It's a historic night at the O2 Arena in Greenwich, London: sports pundit and former Liverpool defender Alan Hansen is about to make his debut in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He'll soon engage in a three-round bout of violent Mixed Martial Arts, a contest that will see him lashing out with fierce punches and kicks, and grappling his opponent in a variety of stances - either whilst standing, or lying on the ground. Victory can only be secured by a knock-out, painful submission hold, or by a judges' decision. And this evening, for one night only, Alan will be taking on a genuine five-star legend: The late Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
You may not be overly familiar with the UFC or MMA, but you probably know enough that it's not normal for football commentators to end up fighting iconic musicians - particularly ones who have been pushing up the daisies since 2006. Happily, such fantastical bouts are now possible thanks to the vastly improved Create-A-Fighter system in Undisputed 2010. Last year's game was somewhat restrictive when it came to defining the look of user-generated characters, and it's clear that this has been one area where Yuke's and THQ wanted to push the boat out with their overhaul. While pre-set body parts and skins are still used for things like hairstyles and torso shapes, there's now a far wider choice of options; the vast majority of your virtual attributes are now controlled via slider bars, with colour wheels allowing you to pick out a precise tone for things like body hair and iris colour. Scars and tattoos can now be placed wherever you want on a character model, and they can be distorted or layered for added effect. It all adds up to a versatile set of editing tools - the same ones that were used to build every licensed UFC fighter who appears in the game.
Aside from using a freeform text editor to christen your new brawler, there's now the option to pick from a long list of set names and surnames. If you opt to do this, UFC commentators Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg will no longer be forced to refer to you by your nickname, as per last year. It's a small touch, perhaps, but a neat one nonetheless. Given the quality of the voice work Rogan and Goldie contributed last time around, it's bound be worth a listen, too; the press event I attended in New York last week was too noisy for me to tell properly, but I'm certainly keeping the faith. In any case, the new naming system should throw up plenty of potential for hilarious celebrity cameos: "Alan Hansen" and "James Brown" were just two of the combinations I spotted, but I'm sure there are more - and thanks to the powerful appearance editors, you'll probably be able to make a fairly decent look-alike.
As I mentioned at the end of my last preview, an expanded career mode was one of the things I had at the top of my Undisputed 2010 wishlist. Thankfully this year's offering looks to be a far more complex beast than its predecessor, with a campaign that starts you off in amateur fights before moving you up to the World Fighting Alliance, and then finally into the UFC itself. Once you're there you'll find that there's now a lot more going on between matches: you'll get minor cut-scenes, including meetings with UFC head honcho Dana White, and weigh-ins where you'll be given the option to praise or cuss down your opponent. Yuke's is talking up a system it calls "Game Is Watching You," whereby the game world reacts to the actions you take and the choices you make. Abuse a fellow fighter at the weigh-in, and that'll have a knock-on effect to your opponent's AI. If you consistently win matches by following a particular tactic, your rivals will "notice" and adjust their approach to you. And naturally, all of this hidden stat-tracking will also be reflected by mid-match commentary and the like.
When you're not actually fighting, training will be more important than ever before. Your fighter's stats will now deplete over time, so you'll be forced to actually train and practice your moves to keep in shape. Aside from squaring off against the AI, there will also be an option to spar online with other players, and apparently there'll be some form of added incentive for doing so. Elsewhere there's the return of the option to attend fighting camps with various combat schools, and before big fights you can also sacrifice some of your training time for the sake of working on a "game plan" - a tactical choice that's represented as a one-off bonus to particular strikes and attributes.
It all sounds terribly promising, if a bit technically dense - but then Undisputed 2009 was never one to give its players an easy ride. I've not yet had the chance to delve into career mode for myself, but after several hours of rumbling in exhibition mode, I can certainly attest to the quality of the matches themselves. As I predicted after seeing the game for the first time earlier this year, the action is immediately reminiscent of its predecessor, and yet the subtle refinements start to show their worth within minutes of jumping into the Octagon. Producer Neven Dravinski says that he can no longer play the 2009 release, so great are the changes to last year's system; that may sound like a marketing line, but in this case I'm actually prepared to believe him.
Put simply, Undisputed 2010 has the same winning mix of tactical depth and variable, slightly unpredictable gameplay. You may be comfortably into a match, laying into your rival with elbows and fists, when suddenly something goes wrong: you miss-time a punch and get countered, perhaps, or you fluff a head kick and get driven down to the matt with a quick takedown. Without warning, you're out of your comfort zone - and if you don't get your wits together quickly, the match will be over before you know it. There's now an awful lot more that can and will go wrong, too: holding R1 or RB allows you to duck and weave with the left stick, allowing you to dodge an incoming blow and then respond with one of your own, while a well-timed flick of the right stick will let you grab an approaching limb. On the ground things are even more tense, the upper hand passing back and forth as fighters wriggle, shift posture and attempt to snare loose arms and legs - paving the way for a devastating submission.
Naturally, there's an awful lot to learn. Since each fighter now has their own personal move list, rather than simply following the discipline-specific templates used by the last game, it can be quite daunting to pick someone you've never used before. Pausing the game allows you to consult a database of every move you have in any given situation; each move also has a level from one to three, so you'll be able to immediately see where your chosen fighter's strengths lie. This can be especially handy if, like me, you don't have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the UFC's roster.
Like its predecessor, Undisputed 2010 will be one of those games where practice makes perfect. On the other hand, even immediate newcomers should be able to appreciate the mix of boxing game-style mechanics and the complex shenanigans on the ground. Yuke's managed to create a genuinely original fighting experience with its first stab at UFC, and all evidence points to this being an excellent follow-up. Beyond the technical refinements, everything simply looks and feels better. The large character models of the first game drew plenty of praise, and they now look more realistic than ever, particularly when in motion. The crowd and other background details have also been given a tune up, and the result is a game that looks impressively close to life.
There is, of course, the small matter of EA's own MMA game - a title which we've still yet to see in proper detail. However, there's an air of confidence at the Undisputed camp. The developers know that they did well with the first game - earning sales nearing four million copies - and they reckon they've now taken things to the next level. You'd be a fool to write off EA at this early stage, but with a year's experience and a killer license in their corner, Yuke's and THQ may be the odds-on favourite in this particular clash.
UFC Undisputed 2010 will be released on May 28 on PS3, Xbox 360 and PSP.