I remember a number of years ago, when the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was still in its infancy, the violent and controversial tournament made its way to my hometown. The night of the show, a local, highly experienced and well respected martial arts instructor was asked for his opinion of the tournament. He replied that it is not real martial arts not because the fighters lack technique, but because the martial arts are not really about fighting.
While that may seem an absurd concept since martial arts are by nature very violent and potentially deadly, the worlds most famous and respected martial arts masters will undoubtedly tell you that their techniques are a means to an end; martial arts are about personal and spiritual growth they are an avenue to control the ego, not nurse it. So there is something about the UFCs claim of being a "mixed martial arts" tournament that sounds a bit questionable. While I respect the concept of inter-style competition, the gratuitous promotion of "action" that dominates UFC advertising, coupled with WWF-style promotion of the competitors and an over-the-top presentation makes the UFC more of a showcase for our societys bloodlust than a true martial arts tournament.
But despite my sentiments that the true purpose of martial arts is diluted in the over-the-top, grandiose bloodsport that is the Ultimate Fighting Championship, I have to confess a certain aesthetic fascination with the amalgam of styles (and their ensuing conflict) represented in the tournament. The ideals of the martial arts may be lost in the UFC, but their techniques are well represented nonetheless. UFC: Tapout, the pseudo-sequel to the acclaimed Dreamcast game Ultimate Fighting Championship, attempts to recreate the complexity and diversity of UFC fighting. Being a fighting game aficionado and having never played the original, I was eager to tackle what would hopefully be a faithful representation of various martial arts styles. With an impressive roster of over 27 fighters (not including unlockable characters or player-created characters) representing styles from Muay Thai to Ju Jitsu and including UFC celebrities such as Frank Shamrock, Mark Coleman and Tito Ortiz, UFC: Tapout begins with a lot of promise and hints at a great deal of depth. But while UFC: Tapout does take a refreshing approach to fighting strategy (particularly ground fighting), it lacks both the polish and the depth to be as compelling a release as it could have been.
The combat is set up on a round-by-round basis, and matches are won by one of three ways: a knockout, a decision (should the match actually last three rounds, which is rather unusual), or by pinning an opponent and forcing them to "tap out." As the combat begins with both characters standing, the game is somewhat reminiscent of the Tekken series, with each of the four face buttons representing a limb. Each of the characters has their own assortment of combinations that can be performed either while standing still or in conjunction with a step forward, back, or to either side. Despite a modest variation between characters, most of the combinations are mind-numbingly similar; the striking game is quite unpolished and never approaches the depth and fluidity of games such as the Virtua Fighter or Dead Or Alive series. Thanks to jerky motion-capture animation, slower characters are easy to predict and counter.
The real appeal lies in the ground game, which features a surprisingly accessible and reasonably deep assortment of pins, holds, reversals, and throws. An opponent can be taken to the ground by tapping two of the face buttons simultaneously which, depending on the buttons pressed, will activate a body slam, leg tackle, or a strike reversal. Once on the ground, characters are capable of two basic positions, each of which has a few variations. The "mount" occurs when the fighter on the top is mounted above the hips of his opponent, leaving him in a position to deliver powerful blows and pins to the head and arms. Conversely, the "guard" occurs when the fighter on the ground has his legs wrapped above his opponents hips, making him more susceptible to leg locks and the deadly "back mount" position, but making striking more difficult for his opponent. UFC: Tapouts greatest strength lies in the tension incurred by the looming danger of a tapout. Without a reasonable knowledge of the moves coupled with timely execution and a healthy dose of guesswork, a match can literally end in seconds. Conversely, skilled players will be able to consistently reverse and counter submission attempts by their opponents, drawing out a match for as long as necessary to complete the job. Strong defensive play is the name of the game, and timing counters and defending against pins are the keys to a successful bout.
Despite its strengths in structure and accessibility, the ground game still falls short of its potential. Despite the hefty 27-fighter roster, almost all of the fighters use similar (if not identical) moves on the ground. Its easy to grab a fast, powerful submission expert such as Frank Shamrock and effortlessly dominate the competition with fast holds and strong positioning ability. Despite the variations in positions, the button combinations are virtually identical for each. This makes the holds easy to learn, but repetitive and uninteresting. A little more variety in the moves, such as integrating the directional pad into the holds, would have gone a long way in increasing the depth and strategy required in the game. As it is, much of the game relies too heavily on guesswork and makes the movements too similar to be compelling.
Making matters worse, UFC: Tapout is devoid of compelling features or polished presentation. The characters look decent, but the motion-capture animation lacks the fluidity that is needed for precise, predictable timing. The audio is banal and completely lacks the flair to bring bone-crushing action to life. The game features only four modes of competition, none of which are particularly deep or unique from each other, and the create-a-fighter mode is passable but somewhat tacked-on. Most offensive, though, and completely unforgivable in a fighting game that attempts such depth, is the obvious lack of either a practice or training mode. Since the matches often last under a minute, learning the nuances of the fighting engine is made painfully and unnecessarily difficult. Despite having played the game through and through both alone and with friends, I can't shake the feeling that I would have a better respect for the engine had I the opportunity to explore it at my leisure.
UFC: Tapout is not the faithful representative of martial arts competition that it claims to be. Its approach is unique, but a lack of polish and a limited, uninteresting repertoire of moves hampers the depth. Top it off with a rather uninspired presentation and there is little to elevate it above less "realistic" but far better fighting games such as Dead Or Alive 3 and Soul Calibur. Like its real-life counterpart, UFC: Tapout claims to be the real deal, but comes off as just another gimmick with enough redeeming aspects to make it a momentary eye-catcher. Look closely, though, and there isn't as much to see as there should be.