mirrored the first. I was getting the better of the exchanges standing and Marc switched to takedowns. Once in my guard this time, I was much more prepared and quickly reversed Marc's transition and gained full mount on top. Once on top, I was able to maintain control and mix in a little ground n' pound action. Marc eventually gave me his back and I was able to sink in the rear-naked choke for the upset win! Many of my fellow journalist competitors and onlookers gave me props and I quickly made a name for myself taking out the in-game MMA trainer.
So with the win against Marc, that put me in the final 8 bracket for the championship. I didn't pick up the name and media outlet of my next opponent, but he picked Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and I stuck with Anderson Silva. Despite Silva being regarded as the top P4P fighter in the world, I was surprised few competitors elected to use him.
My next opponent made it no secret that he was going to try to get me in the Muay Thai clinch and knee me to death as he had done to get into the final 8. I was confident I would be able to fight off the clinch or block the attacks, but as soon as the bout started, I found myself in deep trouble as I was unable to block the incoming knees and eventually one put me on the floor half unconscious. All it would have taken was a few more strikes for the ref to step in for the TKO, but for whatever reason, my opponent froze up and was unable to deliver the killing blows. I was able to recover and get back on my feet. I immediately decided I wanted no more of those knees and went straight for the takedown and transitioned to full mount. My opponent wasn't familiar with the ground game so it wasn't before long that he gave me his back and once again, I ended the fight with a rear-naked choke and made it into the quarter finals!
For my quarter final match, I was pitted against Dakota from GameZone. Dakota used Lyoto Machida and bragged about how his takedowns were unstoppable. Through out the tournament, he wasted no time in repeatedly taking down all of his competitors and efficiently dispatching them with strikes and submissions. Dakota was unquestionably the competitor to beat that night, but regardless of his dominance, I felt I was also strong on the ground and I even got some extra pointers from the developers on stopping the takedown.
Once the bell rang none of the advice I received mattered and I took a pretty one-sided beating for most of the round. Dakota went straight in for the takedown and despite my best efforts to stuff the takedown, none of it worked and I found myself on my back over and over gain. Dakota employed an effective lay n' pray strategy to tire me out and at one point nearly had me unconscious from vicious flurry of strikes on the ground, but once again, Silva's miraculous recovery powers allowed me to survive the onslaught. I managed to get the fight back to the feet and even fended off a takedown before the close of the first round which gave me a confidence boost.
Heading into second round, I wanted to turn the tables by putting Dakota on his back. After an initial scramble, I was able to get him on the ground, but I was never able to capitalize. He escaped and before I even knew what happened, he took me down again and this time for good. He maintained top control while I tried to transition out. I managed to escape a few submission attempts, but by this time my fighter was tired and before I knew it, punches started raining down and this time there would be no recovery as the ref ended the fight by TKO. Dakota would go on to the finals and take the title rather quickly in the first round.
Afterwards, I asked the developers what else I could have done to escape the mount from the bottom. The developer reminded me that that I could trap punches from the bottom and that I should have used more minor transitions which have higher rates of success than major ones. I also realized that I probably could have stalled more and let the ref stand us back up. Live and learn as they say. I didn't mind losing so much since I had my opportunities, but never got off. I still had a blast getting deep into the tournament and discussing some of the finer points of the techniques with the developers gave me an even greater appreciation for the game.
So for folks who didn't care for the 2009 edition of Undisputed, I can't say there's a world of difference that's going to change your mind. 2010 is unquestionably a refinement and evolution of its successful predecessor. There are new arcade style modes for those who want to eschew the complexity of the Career modes and just into action with their favorite fighters. Online multiplayer modes have also gotten a major upgrade with the option to form your own Fight Camp and compete against other camps for online rankings supremacy. Both of these features might be more attractive for gamers who don't consider themselves fans of UFC. Even without the Career modes, I think there's a decent amount of content for the gamers in general. Ultimately, those who didn't get into the 2009 UFC game probably aren't overly familiar with the sport of MMA. That's really no fault of the developers as they did an amazing job of capturing everything that is the UFC.
All I can say is that if you're somebody who complains about the staleness of the Street Fighter games and you want to see innovation in fighting games, you owe it to yourself to give UFC a solid play-through. Having spoken with the PR folks and developers, I can't stress enough how much they care and believe in these games. With all the nonsense going on over at Activision these days, it's a breath of fresh air to be able to talk to PR people and developers who stand by their game 100%. THQ deserves your support for no other reason. So please get over the precept of two sweaty guys rolling on the mat in the "north/south" position and give this game a fair try. If you do, I promise you'll be rewarded for it.