While THQ as a whole is having some trouble these days, the developers behind the UFC series have been dutifully plying its third iteration. It's a bit unusual that the team was given a longer development cycle for this game, bucking the annual trend, but it probably has something to do with wanting to make a bigger splash than UFC Undisputed 2010 as well as slightly tighter purse strings for THQ across the board.
After spending some time with the game, it certainly seems like the additional months of development have enabled some meaningful changes to the gameplay as well as the inclusion of many more fighters in the Octagon and, this year, PRIDE. The addition of bantamweight and featherweight classes are exciting, to be sure, as are UFC newcomers Allistair Overeem and Nick Diaz, but it's quite cool to see veterans of the PRIDE era along with completely unique presentation for that mode (ring setup, announcers, entrances, music, scoring, rules, etc.)
The ability to engage sitting down is an important but subtle one.
The ability to engage in a seated cage/ring rope position is a small but meaningful gameplay change this year, as you are able to wall walk out of danger on defense or pin against the cage for big damage on offense. The emphasis on leg kicks this time around still seems a bit fleeting, as staying with that type of attack will likely get you blasted versus a brawler or double-legged when up against a grappler. What I do find useful is the jab, as you can now interrupt big strikes by jabbing, and it's a nice setup for quick combinations.
I'm also enjoying the ability to sway, feint and evade from pretty much every position. Faking a takedown to then go for a superman punch is satisfying, as is the ability to keep fights going by swaying on the ground. In fact, one of the most intriguing new features is the simulation mode, which allows fights to play out more naturally, with an added emphasis on stamina and pacing. You get less of the rock'em sock'em robot effect in that mode, and fights can actually go back and forth, with multiple rocked states and knockdowns. I played almost exclusively in simulation mode during the demo, and I think I'll continue to do so in the full product.
Admittedly, the game still doesn't seem like it will win over that many newcomers, as the flow of combat just requires such precise timing and planning. The amateur control scheme will alleviate that somewhat, but this is a fighting game at its core, with even the new lower camera angle catering to that audience.
I've had some fairly competitive matches in several weight classes, with a particularly good battle between Carlos Condit and Georges St. Pierre. Counter striking remains vital, as does holding back on the right stick to avoid easy takedowns. The quick strikes and jabs make for better stick-and-move offense than last year, and transition blocking is now back to being user-controlled, which means you have to alternate your attacks, blocks and transitions accordingly.
The jury is still out for me on the new submission system.
As of yet, I'm not sure what to think of the new submission system. Instead of button mashing or stick twirling, this year's UFC is similar to EA MMA. By moving away (or towards) your opponent's icon in a little graphic on the screen, you'll win or lose the submission. When I was competing with fighters who were mismatched in terms of submissions — heavyweights Cheick Kongo and Frank Mir — it was actually pretty tense to be hitting some big offense as Kongo and then to almost be tapped by Mir. Focusing on moving around the little minigame in that instance actually felt vital, as I knew of the skill deficit between the two fighters. On the other hand, two fighters that are on par in terms of their BJJ and submission offense/defense don't seem quite as entertaining, and the minigame just seems like more of an annoying interlude that covers up the screen. I'll have to see how the submissions play out on different difficulties and against human competition.
Taking the action online has always been a so-so affair in previous versions of the UFC franchise, so it's nice to see that the fighting seems to be a bit smoother and more consistent. As always, the most sensitive aspect of online play is the clinch and ground aspects, since the flinching and quick transitions make net code stability a must.
So far my experience online has provided a few memorable matches, and none of them had any mid-match problems or disconnects, although some had a small delay, as in the past. One match in particular provided some craziness, as I was, once again, Carlos Condit versus an opponent using GSP (of course). I had actually done a pretty good job landing damage from his guard and even side mount, and the standup had been pretty even. He was actually doing pretty well in the third round, but I had thought I had hung on ... until he blasted me with a spinning back kick with literally two seconds left in the third round for a flash KO. Pretty crazy stuff, but a great fight nonetheless.
Verdict thus far: Encouraging, subtle, but overall pretty darned solid.
Generally speaking, I'm encouraged by the subtle changes that have been made to the gameplay so far. I'm curious to know what this all means for the career mode, and I plan to play a lot more PRIDE, as it delivers some great action that is a nice change from the Octagon. Look for some in-depth game mode impressions and the full review in the coming days.