Even though THQ has been through a bit of turmoil recently, perhaps one of the smartest things the company did was snap up an exclusive UFC license just as the mixed martial arts (MMA) league was beginning to explode in popularity. Over the last few years, THQ has been hard at work trying to bring the excitement and unpredictability of the Octagon to consoles, and with Undisputed 3, it's provided the closest recreation yet. While the game isn't a huge leap forward in any particular area, it does represent baby steps of improvement for the series.
The most significant addition to Undisputed 3 is the inclusion of the PRIDE Fighting Championships. Japan's dominant kickboxing league was bought out by the UFC fairly recently, but until now, it has never appeared in a game. That's all changed, as Undisputed 3 showcases PRIDE in all its glory, complete with the full fighter roster, outrageous entrances, original announcers and, of course, special rule sets. Fighting purists will cheer the inclusion of PRIDE's more brutal rules, including series first such as face stomps, soccer kicks and knees to the head of a downed opponent. Also, whereas UFC fights often focus on grappling, wrestling and submissions, PRIDE has always primarily been a stand-up fighting organization, so punches and kicks come as the order of the day. Kudos to the development team for so thoroughly and seamlessly implementing an entire second league into this year's game.
Another major change for the better comes in the revamped Career mode, which allows players to grab either a current UFC fighter or one they've created and attempt to rise through the ranks. The last game was incredibly convoluted, requiring players to juggle training, sparring, media events and rest in order to get their fighter ready for the next bout. While it may have been a more true-to-life presentation of the demands of a celebrity fighter, no one really wanted to play a time management sim. That's why this year's streamlined presentation is so much better. Now, players typically have the opportunity to partake in one or two actions before a fight, with the options pared down to training drills, attending a camp and formulating a game plan. On the whole, it's much simpler to track a fighter's progress and feel like you're more in control of preparation than before.
While the focus of training in Career mode is largely improved, the actual execution still leaves a lot to be desired. Drills are often obtuse and confusing, leading to several failed or poorly executed sessions before you get the hang of it. Even then, some of the training exercises still don't make sense (flipping a tire using grapple transitions comes to mind), and players will struggle from time to time because the game refuses to help them succeed. Let's hope that next year's edition goes back to the drawing board with the training exercises and makes them a bit more intuitive.
Some new tactics have been added in the cage as well, including feints and sways. Players can now fake punches and kicks to keep opponents off guard, which is a major boon to high-level strategists and those who like to play online. Also, those who find themselves in a bad position on the ground can now attempt to sway to dodge their foes' punches and create openings for escape. Again, it's mainly an advanced tactic, but when you find yourself on the ground with Junior Dos Santos trying to turn your face into a lumpy mess, you'll take any advantage you have.
You'll likely notice that the additions to the fighting engine are mainly for expert-level tactics, and that leads to a major point of concern: the franchise is becoming less and less newcomer friendly. There is an option to change the grapple controls, so a simple flick of the right thumbstick executes transitions, but beyond that, the game is incredibly complex. Those who don't have the patience or skill to sit through all 62 tutorials will find themselves being pummeled by tougher AI foes or human opponents. MMA is an incredibly complex sport, so you hate to ask for THQ to dumb it down so it appeals to a wider audience, but given the sheer multitude of attacks and modifiers, there aren't a lot of people who are going to be able to remember how to execute every hold, strike and throw.
Perhaps the strangest revamp comes in the submission system, which THQ has struggled to perfect since the beginning and still can't seem to nail down. Rather than spinning the control stick like mad, submissions initiate a "chase sequence" where the attacker must catch and cover the defender's icon while the defender plays keep away. It's an odd system that doesn't really do much to convey the realities of attempting to execute or escape a submission, and the giant graphic that completely overlays the screen takes away from the action of the fighters. This part of the game still isn't quite there yet, and if anything, this year we take a step backward from the eventual solution.
On the presentation side, Undisputed 3 does well, nailing down the fighters to the finest detail. The television-style pre-fight screens are nicely done, too; it's just a pity there are so many of them and they can't be skipped through any faster. The announcers also do a nice job of calling the fight, though they get a bit repetitive from time to time. Still, I attribute that more to players picking a fight style and sticking with it more than I do not having enough lines of banter recorded and loaded up.
The only real visual flaw is that some of the attacks show a lack of "oomph," which is made abundantly clear during the post-fight replays. Most attacks look like one fighter merely touched the other and caused the opponent to go down, and the game never really conveys just how vicious these punches and kicks are. When George St. Pierre delivers a knockout head kick, it should look like he did more than lightly swat his opponent with the top of his foot. I'd encourage THQ to look to the Fight Night series for inspiration, as those games do a great job of conveying just how nasty these hits can be.
At this point, it feels like THQ has gotten its UFC franchise in fighting shape; now it's just a matter of cutting weight and honing the technique until it's ready to stand as a champion. The game is impressive, and it seems we're on the cusp of something truly special.
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