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"UFC 2009 Undisputed" Tops Expectations...By Jay Graziani...By Jay Graziani

Forrest Griffin has now joined the ranks of Tiger Woods, Oscar de la Hoya, and Brett Favre in having his mug plastered on the face of a hot video game release, in his case the May debut of "UFC 2009 Undisputed". Riding the wave of the recent popularity of mixed martial arts, "Undisputed" was the hottest selling video game in May, with over 1 million units sold between the Xbox and PlayStation platforms.

A number of mixed martial arts games have debuted on the video game circuit before; none have made much of a splash. But with mixed martial arts recently breaking into the mainstream, and much more realistic sports game play revolutionized by "Fight Night" and the like, a perfect storm of hype and media attention came together for the release of "Undisputed". And UFC, with game designers THQ, have made the most of it, releasing a fun and user-friendly game that stays true to the attitude of the UFC.

One particular characteristic of the UFC that is effectively translated to the game is the vast array of unique fighting styles. "Undisputed" has 3 striking styles (boxing, kickboxing, muay thai) and 3 grappling styles (wresting, judo, jiu-jitsu), allowing for 9 different fighter "templates". Add to that the sheer number of techniques incorporated into the gameplay, and this means that in "Undisputed", unlike many sports simulations, every match between two fighters is truly unique.

The standup punch/kick gameplay will be familiar to most gamers, but clinching, takedowns, and submissions add a whole new aspect to game mechanics, as well as strategy. Fighting to your strengths and against your opponent's weaknesses becomes paramount in a game with so many attacking options. The game impressively allows near-seamless transitions between striking, clinching, and ground grappling, and each of the many positions has a unique set of techniques to be used. Unfortunately, the game seems to rely too much on stand-up action, with submissions seemingly few and far between (I have yet to notch either a submission win or loss after nearly 50 fights).

While the game mechanics are surprisingly detailed, the basics are easy to learn, thanks to a user-friendly "tutorial" mode that teaches the essentials and allows time to practice on a pussycat of an opponent. True mastery of the game, however, requires time in ring, and the best way to pay your dues in the Octagon is by designing a fighter and taking him through the ranks in the game's career mode.

"Undisputed" eliminates a lot of the tedium that comes with typical "character builder" storylines. Training is as simple as clicking a menu button, as opposed to games which make you wildly bash buttons for 30 seconds to improve your character attributes. The sparring sessions are quick and useful practice, and the provided "skills" points can be distributed to improve your fighter's striking, grappling, and submissions in 16 different categories. However, many of the "management" functions of the career mode, like emails, promotional events, and sponsorships, are clunky and far too time-consuming for the casual gamer.

Despite great artificial intelligence in the computer-controlled opponents, the best aspects of the game can only been seen when playing against a live opponent. An online mode allows you to find a willing opponent within seconds. But after just a few consecutive hard knocks online, I realized that something was amiss and learned that a "cheat" exists allowing people to essentially "hit the reset button" in the final seconds of a fight to avoid a loss on their record. With a fix supposedly in the works, I might just take a break from online fighting for awhile and sit on my 0-6 record.

Zuffa, Inc., parents of the UFC, have undoubtedly had great timing in entering the gaming sector. Supposedly the 2010 version of "Undisputed" is already in the works, and sports gaming behemoth EA has reportedly begun developing its own mixed martial arts game franchise. Whether that can succeed without the UFC's blessing is questionable, particularly when you consider the fates of those who dared to butt heads with Zuffa in the live MMA business.

In the meantime, we'll see if the old "Madden Jinx" takes its toll on cage fighters as well -- or perhaps it already has. Forrest Griffin lost the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship in his last fight, and faces Anderson Silva in a Light Heavyweight bout August 8th, a fight which will surely see him as a decided underdog. Canadian fans, who received a game box with Georges St-Pierre on the cover, might wonder if his welterweight belt is in jeopardy in his July 11th fight against Thiago Alves.

Is "Undisputed" worth a buy? For hardcore MMA fans, definitely, and even most non-fans will find the game entertaining. But in a tight economy and with "Fight Night Round 4" right around the corner, casual fans may prefer to wait for the next installment of the flagship combat sports franchise.

Jay Graziani

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