The first time I ever happened upon a televised Ultimate Fighting Championship bout, two things immediately came to mind. The first was that these brutal, face-bashing, arm-torquing fights couldn’t possibly be fake. There was simply too much bleeding for it all to be fabricated. Pro wrestling may be as choreographed as a slapstick soap opera, but the UFC battlers look like they mean business.
Which almost immediately prompted my second, purely parental thought: How many kids are mimicking this stuff in their backyards? The fact that a certain percentage of rambunctious boys will find those jiu-jitsu, tackle and pummel moves as attractive as surfing on the hood of a moving car or jumping a dumpster with a dirt bike seems as inevitable as the YouTube videos documenting such harebrained stunts.
And maybe that unavoidable appeal is what prompted the crew at THQ to create UFC 2009: Undisputed. This video game is as close as average Joes can get to the “sport” known as mixed martial arts without actually ending up in the emergency room.
But that hardly qualifies it as a safe alternative.
Build a Brawler
The game begins by allowing gamers to fight as (or with) 80 real-life personalities who’ve been digitally re-created in the game’s training and tussling world. Dozens of fighters are represented in five different weight classes. And since this is all about mixed martial arts battles, each fighter specializes in two fighting disciplines: Striking (which includes boxing, kickboxing and the Asian fighting technique Muay Thai) and Grappling (represented by Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo and wrestling).
The combination of possible moves and attacks is impressively broad. No simple button-masher here. Whether you start with a seasoned brawler or use the game’s Create a Fighter system and build one from the ground up, you’re given a wide range of offensive and defensive moves.
For instance, even if you choose a relatively straightforward boxer as your champion, you’ll still need to learn a variety of kicks and combos from other disciplines that are necessary to slow as well as damage your opponent.
And offense, of course, must be paired with a good defense if victory is what you’re after. So you’ll need to learn how to snap off defensive ducks and slaps as well to counter your opponent’s attacks. When you add in your grappling skills and menu of submission holds, you’ve got a combat system with an initially intimidating array of controller options.
After you master the intricate controller dance that directs your fighter, the strategy side of the bouts becomes much more involving and takes UFC 2009 a notch higher than your typical fighting game. Career Mode makes things even more engrossing as you guide a young fighter through training, two-minute sparring sessions and graduating matches—incrementally improving specific skills and battling their way up through the ranks of the UFC pros.
From a pure gaming perspective, then, UFC 2009: Undisputed has quite a bit to offer. There are some small menu-hopping glitches and boring bits during the training side of things, but combat in the octagon-shaped ring is challenging and realistic.
But that immersive realism, of course, creates its own set of problems.
As I said when I started, UFC bouts can be brutal. And even though this is a T-rated title, it packs a substantially realistic wallop.
Punches and kicks land solidly, and what starts as a red bruise on a fighter’s face quickly deteriorates into bleeding gashes and spattered blood. Playing the game may not leave you cringing in fear of permanent injury as a live bout could. But raw cuts on the digital combatants and gore-sprinkled octagons still drive the violence of these proceedings home with a vengeance.
In addition, the very nature of the game, which involves the need to face increasingly more skilled opponents, motivates gamers to experiment with finding new-and-improved ways to hit, kick, wrestle and choke their foes into painful submission.
(Other realistic missteps in the game include its jiggling bikini girls and some real-world fighter interviews and rock music tracks that both sport mild profanity.)
Of course, the parent side of me wants to bring up that whole imitation thing once more. Even though this game fully illustrated to me the many reasons why I never took my flabby abs and spaghetti arms into a fighting ring, for some younger gamers it might do just the opposite.
In fact, the submission-hold tutorial alone could serve that purpose by offering young experimenters a step-by-step guide to performing a hyper-extending arm hold on, say, an unsuspecting sister. But that would never really happen. Right?
I’ve never seen it on YouTube, anyway. But that’s probably just because I haven’t looked very hard.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.