As a fledging sport series hits video game maturity it has to ask a few difficult questions: do you ramp up the hardcore aspects for the dedicated fans that helped make the series a success to begin with, or do you try and find ways to attract a new audience?
UFC Undisputed 3's answer? Both. Yuke's and THQ's third MMA brawler is hoping to attract a new fanbase with an amateur control scheme and more competent in-game education tools, but it also wants to tickle the fancy of pro players with a more robust online system and a simulation setting that forces you to think before every strike.
UFC 3 benefits from a longer development cycle than its previous games, and the extra time appears to have paid dividends from some near-final code displayed at a recent THQ event. There are lots of considered nips and tucks to the established rhythm of man-punching, and after about two hours spent fiddling with the game in Exhibition mode I came away impressed.
For those already familiar with the Octagon, the first thing you'll notice is that strikes now dish out more damage - too many confrontations between competent players in UFC 09 and 10 ended up going to the judges, whereas most players want to see brutal knockouts and TKO's. Stronger strikes puts a greater onus on keeping your guard up and effectively juggling offence and defence, especially when taking a punch can put you in a seriously bad state, and being on the receiving end of one too many kicks can cause your leg to shatter.
Other new features can have a big impact in the Octagon. A new submission system takes away the "shining" and replaces it with an on-screen mini-game similar to that used in EA's rival MMA title. And swaying on the ground to avoid strikes is a simple but beautifully effective addition, and it's hard to deny yourself a sense of well-earned accomplishment when you effectively weave your way out of a potentially devastating flurry of attacks. It's also great to be able to punch your way out of clinches, giving hope to those who favour a more aggressive strategy.
The default controls - now called the Pro configuration - function much the same as before. In order to ease new players into the proceedings, though, the Amateur control scheme maps the complicated system of quarter and half circles from the right analogue stick to a simple system of flicking up and down to trigger major and minor transitions. This helps beginners understand the intricacies of grapples and clinches without having to worry about inputs, though it does leave you more open and therefore easily exploited by more competent players.
If that makes absolutely no sense to you (which is entirely possible - MMA is a complex sport peppered with reams of technical jargon) then you'll be glad to hear the game makes more of an effort to integrate its tutorial into actual gameplay, prompting you through a primer session as you start your first fight. When you've got to grips with the controls, UFC 3 also uses the time in-between rounds to give you a few points about what you're doing well and, perhaps more importantly, what you need to take into consideration.
THQ's headline new feature from Undisputed 2010, however, is the inclusion of the defunct PRIDE league to its 150+ roster of fighters. PRIDE was a Japanese MMA league purchased by UFC parent company Zuffa in 2007, integrating the likes of Mirko Cro Cop and Dan Henderson into the American UFC league. It is notable for being far less strict with its MMA rules than UFC, even going so far as to actively encourage players to kick their opponents in the head when they're on the ground.
Over in PRIDE, Bas Rutten and Stephen Quadros take commentating duties from Joe Rogan and Mike Oldberg, and announcer Lenne Hardt provides her unique style of vocal delivery to the game's new ring entrances. There's a regular boxing ring rather than UFC's swanky Octagon, and the blazing white lights gives it a much brighter aesthetic. You can also kick people in the head.
There's still a lot of things we want to know about before the game's February release, such as the specifics of Career mode or whether the online netcode can match up to the core fighting engine's obvious potential, but there's a good chance UFC 3 will be the strongest MMA game to date.
UFC Undisputed 3 will be released for Xbox 360 and PS3 on February 17 2012.