THQ and wrestling games are almost synonymous. The studio's SmackDown vs. RAW series has enjoyed widespread popularity among wrestling enthusiasts, and its fan base is likely to grow even further as it tosses its hat into the UFC octagon. We first saw the company's latest creation, UFC Undisputed 2009, during its media debut at the Ultimate Fighter finale in late June. Although the game hasn't changed much since then, E3 provided us with our first opportunity to grill the development team on how the gameplay is shaping up.
As we mentioned in our first look, UFC Undisputed features a brand-new graphics and collision engine that could become the benchmark for any game in the wrestling or mixed martial-arts genres in the future. The player models look as sharp as in any game we have seen, not just sports titles. Although we have seen only a handful of the 80-some fighters (across the five weight divisions) that will be included in the game, every model that we saw was easily recognizable, and some, such as UFC superstars BJ Penn and Anderson Silva, look like splitting images of their real-life counterparts. The static models are not the only element that adds to the realism. During a demonstration featuring Rampage Jackson and Forrest Griffin, it is clear that efforts have been made to capture each fighter's facial expressions and mannerisms. Everything from their prefight antics to their postknockout celebrations seem authentic to the fighter.
The progress made in capturing facial expressions plays a vital role during the gameplay itself as well. UFC Undisputed features no HUD or visible health bars of any kind. Instead, you will be expected to gauge the fatigue and condition of your fighter simply by the visible damage, responsiveness of your fighter, and the way in which your fighter is breathing. Fighter injury progression is well done (and is most apparent during replays), and the subsequent blood that flies off of cut combatants will stain the ring for the remainder of the fight. Fighter damage and conditioning are most evident in-between rounds when the camera zooms in close to the fighters as they return to their corners. The cut men and trainers, all of whom will be authentic, will also provide you with feedback to help you measure the status of your fighter (in fact, their speech is actual speech used during various UFC telecasts). In case those queues aren't enough, round intermissions also feature highlight reels of the most devastating hits from the previous round.
The lack of visual monitors on the screen during gameplay is part of THQ's effort to capture the excitement and spectacle of a UFC broadcast event. There are no fighter entries into the ring. Instead, fighter introductions feature the exact same tale-of-the-tape screen that you would see on prior to a fight on television. If the game has loading times, they are hidden well behind the prefight routines (unfortunately, without a hands-on opportunity, we won't know for sure whether this is the case or not). Crowds react dynamically to the action in the ring and begin chanting if one fighter seems to be getting the upper hand. Even the audio commentary of Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg, for better or for worse, gives the game an authentic feel. It is THQ's hope that this emphasis on a broadcast-like experience will let players focus solely on the fighters throughout. This is a significant point because the game will require you to be attentive to subtle movements of each fighter. This is especially true once the fight goes down to the mat, given that position will play a vital role in both setting up attack opportunities and limiting damage when your opponent is on top.
The gameplay itself centers on three areas of focus: inflicting damage via strikes, triggering submissions, and improving position. Considering that the game is heavily counter-driven, it will be up to you to factor in the strengths of your particular fighter, the damage needed to soften your opponent before going for a submission, and the timing of the counters themselves. Transitions on the mat come in two flavors, easy and hard. Easy transitions are more conservative whereas harder transitions have a greater likelihood of improving position at the expense of greater risk. This brings a different element of strategy for every fight because, depending on how the fighters' skill sets stack up, you will need to augment your tactics.
Although the game includes moves from various disciplines, including Brazilian jujitsu, kickboxing, and wrestling, among others, THQ assures us that the move sets will be intuitive and won't be reliant on memorizing button sequences. THQ wouldn't elaborate on exactly how the controls would work quite yet, given that they're still being tweaked.
UFC Undisputed will include a career mode in which you will be able to direct your fighter through the ranks of the UFC in various weight divisions. We tried to get insight on whether starting a career as an Ultimate Fighter (the UFC reality show) would also be an option, but THQ says that this has not yet been decided. The game will also include online play, but again THQ was pretty tight-lipped with regard to specifics on the game modes that will be included in the game.
Although the game looks as solid as any we have seen in the wrestling or mixed martial arts, it isn't without its share of issues. As we reported during our first look, animation transitions still feel herky-jerky (though THQ claims this is a known issue that they are still tweaking). The game also plays faster than what you would see in an actual UFC telecast (though this is partially due to the frenzied pace in which we play such games). As a result, the clock in the game progresses roughly twice as fast as it normally would, which is not a big deal but still worth mentioning.
We will bring you all of the news on UFC Undisputed 2009 as we learn more of the game. The game is scheduled for release in the spring of 2009 and will debut on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles.