Any expert on the subject of martial arts will tell you that its history is filled with more myth and legend than actual facts and dates. One of the oldest and most enduring of those ancient legends are the epic battles that took place between the kicking-styles of northern China and the punching techniques of southern China. The northern kickers boasted faster legwork and mobility while the southern punchers achieved greater power and stability. Which fighting style was superior became one of the great debates of martial arts lore and also the subject of many novels, comic books and kung-fu movies in the 20th century.
In the 1990s, that age-old debate was updated by an unlikely source: the self-proclaimed, no-hold barred bare-knuckle fighting tournament known as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Only the debate was no longer about kicking and punching. For the combatants that entered the UFC's trademark octagon-shaped ring, it was about striking versus grappling. Strikers preferred stand-up fights and tried to knockout or pummel opponents with fists, elbows, knees and kicks. Grapplers, on the other hand, preferred to subdue their opponents on the ground with submission skills like joint-locks and choke holds. Only this time, there would be no question (but still plenty of debate) as to which side was superior. Brazilian jiu-jitsu artist, Royce Gracie, went on to dominate by winning 11 consecutive matches (often besting notably larger and stronger opponents) in five different UFC tournaments with his expert grappling techniques.
In doing so, Royce Gracie single-handedly rocked the martial arts community. Different schools across the board had to reevaluate the effectiveness of their techniques and military forces like the Airborne Rangers decided to incorporate Gracie fighting techniques into their training. The success of Royce also propelled UFC to the height of its popularity and became a much sought after Pay-Per-View event on cable. Unfortunately, that success as well as impending mainstream acceptance was short lived and derailed by conservative advocate groups in the United States. Lead by none other than Senator John McCain (who now leads a similar crusade against videogames), those activists choose to ignore the skillful grace of techniques exhibited by the martial artists. Instead, they were appalled and choose to condemn the often brutal and violent nature of the competition. UFC promoters also did little to help themselves by recruiting questionable martial artists/brawlers into competition and exploiting the ultra violence in their marketing. UFC's suffocated under the intense media pressure, and its visibility took a steep nose dive.
Today, in spite of persistent badgering from watchdog groups, the UFC still manages to continue (albeit in more obscure locations, smaller venues and Direct TV). The tournament is still highly regarded by its peers for the new breed of hybrid-style mixed martial artists—well-versed in both striking and grappling—that compete in the octagon. Its popularity hasn't been restored to its former glory, but there is still enough interest to warrant the development of a videogame based on the tournament. More over, I am ecstatic to report that the game itself is a momentous achievement and every bit as revolutionary and mentally stimulating as the actual event itself.
At a glance, most would consider UFC the game not much of a step forward or even much to look at. Not only does the game resemble something like a footnote to every 3-D two-player competitive fighting game that preceded it, but the basic premise remains indistinguishable as well. Two combatants (either player or computer controlled) square off and victory goes to the man still standing at the end of the fight. However, upon closer inspection, differences between games like Soul Calibur and Dead Or Alive 2 do become more readily apparent. For example, the roster of 22-plus controllable fighters in UFC aren't dressed in elaborately decorative or sexually charged costumes. Fight locations don't range from the exotic to wondrous either. Bouts in UFC always take place in the same octagon-shaped ring, and the near uniformly dressed fighters available are made to resemble their real-life counterparts (none of which are female—with the exception of a secret hidden character) without any significant visual differences aside from their nationality, physique, facial details and tattoos. Despite the banal/realistic-looking fighters and the extremely sparse indistinguishable environments, UFC is still technically impressive. The in-game graphics engine is rock solid and 3-D character models look very convincing. To top it off, the motion capturing and animation, which runs at a smooth 60 frames-per-second, is flawless.
Where UFC really sets itself apart and achieves gaming nirvana is in the gameplay. Like the visuals, the gameplay and control scheme is deceptively simple on the surface. Incorporating only the D-pad for movement, and the four face buttons for left-right punches and kicks (submissions and reversals are achieved by pressing two-button combinations simultaneously), UFC is comprehensible in an instant. But like the mark of most truly great games, beneath the approachable exterior lays near boundless depth, and the same holds true for UFC.
As any typical stand-up fighter, UFC is more then adequate in comparison. Most fighters are capable of stringing together devastating punch-kick combinations, but what really sets UFC apart from the pack is its attention to ground fighting and the ability to make an opponent submit or "tap out" in an instant. Most other fighting games fail to recognize that a majority of real hand-to-hand fights end up on the ground. By representing this area of combat, not only does UFC break new ground in terms of realism, but it also opens up all kinds of new dimensions that the genre has never explored.
To elaborate further, the ground fighting in UFC is revolutionary because it is conceptually complex, yet so simple in execution. The actual takedowns, submission holds and reversal moves vary from fighter to fighter, but the principles and control scheme to executing these techniques remain the same. To make things more interesting, every single move can be parried, countered or broken altogether. So no technique or hold is all-powerful, and every tactic can be reversed repeatedly to the point of a stalemate. What ultimately determines the outcome of each match is superior understanding of positioning, use of technique and timing. This style of play makes UFC very chess-like in that you have to anticipate what your opponent will do next and think ahead in order to succeed. The resulting experience is this surprisingly intense and a unique mix of strategy, agility, skill, wit and brutality.
Make no mistake though, UFC is a very tough game. It may be easy to pick up, but it is also very difficult to excel in. The game uncompromisingly simulates the real-life tournament (rather accurately I might add), and matches can be highly unforgiving and end in a matter of seconds if one isn't careful. It's also worth mentioning that outside of the exhibition and tournament modes, UFC offers very little diversity. The inclusion of a lackluster create-a-fighter does little to alleviate that, but thankfully two things do make up for the overall meager options. First, the computer AI (artificial intelligence) is incredibly competent and challenging, which makes nearly every battle hard-fought and well-earned. Second, competition between two human players in UFC is excellent. With two equally skilled human opponents well-versed in striking and grappling techniques, the action can become amazingly intense and requires players to bring their best physical as well as mental game in order to be victorious.
In closing, I would like to say that UFC is very challenging, but not impossible. Conquering the game is indeed rewarding and mastery over the concepts and techniques in the game gave me a feeling of indescribable euphoria. UFC stands tall as a revolutionary fighting game and as a remarkable tribute to the actual tournament and martial artists who step into the octagon.