Neven Dravinski says that he wants to kill 2009. When he says this, he doesn't mean that he wants to drown himself in cheap vodka in a desperate bid to blot out last year; he means that he wants to completely rip the arms off of UFC 2009 Undisputed. This sounds violent, but it's really an act of love: The producer wants his new game, UFC Undisputed 2010, to totally destroy its predecessor by being even better. And, thankfully, the changes aren't limited to a slightly-different arrangement of the words in the title.
For starters, it's clear that Yuke's and THQ are intent on making this year's game a little more organic. The nature of UFC, and of Mixed Martial Arts in general, requires all scrappers to have a dual set of fighting abilities: when you're on your feet, you whale on your opponents with punches, kicks and head-grabs; then when things go to the ground, you've got to be able to wrestle and grapple with your foe, to either make them "tap out" with an agony-inducing submission, or to manipulate them into a position where you can beat them senseless (this isn't a sport for the faint-hearted). The first Undisputed attempted to replicate this by making each of its fighters specialise in two disciplines, from of a total of six: you might use Muay Thai while standing, and Brazilian Jujitsu for all your arm-twisting needs on the floor, for example.
It was a system that worked pretty well, but since there were only three fighting styles for stand-up work and three for ground-based wriggling, there wasn't an enormous amount of immediate difference between the various brawlers. In short, this setup didn't really reflect the diverse nature of fighting personalities within the sport. Undisputed 2010 has chucked in three new combat styles - karate, Sambo, and Greco-Roman wrestling - but more significantly, it's also done away with the two discipline arrangement. Now each character will have a personalised move set, culled from a list of over 200 eye-watering tricks, and on top of that we can expect a lot more in the way of signature moves. If Hubert "Snugglepuss" Jenkins is particularly known for his lethal Chinese burns, for example, you can bet that they'll make the final game. Hubert himself is unlikely to appear, as he's currently yet to fight anywhere outside of the foetid pools of my imagination, but we do know that BJ Penn's trademark arm bar to rear naked choke will be included.
Back in the real world, Undisputed 2010 will also be throwing in a number of features to add extra depth to its one-on-one battles - no mean feat, given the complex array of strategic options that were already present in the first game. From a technical perspective, the most important addition is arguably the inclusion of leaning controls, allowing you to duck away from incoming blows and to move in for close-up striking. UFC purists, on the other hand, will be more pleased about the inclusion of "cage moves" - attacks that allow you to crush your hapless opponent against the side of the octagon, further adding to his misery while you rain down blows upon his ripening face.
Other fresh ingredients include the choice to switch to a "southpaw" (i.e. Lefty) stance on the fly, and the ability to catch in-bound punches and kicks by flicking the right analogue stick. There have also been changes to the ground-based mechanics, too: each position on the floor will now have additional sub-positions of sorts, thanks to the fact that you can shift your posture to give yourself an offensive or defensive advantage. Furthermore, fights that that have gone to the mat can now be ended at any time. In Undisputed 2009 there were situations where you knew that you were relatively safe, where you could be hurt by your rival but not in a match-ending way - but now there's no place to hide. If anything, bouts are even more dangerous: one of the neatest things about the first game were the Flash Knockouts, unexpectedly lethal punches and kicks that could bring a match to an immediate close; now there's an equivalent for submissions, too. If you let your guard slip at the wrong moment and your opponent gets in, you could find yourself with you ankles wrapped around your left ear lobe (or something equally painful) before you realise what's happening.
Naturally all these refinements come as good news, but a long list of tweaks is nothing compared to a sense of how the game actually plays. This month's big reveal in Las Vegas offered only a fleeting glimpse of the game in action, but there was certainly many reasons to be cheerful in the slender 10 - 15 minutes of gameplay that were shown. Undisputed 2009 was a great-looking game, and its 2010 big brother should be even sexier (assuming you have a taste for the rough stuff). The two fighters on display, Mike Swick and Paulo Thiago, both looked superb, with large character models that were even sharper and more detailed than their counterparts from last year. The developers are also keen to underline the fact that all of 2010's stars have been entirely built from scratch, rather than using the same tools that appear in the Create-A-Fighter area, as was the case with some fighters in the first game.
Beyond the immediate photo-realistic level of detail, the new Swick and Thiago seemed impressively natural in their movements. To be honest Undisputed 2009 was already a pretty great-looking game, and in appearance this follow-up felt more like a refinement rather than a total overhaul. Still, I'm sure that the more subtle nuances will become noticeable when I've seen a bit more of the action. At any rate, 2010 is certainly a lot bloodier and sweatier than its forebear, and the developers have wisely thrown in a few stylish flourishes like dramatic camera zooms when someone is attempting a submission - a device that gives visual feedback on the progress of the move, as well as making the whole scrap that little bit more exciting.
Naturally there's only so much that you can glean from a fifteen minute presentation, but THQ's first reveal of Undisputed 2010 has certainly whet my appetite. Will this sequel really "kill" its predecessor, as Neven Dravinski intends? I hope so, because the first game was an unexpected highlight of 2009 - a deep and dynamic fighter with brains to match its brawn. If this second effort can retain that appeal while giving us the things we want - particularly an expanded campaign and better support for online play - then Dravinksi may get his wish.
UFC: Undisputed 2010 will be released on PS3 and Xbox 360 on May 25