There's a certain thought that runs through the minds of sports gamers year in and year out. It's that nagging idea that the latest installment in their favorite franchise could have been that much better if the developer had just had a little extra time and breathing room to try something new. Most of the time it's just wishful thinking, but every so often sports gamers get a chance to see that logic in action. UFC Undisputed 3 is one such opportunity. Scheduled for release in early 2012--nearly two years after its predecessor--UFC Undisputed 3 represents THQ's effort to deliver a genuinely fresh sequel not often seen in the sports gaming world. After playing through a number of different match types, we're pleased to say that the third installment in this mixed martial arts franchise is definitely benefiting from that extra development time.
Perhaps the biggest difference in UFC Undisputed 3 is that this isn't purely a UFC game. Pride Fighting Championships, UFC's once-edgier, more-eccentric rival, has been virtually resurrected after the organization folded in 2007. All the hallmarks of Pride fighting are here: the brutal attacks, the relaxed set of rules, and the outdoor venues filled with neon lights and smoke. There's also a completely different pair of ringside announcers for Pride matches in former real-life commentators Bas Rutten and Stephen Quadros.
Pride matches in UFC Undisputed 3 have a much more vicious feel to them, thanks to a different set of rules that allows for dirtier fighting. For example, when your opponent gets knocked on the ground, you can start kicking him in the face or stomping his head with your heel--a tactic that would get you immediately thrown out of a UFC match. Being able to throw knees at your opponent's head in a north-south ground grapple and kick his face when he misses a shoot takedown are some of the other brutal but legal techniques. Since the league is no longer running, the Pride fighters you see in the game are shown as you would have seen them in their heydays, including Rampage Jackson and Wanderlei Silva represented in their younger, more intimidating days. (And in case you're wondering, yes, you can bring UFC fighters into a Pride match and vice versa.)
Besides just a new fighting variant in Pride, there are numerous changes and tweaks to the basic UFC fighting system, in terms of both striking and grappling. As far as striking goes, kicking is a much more effective tactic than in previous games. You've always been able to land a knockout kick to the head, but it used to be that kicking an opponent's legs or body was little more than a nuisance to your foe. Now, if you damage an opponent's legs enough, you can actually deliver a technical knockout. We fell victim to one of these, making the mistake of not guarding our knees enough before that final blow arrived that caused us to hit the ground clutching our twisted knee in agony. There's a counter to this, though, in a new kick-checking move (down on the right stick) that lets you brush off an opponent's blow. And according to producer Wes Bunn, there's a very small but real chance that your opponent can break his shin on your leg if you pull off a successful kick check.
The grapple system has undergone some changes as well. You will no longer be able to spam the standing Muay Thai clinch now that the player on the defensive end can struggle out of it more easily. On the ground, there's an entirely new submission system that replaces the analog stick twirling that led to so many blisters in previous games. Now it's a sort of cat-and-mouse minigame where an octagon image pops up onscreen with red and blue lines on the perimeter of it. Basically, the player being submitted has to outrun the one doing the submitting, with each player represented by their red or blue line that they can move around the perimeter of the octagon with the analog stick. It sounds a little bizarre, but there is a logic to it: the size of your line is affected by various factors, such as how fatigued you are, whether you've rushed into a submission prematurely, and the general effectiveness of a certain hold. So if you've ground-and-pounded for a solid 20 seconds and your attacker immediately goes into a submission, his line will be substantially bigger than if he'd rushed into a hold, making it easier for him to chase you down in the minigame and thus cause a tapout.
If all of this sounds a little bit confusing or you just don't consider yourself a huge UFC fan, you'll be happy to know that UFC Undisputed 3 is aiming to chip away at the barrier to entry that existed in previous games. There's a new, purely optional alternate control scheme that takes the bevy of intricate quarter-circle analog stick motions used for transitions in the grapple game and replaces them with simple up-and-down motions on the sticks. Having played with this alternate control scheme, we can definitely say it makes the (often byzantine) grapple game far less intimidating and ultimately friendlier to newcomers--if you can use the word "friendly" to describe two dudes trying to punch each other senseless. There are also new in-match tutorials that produce text balloons relevant to your current actions, giving you a little heads-up about how a certain technique works and the best way to use it. The tutorial prompts also show up between rounds, giving you positive and negative feedback on your performance to let you better focus on your technique in the next round.
Those are a few options for newer players to make the game a bit more accessible. If the opposite approach is more your bag, you're in luck. There's a new match variant for simulation stamina usage, making things like high leg kicks and heavy strikes cost far more energy than they normally would. In our experience, this mode tends to make the match move a lot more slowly, with an added cost and consequence for each attack that adds a certain game-of-chess feel to the proceedings. There's also a new competition match variant that removes all randomized elements, such as flash knockouts, in order to make it a true test of skill. You can even go a step further and use this variant with an equalized stat modifier that both removes randomized elements and takes any fighter in the game and keeps his skills balanced at 80s across the board.
There are some visual changes to be found as well. While character models look more or less the same as they did in previous games, animations seem to be a bit smoother, especially in the way counters and dodged attacks look. There's also a new camera that trades in the broadcast camera perspective for a new ringside view. The camera is lower to the ground, a bit more zoomed in on the action, and makes the audience a bit darker and more shadowy in order to focus on the fighting itself. This is also the first UFC Undisputed game with pre-match entrances, which you'll be able to customize with music and outfits much like in THQ's WWE games.
All told, we're really liking what we've seen (and played) of UFC Undisputed 3. Those Pride matches make for a much different, more vicious experience than we've ever got out of an Undisputed game, while the various changes to the fighting system should make the game more smooth and authentic. The big question we're left with is what's being done with the career mode. This series has always had a very menu-heavy, often-tedious career mode that has never been able to fully capitalize on the excellent core fighting system. If this is the game that finally nails the career mode, then you're going to see a legion of ecstatic UFC Undisputed fans--us included. But we'll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, you can expect UFC Undisputed 3 to arrive early next year.