Games 5/19/09: UFC 2009 Undisputed, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Zen Pinball

UFC 2009 Undisputed
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: Yuke’s Co./THQ
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, blood, language, mild suggestive themes, violence)

No sense being coy: This, despite being developer Yuke’s Co.’s very first effort, easily ranks as one of the very best instances of a video game replicating the sensation of the sport it’s emulating. In terms of demands and payoff, “UFC 2009 Undisputed” simply has mixed martial arts down cold.

Part of MMA’s appeal is its capacity to pit fighters of different disciplines — wrestling, karate, boxing, jujitsu — against each other, and in its remarkably successful attempt to map all those moves to the controller in reasonable fashion, “Undisputed” presents a similar demand. Technical fighters will benefit from memorizing the controller gymnastics needed to execute takedowns, throws and submission maneuvers. (Tip: Play through the tutorial. Maybe twice.) Timing, meanwhile, is of the essence if you prefer to weaken your opponent through quick strikes (or, more importantly, counterstrikes and reversals).

Then, there are moments that degenerate, as they should, into furious bouts of button mashing. A well-executed shoot takedown might still fail if you don’t follow up by pounding the buttons to overpower your opponent’s like-minded efforts to withstand your charge. Ditto for attempted submissions or the omnipresent temptation to unleash a flurry of strikes in hopes of pulling a knockout out of the sky, which absolutely does happen.

That, in fact, might be the game’s best asset, even if everyone who plays “Undisputed” almost inevitably will find themselves on the wrong side of it at some point. You can win a fight through points and by simply wearing your opponent down, but, just as in the real thing, knockouts sometimes happen out of nowhere and with only one perfect punch. It’s a downer when it happens to you, but it never feels completely unfair, and it’s obscenely gratifying when you do it to someone else.

“Undisputed,” in addition to looking outstanding, is no slouch in terms of content. The 80-plus-deep roster includes current and former fighters, you can design up to 100 more, and the single-player career mode makes for an extensive simulation of the life of an up-and-coming UFC fighter. Online play (two players) isn’t too fancy, but it works, and the game keeps good records of your win-loss totals.

But while “Undisputed” is a terrific experience for solo and online fighters, it is, like its source material, best enjoyed in the company of others on the couch. The differing styles make it a game players of all abilities can effectively enjoy in different ways, and stuff that might frustrate players who fight alone — particularly those out-of-nowhere knockouts — are good for a thrill and probably a laugh when experienced among a crowd of players passing the controller around.

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X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Nintendo Wii and Playstation 2
From: Raven/Activision (PS3/360), Amaze Entertainment/Activision (PS2/Wii)
ESRB Rating (PS3/360): Mature (Blood and gore, intense violence, language)
ESRB Rating (Wii/PS2): Teen (Blood, mild language, tobacco reference, violence)

With all due respect to what it is — a “God of War” knockoff built around the story and murderous stylings of Wolverine — “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” deserves credit for what it isn’t.

For starters, “Wolverine” isn’t nearly as mindless or shameless as your typical knockoff. There are a few basic attack maneuvers you could, theoretically, mash ad infinitum up to and through the closing credits. But the game quickly complements those moves with some unique attacks — including grapple maneuvers and an awesome lunge attack that allows you to pinpoint and pounce on an enemy from the other side of the screen — that simply are too fun to ignore.

“Wolverine” also resists most urges to use onscreen button prompts as a means of executing routine finishing attacks or playing out elaborate action sequences. There are cutscenes, but you’re free to simply enjoy them before the game frees you back up to do whatever you want. A special quick kill attack, which seems destined to be dumbed down through onscreen prompts, instead uses a cool slowdown mechanic that tests your timing rather than some ability to mindlessly obey simple commands.

The sum total of Wolverine’s diverse offense makes navigating the game’s shortcomings less of a chore than they otherwise would be. “Wolverine,” like most movie-based games, has the unenviable task of turning a two-hour film into a six-to-eight-hour story, and the game strains by taking you back and forth in time (and, consequently, through a few mid-game levels that look awfully similar to early levels).

For similar reasons, you’ll encounter huge numbers of the same enemy types, which can be a chore when the enemy in question poses little challenge but still requires time to take down. Wolverine’s innate ability to regenerate health makes for some easy boss fights that drag on longer than necessary, though some impressive set pieces in the late going do plenty to mitigate the onset of repetition. A continuous leveling system, which expands your arsenal and makes finding the optional collectables a fun and worthwhile endeavor, also keeps things from getting too mindless.

The only place “Wolverine” can’t escape its fate is in the perceived value department. Like its fellow knockoffs, it’s a single-player, single-trip experience that, despite an unlockable extra difficulty setting, won’t entice a great deal of immediate return engagements. Recommending this as a buy will be easy once it inevitably drops into the $20-$30 range, but anyone who drops $60 for a game that requires a weekend to turn inside out is likely to regret it soon after.

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Zen Pinball
For: Playstation 3 via Playstation Network
From: Zen Studios
ESRB Rating: Everyone (comic mischief, mild suggestive themes)
Price: $10

Zen Studios already proved itself in 2007 with “Pinball FX” on Xbox Live Arcade, and this first-rate follow-up only cements its standing in video game pinball simulation circles. “Zen Pinball” brings with it four original themed tables (classic cars, jungle adventure, shamans and Nikola Tesla), and per usual, each comes loaded with visual eye candy and a myriad of unlockable bonuses and mini-objectives. More importantly, Zen once again nails the nuances of real-world pinball, from ball and flipper speed to the angles the ball takes when bouncing off different objects and corners. But “ZP” also improves on “FX” on numerous fronts. The default camera viewpoint is more useful than any of “FX’s” five viewpoints, though those are included as well if you disagree. Superficially speaking, the game’s interface is considerably more polished, and the sound department benefits immensely from the inclusion of announcers unique to each table. Last but not least is the optional slowdown feature, which allows you the toggle slow-motion on the fly. Enabling the feature voids your ability to record high scores and earn PSN trophies, but it’s a great way to dissect each table’s intricacies, which is no small benefit for gamers bent on mastering these tables before Zen produces more.