Jumping into UFC 2010 Undisputed feels a bit like your first day back at school after the summer holidays. You recognise a few faces and the general layout of everything, but there's also a surprising amount that's changed, too. The world has evolved, and if you get cocky and try to do things the old way, you might find yourself being brought back to earth with a bump. Also, there are big boys (well, men really) who push you around and put you in painful headlocks. They won't throw your bag over the playground fence, but they might bend your arm back till it pops - and when they do, there'll be no crying to Miss Giddings for sympathy. No sir.
As expected, the MMA gameplay fundamentals remain the same as last year: two large men enter an octagonal-shaped ring and batter each other until one of them experiences some form of painful anatomical failure. When the men are standing, it feels a bit like a boxing game with the added ability to use kicks, grabs and elbows; when you're on the floor, it becomes a deadly game of limb-twisting Chess - or perhaps someone playing Twister on top of a game of Chess. This year things are further complicated by the inclusion of three new fighting styles - Karate, Sambo and Greco-Roman wrestling - as well as moves that involve the side of the ring, and the ability to lean and sway during punch-ups.
Strangely enough it's this last addition that seems to have the biggest immediate effect on the action. By holding RB (on the 360 pad, the version tested) and flicking the left stick, you can deftly duck or swerve away from your opponent's blows. As in so many parts of life, a few inches can make all the difference: with a well-timed dodge your rival will find themselves swiping at thin air, allowing you to reply with a hefty fist or kick to the head. Veterans of EA's Fight Night franchise will be well-versed in these shuck-and-jive antics, and they prove equally useful here. Indeed, it's pretty much essential to master them if you want to last longer than five minutes.
In terms of the ground game, the most important revisions lie with the revamped submissions system. Provided that you're in the right position (an important consideration at all times), clicking in the right stick will initiate some form of agonising limb-bending exercise, conducted using the "Shine" system. If you're the aggressor, you rapidly rotate the right stick, perhaps using the palm of your hand, until your opponent gives up; if you're the defender, you do the same thing - but if you're playing against a human, you'll need to rotate your stick in the opposite direction to your adversary. Last year it was possible to power through submissions using raw strength - a feat that required you to simply mash all the buttons as fast as you could - but this year there's no choice but to embrace the Shine. On the other hand, it is now possible for the attacker to "charge" submissions (by pressing in the stick again, mid-move) or to change positions during their move. The latter requires human players to start spinning their stick the other way, as if there weren't enough to remember already.
UFC 2009 was a hard game, but its 2010 big brother is an even tougher slice of beatdown pie. The AI seems to have been given a notable boost since last year, and there's an awful lot to worry about whether you're on your feet, on the floor, or in some kind of painful half-way house between the two. This spread of situations plays a major role in giving the grappling its laudable depth, and yet it's hard to escape the feeling that it's all a bit overwhelming. The first Undisputed used archetypes to simplify each fighter's style: you might have been a kickboxer while standing and a wrestler on the ground, for example. Now, while that system was pretty unrealistic, and while it failed to reflect the diverse nature of the UFC's muscle-bound roster, it had one solid advantage, in that it let the player know what their chosen scrapper was actually good at.
UFC 2010, by contrast, uses a unique movelist for each of its stars, culled from all thee various disciplines on offer. This was a worthy move to take, but it has the side-effect that the newcomers to the sport will be a bit clueless when it comes to picking new characters. They'll learn, of course, but initially they'll have to make their decision based up on the 16 move statistics that you can view on the character select screen. It's not a massive issue, but it does say something about the fact that this isn't a game that openly welcomes newcomers. If you're a big UFC fan you'll know who's who (and you'll love the fact that the character models are a significant step-up this year), and you'll also understand the basic rules and tactics of the Octagon.
If you're green around the edges, on the other hand, you'll have to learn the hard way. There are several dry-but-functional tutorials that guide you through the basic moves, but the more complicated stuff - the less straightforward chokes and strikes, and the importance of specific poses and positions - is really only learned in the ring. To be clear, the effort is absolutely worth it, and when you start finding your way you'll discover that Undisputed 2010 has some of the most visceral, dynamic man-punching that money can buy. Still, there's no doubt that what this series really needs is a proper in-game guide to the sport. FIFA walks us through every subtle aspect of the beautiful game, and most people at least understand the basics of football, so why shouldn't Yuke's do the same thing here? This is the second UFC game I've played in detail, and I'm still a bit uncertain about what I'm supposed to do from the rather dodgy-looking North-South position.
Normally, of course, you'd expect this stuff to be spoon-fed to you in the Career Mode. In last year's review I singled this out as an area for improvement on Yuke's part, and it's certainly clear that the developer has a put a lot more thought into this second outing. You now start out as a completely skill-less wannabe, an amateur brawler with lots of dreams and a big heart (let's hope so anyway, as all those protein shakes can wreck havoc on the human body). You work your way through your first fights in the World Fighting Alliance, a sort of warm-up to your main career, then eventually progress to the UFC and all the glory it entails. Along the way you'll get the occasional cutscene featuring Dana White and other official UFC faces. These are, without exception, as cheesy as some milk that's been curdled, processed and then left to mature in a Frenchman's sock; all the same, it's undeniably fun to watch your hand-crafted He-Man blab his way to stardom. The create-a-fighter options are vastly improved this year, and so it's entirely possible to play as the blue-bearded freak of your dreams or nightmares.
Unfortunately you'll soon realise that Career mode requires an awful lot of training. This was equally true last year, of course, where training was your second-most time-consuming activity after deleting spam emails from Dana. The problem this time is that your stats degrade. In theory this should stop you from getting complacent and make you work like an eager little beaver; in practice, it just pisses you off. There are 16 separate skills to manage via sparring sessions, alongside training for your strength, speed and cardio. There's also your condition (essentially your level of physical preparation for your next fight) and fatigue to worry about. And as soon as you make it to the UFC you'll soon start getting hassled by Rachelle Leah - a model and TV presenter who always wants you to attend various events as a guest. These can't be entirely ignored, as they help to boost your "cred" which in turn helps you to win new sponsors and trainers (the people kind, not the shoes).
Perhaps it's just me being disorganised, but I found the constant time management to be a major drag. Your wait between matches is divided up into weeks, and you're only ever able to do one thing per week (why can't your fighter multi-task? I don't know, but I'm guessing brain damage is the answer). As in real life, there never seems to be enough time to do everything, and I found it very hard to keep my stats in line. Strength, speed and cardio sessions are resolved "off-screen", but with sparring you get a choice: either let the AI do it, resulting in a purposefully low-set budget of skill points to spend, or try for a decent amount by taking control for yourself. Player-controlled sparring bouts are essentially mini-fights, only for not as long. And without the excitement.
There's actually another activity that requires your time and input: the only way to learn decent special moves is to visit a special Fighter Camp, where you enter into sparring sessions that require you to perform specific moves or combos. As with last year, there's a slight problem here, as the AI will sometimes decide to be quite unhelpful. You might need to pull a certain number of submissions, for example, but your dim-witted buddy keeps grabbing you in a clinch. You flail away, the clock ticks out, and suddenly you've wasted one of your precious weeks.
I'll stop there, because this review is starting to sound rather negative. The truth is that I didn't get on with career mode at all, and that's a shame. If you're patient and really fancy the idea of a very long-winded road to fame, you'll probably enjoy it; personally, I thought there was way too much that got in the way of the fighting - you know, the actual fun bit.
Luckily, Yuke's and THQ have been very generous in their supply of other game modes. The Ultimate Fights mode returns, allowing you to play through some classic UFC match-ups, and this time there are goals to complete that ultimately help you to unlock stuff for Create-A-Fighter mode. There's also a Tournament Mode, and an Event Mode that lets you build your own pay-per-view cash-sapper, replete with all the flashy trimmings you get on the official TV coverage.
It's most telling, however, that the game is still at its most enjoyable when you're simply smacking seven bells out of a friend. Undisputed really comes alive when you're playing with another human, particularly one who's sitting right next to you. The best matches are slippery, unpredictable affairs, where you almost manage to pound your chum into submission, only to have him escape at the last minute. It also helps that the action itself is extremely good-looking: UFC 2009 turned a few heads, but this follow-up manages to look vastly more natural and realistic. Given that it's essentially the same setting, albeit with an expanded roster, that's really quite impressive. Once again, the violence is extremely well-rendered, and there's no doubt that Undisputed's beatings are among the most visceral in modern gaming.
It is also, naturally, the most authentic depiction of Mixed Martial Arts on today's gaming market. EA's MMA title will be surfacing later in the year, but no matter what that game achieves, it'll lack the sheer star quality of Undisputed. Yuke's has once again done a grand job with the UFC license, and existing fans of the sport (and the first game) will find plenty to love here. If you're a curious newcomer there's still every reason to give this a shot - just don't expect to learn everything overnight.
A quick note about multiplayer. Frustratingly, our efforts to access the Undisputed servers prior to review proved fruitless. There are new mechanics in place to prevent the cheating that hindered UFC 2009 Undisputed's multiplayer - particularly the "quitters" who abandoned matches prior to an online defeat - but at the time of writing, we've not been able to test out the new netcode.