Of all the issues facing the vanguard of modern mixed martial arts – inconsistent officiating, the merits of the ten-point must system, an ill-shapen heavyweight division, the role of stablemate the WEC, the prejudice of mainstream media – one the UFC seems loath to solve is its resemblance to the WWE. This vertically structured, media-savvy outfit is, after all, based on the leader of ‘sports entertainment’, the comparison raising tough questions about its overall integrity. Is it about the show or the sport, turnover or technique?
Similar questions could be asked of the now yearly videogame version. Last year’s reboot simulated nothing better than the format, announcers and stars of the show, leaving the nuances of the sport for another day. Esoteric styles like those of Nate Diaz were instantly recognisable – much more so than any of Fight Night’s roster – but the transitions, struggles and contexts that make MMA such a chess game felt fuzzy, rooted somehow in the weary mechanics of the developer’s WWE games. Early reports of EA MMA, which for once sees EA in licensing limbo, suggest a more progressive and penetrating system – the kind that once epitomised PES. THQ cannot, in other words, afford to ‘lay and pray’.
It hasn’t. Pound-for-pound, this year’s Undisputed is one of the best sports titles in recent memory, not to mention one of the best fighting games. That every last concern raised in our 2009 review has been addressed, most gaps in the system closed, is just the tip of the iceberg. Greco-Roman wrestling and dirty boxing are more fully represented now, and the cage is an active participant in both ground and stand-up. The ground system has been revised for the sake of strategic parity between its many positions, while the full mount is harder to achieve and convert into lethal ground-and-pound.
The result is that an aggressive defence is a more viable option in 2010, each individual style bringing its own opportunities. Partly thanks to a renewed relationship between the game and its technology, reversals aren’t just Pavlovian button taps – well, not quite – but solutions to the riddles of clinch and posture. The lynchpin of the transformed stand-up game is a sway system which, among other things, gives flash KOs a rare technical merit. On a more minor note, Undisputed’s irritating nickname system has been joined by an infinitely preferable, Codemasters-style naming system, each option voiced by the venerable voice of the Octagon – and he really earns his stripes on this one – Bruce Buffer.
More than any WWE game, including fan favourite No Mercy, 2010 is a student of its sport. It knows that if it’s to beat EA’s offering it has to impose its will, playing to its strengths while disarming its opponent. Its roster – a dirty word amid sports games, often seen as a distraction from The Things That Matter – is its deadliest weapon, the accuracy of the fighters extending deep into their styles and habits. The line-up is exhaustive, covering rising stars like Nottingham’s Dan 'The Outlaw' Hardy; falling stars like Andrei 'The Pit Bull' Arlovski; Strikeforce defectors like Dan Henderson; incumbent legends like BJ Penn, Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva; outgoing seat-fillers like Kimbo Slice; the awkwardly hairy Clay Guida; and every gatekeeper and undercard stalwart in between. The most notable absentee: hall-of-famer Randy Couture, who, like Fedor Emelianenko, is easily dropped in using a vastly improved create mode.
In a reversal of sim tradition, 2010 is just as laudable for what it doesn’t have. Fight Night: Round 4 reduced its cut-man game because Round 3’s outstayed its welcome; this game disposes of them entirely. Ring entrances would have been an obvious bullet-point upgrade but Yuke’s knows better, and even the ‘tale of the tape’ is saved for when the match has actually loaded, the camera cutting instantly to the fighters in their corners. Say what you like about cliché-prone commentator Mike Goldberg, meanwhile, but his presence here with the erudite Joe Rogan is, in a word, extraordinary. This is a commentary that reacts to, reflects upon and, above all, remembers the action in and out of the cage.
That’s no mean feat in a career mode which, despite sticking to the rigid calendar format of last year, gives you so many plates to spin that you’ll sooner be overwhelmed than bored. Vitally, it doesn’t just follow the schedule of the UFC, right down to post-match interviews and other status-changers, but delivers the essence of the sport from the fighter’s perspective. An ‘a la carte’ move allocation model means that, true to MMA, no one starts out with all-encompassing natural talent, but instead has to build from a traditional combat base. On-demand visits to real world training camps reward you one move at a time, earned by training in specific and relevant areas. So, if you want to counterpunch like Paul ‘Semtex’ Daley (rather fortuitously absent from the roster, having been ‘banned’ from the UFC only this month), you can learn his explosive looping hooks at the UK’s gruelling Rough House.
This structure is a masterstroke. Together with a context-sensitive action list you can pull up during fights, it drip-feeds the game’s enormous combat system aptly and intuitively, turning what could have been a button-press stat buff into a feature just as engrossing as the bouts themselves. Promotion from the lesser WFA organisation to the UFC’s pay-per-view cards is less a difficulty spike than a wall – one you’ll be scrambling up and falling down several times during early careers. But it’s also one that reflects the game’s unflinching approach to the agonies of an MMA career. Piece by piece, lesson by crushing lesson, you’ll find and develop an answer to every fighter in your weight class, distinguished as they are by skill sets as unique as your own.
In fact, career mode can feel a little too realistic at times. The spoken ‘narrative’ it attempts – you even choose your character’s voice from a bank of five international accents – features just as much dire-logue as the sport’s own broadcasts, president Dana White leaping into his Vince McMahon role like a lemming off a cliff. With its pieces to camera and bizarre firstperson interludes, it’s a bit like one of those 90s Cinemaware Amiga games. Fans of the UFC, though, will have long acquired a taste for such pungent cheese.
Barring unforeseeable server issues when the game goes live, multiplayer is also well endowed. Online fight camps add a very complete clan system that mirrors the career mode’s training systems. And for those inclined to balk at the complete singleplayer experience, there’s a customisable arcade mode, Title, which converts to Title Defence for an ongoing, less involving career.
Is 2010 about the show or the sport? It is, like the UFC itself, ready to be both. This confidence is what makes it such a complete and compelling package – a great MMA sim, a near flawless UFC sim. In a year, it’s made the kind of studious jump that took FIFA almost ten. Yes, there’s still an element of abstraction to the button-based controls, while the submissions still feel like they’re missing a mechanic. Yes, EA’s game might yet provide an upset akin to Fight Night or Skate. But this game makes essential what should have been its millstones: the names, the likenesses, the brands and the format. The points decision below is academic: Undisputed 2010 is a highlight reel knockout.