Quinton "Rampage" Jackson is closing in on you at frightening speed. Sweat is dripping over his heavily-tattooed muscles. He wants to hurt you - perhaps by bending one of your arms the wrong way, or more likely by simply hitting you in the head until you stop moving. Your face is already puffed and swelling from the vicious beating Mr Rampage gave you in the last round. This time he's going to shut you down for good.
But you're ready. As Jackson steps into range, you unleash a vicious kick to the left side of his head. He staggers. You hit him again, this time using your other foot to deliver an unstoppable roundhouse. Your heel connects with Jackson's skull, and consciousness departs. A plastic mouthguard flies across the octagon as the big man falls, toppling like a felled tree. You've just become the light heavyweight champion of the UFC - the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
When it comes to UFC Undisputed, the question to ask yourself is this: "Do I like kicking people in the head?" If your answer is yes (with regards to video games, obviously) then you should probably take a look. Among other things, Undisputed is one of the best head-kicking simulators I've ever played. Often 3D fighting games will struggle to convey the cause-and-effect brutality of what happens when one man hits another, but here every blow feels weighty and solid. Whether it's a rising knee, an arching kick or a fierce elbow to the face, you'll feel the impact of every strike you give or take.
Let's back up a bit. The UFC is a mixed martial arts organisation that attracts fighters from a range of disciplines. A UFC fight will generally consist of either three or five rounds, each lasting five minutes, with the winner determined by a knockout, a submission (forcing your opponent to quit) or by judges' decision. Due to the varied nature of the sport and its participants, any two matches may be remarkably different. Some fighters choose to focus on boxing and standing combat styles, while others attempt to defeat their opponent via Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) and martial arts that focus on chokes and holds. In practice, most successful fighters have a mix of styles, since you'll never really know how an opponent may approach you.
Undisputed's success in mimicking this versatility is arguably its greatest strength. Whether you're using one of the 80-odd UFC stars or a character of your own design, you'll ultimately have to learn to how to fight in several different stances and situations. Each fighter is trained in two disciplines - one based around striking (boxing, kickboxing and muay thai), the other focused on grappling (wrestling, Judo and BJJ). Most gamers will find the first set of styles the easier to pick up and use, since their controls closely resemble most boxing games on the market. The face buttons govern attacks with your left and right hands and feet, while the shoulder bumpers and triggers are used for blocking and for modifying your strikes. Most moves will combo together easily, but you'll require smart timing and a range of tactics to slip past your opponent's guard.
So far so straightforward, but things get a bit more complicated once you end up on the floor. Whether you deliberately tackle a rival with a takedown or simply get knocked to the floor, you'll eventually find yourself sprawled on the canvas with your limbs wrapped around the other fighter. There are around 20 different positions you might find yourself in, and they all have their own opportunities and risks. As a general rule, the idea is to get yourself into an offensive position and then either knock your opponent out or bend their arm/leg/neck in a way that makes them submit. A move that takes you from one position to another is known as a transition; by making quarter circle or 120 degree motions with the right stick, you can attempt a minor or major transition to a better setup. By clicking the right stick in, you can try for either a submission move (if you're on the attack) or a reversal (if you're defending and trying to escape).
Don't panic too much if that all sounds like a lot to remember, because the game does a pretty good job of guiding you through everything. THQ and Yuke's have wisely bundled in a tutorial that does a reasonable job of going over the basic moves, but the easiest way to learn the ropes is to jump into the career mode. Here you'll build a fighter from scratch and work your way up through the UFC food chain. Between fights you'll have to manage your spare time, choosing whether to train, spar, attend media events or simply rest. The first activity merely works as an automatically-handled booster for your fighter's stats, but sparring actually takes you to a ring where you'll be given the chance to practice against an AI opponent. In a neat touch, your sparring partner will actually fight in the style of your next proper opponent - so these practice sessions give you a genuine chance to fix holes in your game before facing a real opponent.
In addition to giving you hands-on practice, sparring will also earn you points that can be invested in boosting your fighting skills. Media appearances, meanwhile, will help to boost your fighter's profile, and as you get more famous you'll unlock new equipment and the chance to work on your techniques with established fighting schools. All of these activities are managed by a functional-if-clunky diary interface that comes with its own email system. The latter soon proves to be quite pesky, spamming you with endless UFC newsletters that you'll quickly learn to ignore. The messages you receive from rival fighters and from UFC chief Dana White are a little more interesting, although these too lose their appeal once they start to repeat. On the whole, the management side of Undisputed does its job solidly without being too much of an annoyance.
In any case, the minor irritations of email spam are swiftly forgotten once you're actually in the ring. The bread-and-butter action of Undisputed is brutal, addictive and surprisingly deep. You may think you've got the game pegged after your first five victories or so, but as soon as you meet your first skilled grappler you're bound to find yourself crashing to Earth with a bump - and your arm will probably be bent into a horrific knot, too. The longer you stick with Undisputed, the more you appreciate its nuances - the subtle but important differences between the disciplines, and the need to adapt to each opponent's style. You'll learn that Demian Maia is a nightmare on the ground, or that Dan Henderson is extremely good at takedowns. You'll inevitably lose a few matches - but when you do you'll build up a massive grudge, to the extent that you immediately yearn for a rematch. It's this magic ingredient, rather than the simulated email or limited character creator, that sucks you into your fighter's career.
But above all else, it's the sheer joy of violence that makes Undisputed so much fun. Fights can turn on a sixpence at any time. You might knock out your opponent in under 30 seconds, or you may find yourself drawn into an epic struggle on the ground. You're never really safe, and with the default setup you don't even have a stamina bar on the screen. Sure, you can turn it on - but despite the small advantage this affords you, it somehow feels better to go without. There's a certain purity to the clutter-free screen, allowing you to focus on the large fighter models and the grimly detailed damage effects. Flesh bruises, skin cuts and bleeds, eyes swell and puff, and all these details help to boost the drama of a tight match. When you pin someone down and knock them out, you can carry on punching your unconscious opponent until the referee drags you away. It's nasty, nasty stuff... and you'll love it.
If I were Dana White and Yuke's were a fledgling UFC fighter, I'd be commending the young pup on a barnstorming entry to the competition. There's room for improvement, certainly: the character creation tools are a bit limited when compared to similar titles, while the career mode could do with fleshing out a few of its ideas. However, neither of these complaints prevent Undisputed from being the best thing that Yuke's has made in years. It's stylish, fresh and deeply engaging. It is, in short, a bruising powerhouse of a game.