For a long time, I believed that it was impossible to make a good, relatively realistic mixed martial arts video game. There’ve been several attempts from both the UFC and the now-liquidated Pride FC, which had mixed levels of success alongside a laundry list of problems. In the time since the last UFC game, UFC: Sudden Impact (circa 2004), MMA as a whole has grown to the point where it just short of being a full-on major sport, and UFC 2009: Undisputed does the same…coming up just short of being a major game. As a fan of MMA, fighting games and sports games, I appreciate a lot of what they were trying to do with the title, but like many other sports games, it comes just short of going all the way.
Something everyone will notice when they dive into this game is that there is a lot to learn. When the fighters are standing, the game handles fairly intuitively. The four face-buttons each control a limb, allowing you to punch and kick. Pressing the left analog stick changes the power, type and speed of the attack. Additionally, holding down either of the left shoulder buttons changes the attack (that is, a punch with the trigger would make the attack a body punch, while a punch with the bumper does something like an uppercut or a Superman punch). Once the fighters are no longer simply striking, though, things get a lot more complicated. The clinch, where two fighters are standing, with a hold on one another can be engaged by pressing forward on the right stick. From there, they can exchange strikes or attempt various takedowns by pressing…well, basically everything. The face buttons still punch and kick, but depending on whether or not you have the double underhooks, or if you’re in a muay thai clinch or have a neck tie, you can do flying knees or uppercuts or judo throws or body slams or a bunch of other moves. And that’s when the two fighters are still standing. The ground game is what truly separates this game from other fighters, and really what separates the UFC from things like K-1 or taekwondo. A takedown can be initiated in a number of ways, including special inputs during the clinch or a simple tackle (done by pressing the left bumper and forward on the right stick). Once the fighters are both on the ground, you use the right stick to battle for the dominant position. Each arrangement (the full-guard, half-guard, mount, etc.) opens up different attacks, submissions and movement opportunities. On top of all this, there are things like takedown defense, the up/down position and special throws. The learning curve is fairly steep, especially for people not savvy on MMA terminology, but it’s something you can get the hang of relatively quickly.
As with sports titles, the centerpiece of the single-player mode lies in long-term management of a competitor. UFC 2009 follows suit with the Career Mode. Career Mode makes you go through a full lifetime of fighting for a fake brawler, starting with a fairly in-depth “Create-a-Fighter Mode” and ending with a forced retirement. It tries to keep a relatively realistic clip for the fighters, with a start as a young up-and-comer, taking swinging fists in Fight Night undercards and working your way up to the championship. Emails from UFC President Dana White and Joe Silva allow you to schedule fights, and give you a block of time to prepare for them, letting you train specifically for the upcoming fight. You can do this in a number of ways, such as visiting other UFC fighters’ gyms (which unlocks more attacks), vague workout sessions (which improve a fighter’s strength, speed and cardio) and short sparring sessions (which award points to allot towards offensive and defensive skills). Each action takes up a week, with a calendar always present, building up to your next fight. While the experience of the Career Mode is not particularly spectacular in terms of the actual control over the character, or in the progression of the division as a whole, it is still relatively addicting.
Another mode worth mentioning is the Classic Fight Mode, which has you recreate classic fights that took place between members of the current roster of fighters. While that’s well and good, you are required to actually complete the fight as they played out in real life. The very first fight, which basically sums up the whole thing, is a rewind to Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar’s Ultimate Fighter Season 1 finale, which really was one of the better fights in recent years. The fight, for those who are yet to see it, was a full fifteen minutes of battle, where the two finalists really put on a show of striking and ground fighting, with Griffin ultimately winning by decision. The problem with Classic Fights Mode is that to complete that fight…you actually DO have to win by decision. That’s the only way to complete it. You can’t just knock him out. It gets worse with fights like BJ Penn vs. Joe Stevenson, where the objective is to have Penn actually win via choke in the second round. Completing these fights bears a highlight reel from the real life version of the fight…a small prize for what is, basically, a huge hassle.
While that’s all great, as both a sports game and a fighting game, UFC 2009 wouldn’t even be worth talking about without online battling. While there is an online mode, it is seriously hampered by serious lag issues, ranging from lag spikes to full on frame-by-frame waiting. I’m yet to actually have a match play smoothly the whole way through. Ironically, there is some big, elaborate rating system they spent time on that records lots of statistics…but they couldn’t get the actual fighting down. Really, there’s no excuse for not having great online play in this day and age. We’re not in 2002 with SOCOM and the unveiling of Xbox Live. Lag shows that you just didn’t try very hard.
Speaking of not trying very hard, you also see plenty of this with the presentation, which is quite ironic when you consider the full support the game got from the entire staff of the UFC. While Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg sound spectacular during fights, their complete absence from the career mode (and by extension, all the matches with a created character in play) really hurt the entire experience. They don’t even actually say your character’s name in career mode. They just use one of a handful of nicknames. It wouldn’t matter if your character was named Brock Jackson, you would have Bruce Buffer announce you as “The Headhunter” or “Quick Silver” or some other equally generic nickname. On top of all that, the commentary is actually quite limited in terms of what is said. Four or five fights in, you will have heard all of Rogan and Goldberg’s banter. On the other hand, UFC 2009 also has some genuinely spectacular graphics. UFC fighters are faithfully recreated to an impressive degree (though Buffer, Rogan and the card girls leave something to be desired). Really, it makes me feel like I should go back and dock MLB 2k9 a few points, in how they didn’t do nearly as good a job in crafting their players.
All this aside, there are a few things I want to say about this game that get a bit into the development aspect of the game. Probably my biggest gripe with the game is the way they come up with movesets for each fighter. Rather than custom-tailoring a list of attacks for each guy, there are six generic fighting styles each character gets a default set of moves from (three ground styles to choose from, and three striking styles). It doesn’t work out to be as bad as you probably imagine, but it really does a disservice to a lot of the more versatile fighters like Rashad Evans and Ken Florian. On top of this, every fighter has the exact same stance. There aren’t even any southpaws, forget about people with unique stances like Lyoto Machida. Speaking of the actual fighters, there really should be parity between them. I appreciate that they decided to go down the sports game route with this game, where they semi-accurately reflect that some guys are definitively better than others. The problem shows up in a situation such as when I want to pick a welterweight kick boxer after Georges St-Pierre is taken. Georges is rated 94 overall, while the next highest-rated kick boxer in the division is Ben Saunders at 85 overall. Needless to say, that’s a pretty big gap. This is worse if you’re like me, and prefer to use Judo as your grappling style (I love those clinch throws). The only judo fighter in the light heavyweight division, by the way, is the humbly-rated Kazuhiro Nakamura (76 overall). To top it all off, while the cast is quite good in terms of the number of fighters, there are several problems. The early part of career mode is spent fighting a slew of fictional opponents. Why they confabulated fighters rather than just using some MMA prospects like Jon Jones, Junie Browning and Krystof Soszynski is beyond me. The youngsters aside, there are still more than a few notable veterans absent from UFC 2009, including Clay Guida, Nate Quarry and Randy Couture. Last but not least, an appearance from some retired fighters would’ve been nice. Names like Royce Gracie, Mark Coleman and Ken Shamrock constantly get dropped, so it’s somewhat strange that they aren’t shown in any capacity.
All in all, UFC 2009 is incomplete, but has some shining points. It definitely seems to have been the victim of a tight development schedule, with a handful of small problems that generally hold the entire experience back. Regardless, a strong effort to include and refine basically every major aspect of the MMA sport deserves credit. If they can take UFC 2009 and build off of it, specifically in putting greater care into crafting the fighters, we could see something really great in the near future. Until then, this will have to suffice. And while it’s easy to live with, I’m going to be spending a lot of my time thinking about “how much better it would be if…”.