Just because the UFC Undisputed series has taken over the mixed martial arts game genre doesn't mean there isn't room for more contenders. One such game is the newly-announced Bellator: MMA Onslaught, a downloadable game under development by 345Games – the team that handles Comedy Central and Spike TV's licenses.
Turns out Spike TV recently signed a deal to start showing Bellator Fighting Championship events in 2012, giving it the excuse it needs to start pumping out fighting games.
And that’s how 345Games is handling Bellator: it's treating it like a fighting game. Undisputed and EA Sports: MMA both came into the octagon with a simulation in mind, trying to replicate the complicated world of MMA as closely as possible. This… was a difficult thing to do. They both pulled it off in their own ways, but at the cost of accessibility, something both games’ developers admit is an element they struggle with.
MMA Onslaught avoids this pitfall by dropping the idea of making a sim altogether. There are already sims out there. This is an arcade MMA game, more akin to a traditional fighting game than UFC: Undisputed. That’s not to say that it’s wholly unrealistic – that’s not the case at all. You won't be ripping out hearts or bashing someone's head into the mat until it explodes. 345 has just streamlined and simplified to make the fights more about chaining together a few nice combos instead of wrestling on the ground for five minutes. And when it does get to the ground, movements are simple, using the right analog stick for simple transitions and button-mashing for submissions. While we'd typically criticize blatant button-mashing being used in a competitive game, it sort of works in this case, factoring in different stats and stamina as well as our ability to roll our faces on the face buttons of our controller.
Besides trying to make a game that's easier to learn, 345Games is taking the focus away from big-name fighters in favor of a more customizable experience. This is a smart move for two reasons. The first is because it makes the game about you, instead of about some guy you watch on TV. Character customization being a highlight lets you really care about your fighter, honing his skills until you're ready to take him online to fight in tournaments. Secondly... no one really cared about any of Bellator's fighters yet (sorry). While the game will ship with a handful of pre-made fighters based on actual athletes in Bellator, they're not going to be taking the spotlight away from your digitized avatar.
On that same note, another interesting, albeit unorthodox way the game will take advantage of the tie-in with Spike TV is through the show MMA Uncensored Live. 345Games wasn't exactly sure how this would work, though we were told that the show's hosts reading off tournament-winning fighter's names or showing leaderboards were possibilities, giving you the ability to rise your digital fighter's fame even higher.
For as interesting as it sounds, we're still skeptical as to whether or not Bellator: MMA Onslaught will fulfill its promise of delivering on arcade action. At one point the developer mentioned NFL Blitz and NBA Jam when talking about its approach to the genre, and we really didn't feel any of that. When we had a chance to play the game at GDC it felt more like a stripped-down version of UFC Undisputed than anything we'd consider an arcade game. Some of the elements 345Games brought up, like a balance meter that will make it easier to take down fighters after they've thrown big punches, sounds more at home in a simulation than an arcade game, making us wonder if the game is sort of stuck between a few different styles. There were occasional slow-motion segments during big swings, and it was easier to chain together moves than it is in other MMA games, but... that was it. It's a nice idea, and we definitely feel like there's room in the genre for an over-the-top, unrealistic fighting game, but we're not sure this is going to fill that void.
Though we have some reservations on the tone, we're still excited to try it out when it releases on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade this summer. Be sure to check back closer to launch to find out if Bellator finds its footing, or if it ends up losing its balance and taking a kick to the head.