Being a big fan of both the UFC product and the Undisputed games, it would be understatement to say that I was looking forward to this demo of UFC: Undisputed 3; especially after the ten minutes or so that I spent with it at last year's Eurogamer Expo.
Now that i've spent a couple of hours with it away from the hustle and bustle of a crowded event, what i've seen so far is certainly promising and bodes well for a stellar third instalment in the franchise.
The demo itself however, is not without some grating limitations.
To start with, you only have a single round with which to ply your violent trade. Yep. One, lonely, solitary round. Not exactly great for getting intimate with the game, but still enough for you to get to grips the majority of the fundamentals. In addition to the single round, there are just four fighters on offer and while the quantity might be disappointing; the quality isn't. From this quartet of combatants, players are able to choose between vicious sluggers Rampage Jackson and Wanderlei Silva for the new PRIDE mode (which i'll get onto in a bit). While in the standard UFC mode, players can take control of pound-for-pound greats Jon Jones and Anderson Silva in a superfight for the ages.
The difference between these two modes is substantial; the UFC mode is essentially a continuation of what has been seen in previous games, whereas the new PRIDE mode aims to take players back in time to the heyday of the Japanese organised PRIDE Fighting Championship days.
The first most obvious difference is in the presentation. Boasting a traditional ring instead of the now all-too familiar Octagon cage, PRIDE fights have a full-tilt Nippon presentation; with a Japanese crowd, a Japanese referee and finally a crazily voiced ring announcer; all of which look and sound just like the real thing.
A new feature of Undisputed 3 are entrances and in PRIDE mode, they're more extravagant than what you would be used to in UFC programming. Whereas entrances in the UFC mode are more lo-key affairs, with the commentary and presentation geared toward informing the player about the facts concerning a given fighter, PRIDE entrances tend to boast a spectacle more akin to pro-wrestling; with dramatic fighter entrances emboldened by generous use of pyrotechnics and huge TV screens.
The differences in presentation don't end here either. Whereas the UFC mode has the ever-reliable duo of Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan stepping up once more for commentary duties, PRIDE mode instead has the team of fighting legend Bas Rutten and Stephen Quadros doing the very same; and whilst they perhaps don't show quite the same level of insight that the UFC pair do, the commentary nevertheless remains relevant to the action and entertaining to hear.
Presentation differences aside, the big differing factor between the two modes lie in the rules and it's here that a new way to play the game emerges too. In the UFC, strikes to the back of the head of a downed opponent with elbows and knees are illegal; so too is foot-stomping your opponent in the face when they are laying flat on their back. According to PRIDE rules however, these strikes are as legal as a regular right hook thrown to the dome and as a result, I found myself decimated in positions that the UFC rules previously taught me were safe.
For example, as the boxer/wrestler Rampage Jackson I attempted a takedown on Wanderlei Silva which he handily stuffed by sprawling his back legs out and locking me in a front face lock. This wouldn't be a big deal normally, because I thought he would either attempt to lock in a submission whilst I was escaping, or soften me up with strikes to the side of the face.
Instead of that he proceeded to drive his freakishly big knees right into the top of my skull; quickly sapping my stamina and leaving me a crumpled and defeated tattooed mess on the floor.
Needless to say, previous UFC games had left me positively coddled in regards to this sort of brutality and as a result, it introduced a whole new layer of strategy when it came to realising which positions were safe and which were not.
As far as the UFC mode goes, it's largely business as usual but sadly the one-round limit of the demo is more keenly felt here since UFC bouts are five minutes apiece, whereas the first round in a PRIDE contest is ten minutes long. Nevertheless, playing as both Jon Jones and Anderson Silva, both of whom are tremendously well-rounded fighters, gave me a fine opportunity to grasp a number of the more subtle gameplay changes which affect both modes.
One of the very first differences that you see when you setup a fight is the option to set either a 'Pro' or 'Amateur' grappling control scheme. Pro grappling controls are essentially the exact same ones that UFC Undisputed players have been used to for the last few years, with a focus on quarter-circle and half-circle stick movements to advance positions whilst in a grapple. The Amateur controls on the other hand, allow players to simply flick the stick either up or down to advance their position providing a great boon for newcomers to the series who may have been alienated by the complexity of the grappling controls in previous games.
In the actual fight itself, the most obvious thing that struck me (and my opponent) right away was just how bloody useful the humble jab was. No longer relegated as a weak strike that couldn't justify it's use in the face of the much more powerful (and just as swift) technique strikes from previous games, the humble jab can actually now completely interrupt a foe's striking; creating an opening to engage with strikes of your own or change levels and initate a takedown using the snappy strike as a setup.
Speaking of takedowns; you gotta work for these bastards now. Whereas in previous games you could get an instant takedown by initating the maneuver whilst the opponent was mid-action, in Undisputed 3 the only way you going to get an instant one is if you catch your opponent pulling off a powerful technique strike. Regular takedowns meanwhile have to be driven through with the 'shining' of the stick should you attempt the move at any other time.
On the subject of 'shining the stick', a sore point for a great many folks in previous iterations has been the manner in which submissions were handled. In previous titles, you would aim to submit your opponent by rotating the stick clockwise as fast as you could to achieve success; taking weeks and months off of the life of your controller in the process. Undisputed 3 however tosses this mechanic out the window and replaces it with a curious little mini-game where you have an Octagon shape and two coloured bars; each representing a player.
The idea here is to overlap the opponent's bar as much as you can to fill the submission bar with your colour and eventually get the submission. Whilst getting rid of the shine method was a welcome measure, I can't say i'm totally sold on the new way of breaking limbs and getting folks to tap out. It just doesn't feel very intuitive at the moment and feels detrimental to the pace of the fights; to me at least. There's always the chance I could warm to it though, so perhaps I just need more time pulling off those subs.
One of the highlighted improvements that Undisputed 3 brings over Undisputed 2010 was the ability to score leg-kick TKO's – effectively causing a fight stoppage or crumpling the opponent via kicks to the legs. Sadly, the one-round limit hasn't really allowed me to see this feature in it's full glory since you generally need to throw a shitload of these things for the effect to be cumulative enough to actually work and trigger the TKO.
What I did get to see was the improved ground and pound. Whereas in previous games ground strikes looked nasty they nevertheless all seemed fairly similar in regards to their effects and animations. As Jon Jones though, I was able to do his infamous elbow strikes and they actually looked unique; causing him to rear his elbow back and slice it diagonally across the face of the pinned Anderson Silva, causing a fight-alteringly brutal cut above the eye and feeling all kinds of satisfying in doing so.
Another feature of the game; originally seen in the very first UFC Undisputed title that fans will be happy to see is the ability to land strikes after the bell. Once you've knocked out the poor sod you were battering about, you are now able to once again continue the abuse by landing a whole barrage of unanswered blows to his already bloody visage before the ref pulls you off and brings out the EMT's.
Overall UFC Undisputed 3 undeniably impresses. The addition of the PRIDE mode, the improvement of the striking and grappling and the general increase in polish has gotten me very optimistic that this will be the best MMA title yet – easily head and shoulders about it's predecessor and quite simply one of most satisfying fighting games to come out for a long time.
If you're a UFC or MMA fan, than you'll know largely what to expect and you're probably playing the demo already; savouring the differences ranging from the significant to the subtle. If however, you haven't played these games before, but have a hankering for deep and strategic fighting gameplay, give the demo a try and see what you think - you might very well be surprised.