Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

UFC 2009 Undisputed: Actually Very Good

Posted by Ben Zeigler on June 1, 2009

I just finished a 2 hour session of playing random people over XBOX Live. This is the first time I’ve played for longer than 20 minutes against complete strangers, and the reason I kept playing was that I was playing UFC 2009 Undisputed (UFC being the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a Mixed Martial Arts competition brand). It’s a licensed game published by THQ and not developed by Relic, which means that by previous evidence it should be a flaming pile. Despite all of that, it’s actually very good. It’s my favorite non-traditional fighting game (traditional fighting games being everything derived from Street Fighter 2) and although it isn’t perfect, it does some things better than any other game I’ve played. There is no game quite like UFC 2009, and in today’s world of refined experiences it’s great to see something new.

The inspiration for this game came very clearly from the UFC PPV/television product. The first components to the quality of UFC 2009 is presentation. First of all the fight trappings are spot on. The graphic packages are identical to what you’ll see in a real UFC fight, and the recorded audio announcing by Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg is the single best announcer track I have ever heard in a game. It seems to use a mix of existing commentary and specially recorded bits, and it meshes quite well. UFC 2009 has really reminded me why presentation matters in games: it sets the emotional context for your actions. The fighter models and animations are great on average, and they mostly did a good job on the likenesses. I worked my created character up the Middleweight division (losing a few heartbreaking matches to last minute submissions) until I finally fought Anderson Silva for the Title. Bruce Buffer announced that I was challenging for the title, the announcers talked about previous Anderson Silva title matches, and I felt pumped. After I managed to knock him out with a solid uppercut from the clinch, and they replayed the highlights of the match, I felt extremely satisfied. If you’re familiar with the UFC product the presentation of this game will get you in the exact right emotional space to really care about what is going on, and there is nothing more you can ask from graphics and sound.

In addition to analyzing presentation, it’s obvious that the developers (Yukes) spent a lot of effort analyzing the flow and composition of real UFC fights and faithfully converting them into gameplay mechanics. The main components are striking, submissions, and transitions. For striking, they decided to keep it simple, and map each limb to a face button, with directional input to modify the attacks. Attacking without modifying gives you safe strikes that will do some damage, while modifying it makes your strikes more damaging but ALSO more dangerous for you. Best of all, the damage modeling uses realistic physics and collision detection, so strikes do damage based on momentum changes of body parts. The primary way you get knocked out in the game matches exactly with real life: Moving forward for a strong strike while your opponents hits your exposed area with a strong counter. You can also end a fight by hurting them enough that they get knocked down and stunned, where you finish the fight by standing over them and punching until the ref stops you, which is also exactly like real life. Submissions are fairly simple. In most positions you can attempt a submission at any time by clicking the right stick (on defense you have to grab an arm as a counter), and you will then button mash against your opponent. The interesting thing is that your current stamina (which goes down when you attack) has an effect on this, so it’s quite common for a fighter in the game to get overzealous in their striking and lower their stamina, at which point they are more vulnerable to a submission. Again, this is exactly like real life and the submission and striking components directly counteract each other as ways to win a fight.

The other major component is the transitional/positional game. Previous UFC and Pride games had fairly decent striking and submission components, but the positional game in UFC 2009 is extremely deep and satisfying. There are 3 standing positions, 4 clinching positions, and 12 (I think) ground positions. This sounds complicated, but the rules for each type of position are very similar, and they form clear progressions. Basically, each in each position you can actively choose to strike, go for a submission, or attempt to transition (by rotating the right stick). Also, you can defend against strikes or transitions. Striking an opponent who is guarding against transitions is very effective, as is transitioning against an opponent who is blocking strikes. So, the whole system quickly turns into an extremely psychological guessing game. Should you go for strikes that do long-term damage, or do you transition to mount to try and win the fight right away? Or you can block an opponents transition to make them waste stamina and become vulnerable to a transition.  There is no other game I can think of that places this much explicit emphasis on positional control and transitions, and learning this part of the game will definitely give you a deeper understanding of the actual principles behind MMA fighting. The fact that the combat is deep, systematic (as opposed to being overly based on special moves), and maps very closely to actual MMA fighting is why I love the game.

Outside of the core fighting mechanic and presentation, the game is a bit more hit and miss. The career mode is pretty comprehensive and gives you a fairly fun time-management layer to deal with when training your fighter. However, it features some of the most irritating menus in the history of gaming (when it auto saves, which is like every 2 minutes, it pops up SIX different save dialogs, all with slow transitions between them). The Online play is very playable (the slower pace and higher strategy of the game work well online) and has some nice ranking features, but right now an irritatingly large number of people will disconnect immediatly before losing (I have lost 3 wins to this, to add to the 7 I have that registered). These are issues that can be fixed in updates or next year’s version, but the core game is absolutely worth it. Like few other games in this generation of consoles, UFC 2009 Undisputed is a game that could not have existed 5 years ago (when the last UFC game came out). Improvements in physics have lead to a very realistic striking game. Improvements in graphics have lead to the ability to duplicate the presentation of a UFC fight without having to clutter it up with too many meters (do turn on the stamina meter, that cue is too subtle). The improved popular success of MMA and the UFC has allowed the developers to build an extremely deep combat system that can rely on lessons learned from watching real fights instead of having to copy existing fighting games. UFC 2009 Undisputed (name still kinda sucks) will definitely go down as one of the most unique and best-executed games of 2009, at least on my personal list.

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