Chuck Liddell vs Shogun Rua in UFC 2009 UndisputedLate last week, the UFC and THQ released the first playable demo of their highly anticipated UFC Undisputed 2009. Available for both the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, the demo is distributed online via each platform’s online store. While the final version is not released in stores until May 19, the free demo allows you to go through multi-layered tutorial, as well as play an exhibition match between Shogun Rua and Chuck Liddell. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the game thus far.

First, the attention to detail is stunning, as THQ has done an impeccable job at recreating the UFC experience. From the opening screen animation that displays the ubiquitous Zuffa trademark, to the oft-heard music, THQ has spared no expense in making sure that MMA fans have a familiar true-to-life UFC experience.

Of course, I started with the tutorial, which took about 30 minutes, and which takes you from basic controls for movement and striking, to more complicated maneuvers such as clinch work, takedowns, ground positioning, and submissions. With the complexity of the sport of MMA, I was skeptical that it could be recreated on a gaming system, but I was pleasantly surprised with how intuitive the gameplay really is.

Striking is the easiest part of the game, with each button (square, triangle, circle, x) corresponding to a fighter’s limb. For example, a left punch is thrown using the square button, whereas a right kick is performed with circle (Tekken style for those real nerds like me). Combining these strikes with the L1 and L2 buttons controls whether a particular strike lands to the head, body, or legs. Defending strikes is left up the R1 and R2 button, depending on whether the strike lands high or low.

When one gets into clinches and takedowns, the controls become more complicated, and may take some practice and repeat visits to the tutorial to become proficient. The game allows you to perform body clinches, muy thai clinches, overhooks and underhooks, and allows you to perform a number of strikes, throws, trips, and slams from the clinch. Takedowns can also be performed from a standing position or by catching a kick or a punch.

Once on the ground, strikes to the head and body can be performed in the same manner as in the standing position. More interesting, however, is the ability to improve one’s position by rotating the right analog stick in quarter circles, allowing you to move from guard, to half-guard,  side control, north-south position, and mount. The fighter on the bottom has the ability, with correct timing, to use the right analog stick to kick the top fighter away, work his way back into guard, or to perform a sweep. At any time while the fight is on the ground, a fighter can press the right analog stick to perform a submission, while the opposing fighter can either try to beat his way out of it, or perform a technical escape. There are many  more intricacies to the controls, far too many to mention here, but any real fight fan will be surprised by how realistic the gameplay can be.

Also interesting is how the game actually recreates the fighter’s real-life fighting style. For example, when I played as Shogun tried to just trade blows with Liddell, I easily got knocked out. Vice versa, as Liddell, it was easy to overwhelm Shogun on the feet. But, because Shogun has a Muay Thai style, grabbing the Muay Thai clinch and punishing Liddell with knees was the quickest way to victory. I’m excited to see how this aspect of the game transfers across a full roster of fighters, especially those with a superior ground game.

While other combat sports games, such as the Fight Night series, tend to be somewhat lethargic in their controls, Undisputed 2009 is surprisingly responsive, allowing for fast combinations and takedowns. Overall, the gameplay is excellent, and will be entertaining for both the casual gamer (button pusher), as well as for the hardcore MMA fan who could spend countless hours perfecting all of the intricacies of the ground game.

As with all next-generation games, the graphics are spectacular. From detail of the fighters faces, to the cuts and bruises that develop during the course of a fight, the graphics prove to be exceptionally realistic. My only complaint is with some of the detail on the mat. At times, the decals on the map tend to become pixilized in a manner that no high definition gaming system should tolerate. Also, while the blood on the face and body of the fighters is highly detailed, as it spills onto the mat, it too looks like a collection of red-hued pixels.

The sound is for the most part fantastic, with Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg offering their own commentary to the fight. Joe Rogan even shares an interesting anecdote about Liddell’s first fight in the UFC. A number of other characters also lend their voices, including Bruce Buffer, Mario Yamasaki, and a full roster of other referees and familiar faces slated for the full version. My biggest complaint regarding sound is that between rounds, each fighter’s corner seems to have the same voice giving tactical advice and encouragement. Maybe that will change in the final version, but it is somewhat confusing at this point.

Overall, Undisputed seems to be a great game. With a full roster of fighters and a decent career mode, I have no doubt it will be fantastic. My only fear is that the game will not catch on with the casual fan. Anything beyond standing in front of your opponent and trading shots does require a good bit of knowledge of the fight game, and I can see where the casual fan who may not be able to identify all of the various clinches and ground positions could easily got lost and discouraged.

After playing the demo for an hour, I have no doubt that I will be one of the first in line to pick up the full version on May 19, and I recommend that you are too.