I’ve never really been in a fight. Oh I’ve been punched, and I’ve maybe thrown a few punches of my own from time to time, but not in years. Looking back, I can’t begin to imagine how or why I found myself in such situations. If presented with the opportunity to commit physical violence on another person today, I’d most probably refuse it. So I’ll never for the life of me understand what possess men and women to spend their lives lifting weights and perfecting martial art techniques just so they can spend time trying to turn another human being’s face into ground meat.
However, that doesn’t mean I won’t watch other people do it. Humans have always had a grim fascination with violence, and there’s just about nothing more violent, unless they start televising attempted murders, than mixed martial arts organizations like the UFC and Strikeforce. Unlike boxing, seemingly anything goes in those fights. It’s the closest you’ll ever see to a professional street fight. It’s no wonder really that games that allow regular gamers to participate in those activities from the safety of their own couch are so popular.
That brings us to UFC Undisputed 3, the newest mixed martial arts simulator from THQ. For a game like this to succeed, it must accurately and thoroughly reproduce speed and action you’d see in a real fight (and in my experience the pace of combat in UFC Undisputed 3 is positively snail-like compared to actual fights), then it must get everything else right. The moves, fighting styles, and techniques at work in a real fight all need to be in place for the game to seem credible. UFC Undisputed 3 seems to nail this aspect. I’ve never played a fighting game with such a deep and complex repertoire of moves. And you can forget about Street Fighter style button combinations. It’s more about timing, situational awareness, body position, and predicting what your opponent will do next, and each one of those aspects has some move or hold associated with it that you have to learn.
The tutorial alone is over an hour long, and that’s if you don’t replay anything. It covers everything from basic strikes and moving around the ring to advanced concepts like energy management, and strike catch submissions. The tutorial is actually too long, I’d say. Worse is the fact that it’s not integrated into the rest of the game at all. You have the game, and then you have the tutorial. If you’re silly enough to, like me, play the entire tutorial before attempting a single match, by the time you do start one, you’ll have forgotten more than you remember. Integrating tutorials seamlessly into gameplay is always hard and much has been said about how to do it right. While UFC Undisputed 3’s tutorial is in-depth enough and shows you literally everything, I would have liked to see a more progressive tutorial that lets you learn, then utilize, bits and pieces in actual fights, thereby cementing each concept in your mind, before moving on. Instead it dumps everything into your lap at once and asks you to sift through it yourself.
Once you finish the tutorial, you have several options. There is an exhibition mode that lets you set up matches any way you want and then watch them or play them. There is also a Title Mode that functions as a fighting-game standard ladder tournament. You fight guys, move up in the rankings, and when you get to the top, you win the title. It takes three losses to be eliminated, so you can learn from your mistakes without having to start over, and that’s a nice touch. Finishing that mode unlocks Title Defense mode that should be pretty self-explanatory. There is also a Tournament mode where you can pick the size, sanctioning body (either UFC or Strikeforce), and the fighters. You can then play every match, watch them all, or anything in between.
The real meat of the game’s single player portion, however, is going to be the Career Mode. In Career Mode, you pick a fighter, or create your very own. Creating your own allows you to customize every aspect, from face and name (but, sadly, not gender - I’d have liked to see some female fighters included) to fighting styles and signature moves. Picking an existing fighter is known as a Roster Career. There’s still some degree of customizability so you’re not locked into picking a fighter you dislike simply because you want to use his move set. Whatever you choose, Career Mode plays out the same way. You pick an opponent to fight, train via a certain number of available actions, then move on to the fight itself. You then repeat that process over and over. Training actions include mini-games, or joining a camp to learn new moves and upgrade existing ones. There are several to pick from, each with a slightly different specialty. Early on, you can bounce between camps, but eventually you’ll have to pick one and you won’t be able to change it, so be sure you pick a camp that teaches the styles your fighter favors.
The third action is Game Plan. That action requires you to use certain moves or styles in the fight, so you won’t see the benefit until afterwards. All of these actions lead to stat increases when performed successfully. As you rack up wins (if you rack up wins) and earn “cred,” which acts as money, you’ll be able to sign with sponsors, and increase your skill cap via sparring partners or by purchasing new advanced training activities. Each training activity also costs cred, but you shouldn’t ever worry about not having enough to train. Winning and losing streaks will allow you to change weight classes at the cost of any title you hold. No matter the specific details of your career, you’ll always be moving around in the rankings, winning and/or losing titles, defending said titles, and developing a fan base, until you choose to retire that fighter and do it all over again. If case you can’t tell Career Mode gets repetitive very quickly. It’s always only fight, train, and fight with a few minor business type decisions here and there. There’s nothing else. Maybe the life of a real MMA fighter is exactly that repetitive, but real life doesn’t always make for fun videogames. Not that I’m saying UFC Undisputed 3’s career mode isn’t fun. It’s just repetitive. How you feel about it will depend entirely on how important the lack of repetition is to you.
When you get tired of the AI, you can jump online for ranked and player matches, which are just one-off matches against either a friend or randomly matched stranger. You’ll also be able to upload you own CPU-generated smart highlight reels that you can choose to have produced after each match (each one takes a really long time, however) for people to vote on, watch, or download (and you can do the same with others’ highlight reels). You can also download other player’s created banners or upload your own (the customization for which is almost exactly like Forza). Personally, I got a big kick out of watching other players’ highlight reels. UFC Undisputed 3 also includes the brand new online Fight Camps feature. You can set up one yourself and recruit other players or apply for membership for existing one. Once you join, or get your own up and running, it operates almost exactly like career mode fight camp, except it’s user driven. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, I haven’t been accepted into any.
Whether I was online or off, the fights themselves were the real highlight for me. Even though I never really did get a full handle on the controls (because I’m pretty sure they would take years for me to master), and I routinely got my skull beaten bloody, I genuinely enjoyed the matches themselves. UFC Undisputed 3 treats the annihilation of the human body as an art form and lovingly displays every bump, bruise, and bleeding wound. Also, as fights progress, the fighters become slick with sweat, and blood stains accumulate on the mat. They even put a lot of work into body hair on fighters’ chest, arms and backs. With so much attention to detail lavished on the fighters, matches can be thrilling to watch even when you’re on the receiving end of a major beat down. Especially impressive to me was how you can often see the exact moment the lights go out when a fighter is KO’d. Watching it all in instant replays or via custom highlight reels, the force of the kicks and punches really becomes apparent. I cringed many a time at my own knockout blows. It makes it all the more unbelievable that real people really endure the same kind of punishment.
It’s too bad that beyond the fighters themselves, the rest of the game is rather bland to look at. Some might say it’s all substance over style, but bland is bland. Career mode especially suffers from a lack of flash. Many career matches lack commentary (I could listen to Joe Rogan talk about fighting all day) or flashy introductions (which are mostly the same when they exist at all). Even winning my first title was underwhelming. The post-match animations were exactly as they always were, except my character was wearing a belt. As you climb through the ranks, you do start to see some flash and drama, but early on it just a bit boring.
Something else that I didn’t like was how long it took to actually get into a fight when I first started. Maybe that was because I played through the entire tutorial first, but otherwise I wouldn’t have known enough to compete in a match. However there were other causes as well. For example, there is an outrageous amount of loading in UFC Undisputed 3, and the loading usually runs on the long side. Maybe that can be fixed by installing the game, but since my copy wouldn’t install (it just froze whenever I tried it, and that’s the first time that’s ever happened to me), I’ll never know. Something else there is an outrageously large amount of in the beginning is talking. The first time you access any game mode or feature within said game mode, instructions that go on seemingly forever are relayed vocally to you in the dullest method possible. They’re accompanied by text, but don’t think you can read ahead. The text doesn’t always match the voice, so unless you want to live with the ever-present feeling that you missed important information, you have to listen to it all. It does its very best to suck every bit of joy out of the game’s first several hours. But at least it’s not a permanent feature.
Another issue I had was that getting rocked or KO’d often seemed arbitrary, whether it happened to me or my AI opponent. I know that stuff can come out of nowhere in real MMA matches, but when you spend the whole match getting pummeled, only to land one lucky counter that knocks your opponent to the mat in that heaped “giving up on life” position that allows a flurry of uncontested punches and stops the fight, you feel slightly unfulfilled - like the computer let you win. It goes the other way also. Sometimes it feels like the computer just decides you’re going to lose and there’s nothing you can do about it.
And then you have the submission game. I really need to talk about this one aspect of UFC Undisputed 3 because it’s truly awful. Submission moves have always been my favorite moves, whether it was big time wrestling or MMA, so I immediately made a fighter that specialized in submission holds. And then I found out that UFC Undisputed 3 had the worst possible method for determining the outcome of a submission hold - the mini-game. When either fighter initiates a submission hold an octagon appears on the screen with a red bar and blue bar, representing each corner, that each travels around the outside of the octagon. Completing or escaping from the submission hold requires the offensive player to overlap their bar with their opponent’s bar and hold it there while the defender moves his bar around to avoid the overlap. You can affect how long their bar is by beating them senseless first, but it’s still a completely arbitrary way to win a match (or not lose one). It’s mind-boggling to me how off-the-mark that design decision is. In a game that depends on timing and strategy, many matches come down to what amounts to a game of Snake. It would be like if NFL games that ended regulation in a tie were decided with competitive Tetris. One has no bearing on or connection to the other. In UFC Undisputed 3, things are further aggravated by the fact that the stick moves in a circle and not an octagon. That leads to frustrating moments were your bar gets hung up on a bend while you desperately try and determine what direction you need to move it in to free it. Of the game’s handful of flaws, the submission mini-game is the only one that I feel really hurts the game’s credibility.
Overall, however, UFC Undisputed 3 is a solid fighting game for those that want more blood and less Hadoukens. Despite a handful of missteps and one truly egregious bit of gameplay, the rest of it should satisfy even the most hardcore backyard cage-fighter. It looks good, if unspectacular, the controls are easy to learn but impossible to master unless you put in serious time, and it’s all propelled by a solid soundtrack of fairly generic heavy metal music and ring-girls in bikinis. More ring-girls in bikinis would have been worth half a letter grade.