Game: WWE ’12
Available on: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
In the same way that the Wrestling mega-event, Wrestlemania, occurs every Spring, a new grapple-fest from THQ will inevitably hit stores in the run-up to Christmas every year. With Smackdown! Vs. Raw series of Wrestling games and its predecessors having been the number one option for grappling game fans for almost a decade, you could imagine that the company could be accused of becoming complacent or resting on their laurels. Pretenders have come and gone, such as TNA Impact and Legends of Wrestling, trying to step up to the crown, but none have had the staying power of the Yuke’s titles. But over the last few years, the titles have stagnated somewhat, the game has remained static, becoming simply a roster update, and any improvements made simply watered down the core experience. With WWE ’12, the Smackdown! Vs. Raw moniker has been cast aside like one of Hulk Hogan’s torn T-shirts, and the developers are looking to start afresh. Does the new game soar like Rey Mysterio or does it just hit Rock Bottom?
STORY: The story mode of the game is titled Road to Wrestlemania, as it has often been named in the past, and this is really where THQ try to make use of the theatrics of professional wrestling and to build up some drama and tension. Playing through the Villain, Hero and Neutral storylines, gamers step into the shoes of Sheamus, Triple H or a custom created Superstar, and are put through the paces in weekly shows, all put together like real-life live WWE programming. You progress from week to week, taking part in pre-determined match-ups and back-stage antics that lead to your ultimate goal – a WWE title shot.
Strangely, all of the decisions and outcomes are more or less made for you already. Each week, you are given an objective, such as win your match, wear down your opponent or survive a set amount of time without being beaten. If you fail the objective – the game won’t progress, you simply have to re-try. But when you pass the required action, the match is often taken out of your hands, and a pre-rendered sequence kicks in. For instance, you may have worn down the Big Show sufficiently, but the story of the game requires you to lose, so the Big Show will pin you in a cutscene, after you finish your part of the match. This ends up with the game being heavily scripted and whilst it does mean the developers can have a lot of directorial control, and dictate what you see and how the story develops, all feeling of having free will and your actions determining the outcome of the season is lost. Professional wrestling may well be pre-determined in real life, but the game doesn’t need to be fixed in such a way that your hands feel tied, the illusion of reality that WWE Superstars strive for is lost.
To add to all of that, there are a multitude of videos to watch in between matches. Your wrestler talking, other wrestlers challenging you, mysterious people attacking you. Of course, all of these events are commonplace in WWE, but so much attention is given to these sequences that you will find that you spend more time watching the game than you do playing it. Ask most wrestling fans and they will tell you that there is too much talking and not enough actual wrestling on a WWE TV show nowadays, so why would the game want to fall into the same trap? In the process of trying to attain the highest level of realism, the game has also replicated some of the biggest faults in the current pro-wrestling product.
GRAPHICS: It must be said that the game is very strong from a presentational point of view. The designers have made a point to plaster WWE HD logos all over the place during matches, and you can see why, the new fad for High Definition TV shows translates perfectly to a High-Def game, trying to emulate it. All of your favourite grapplers are instantly recognisable and feature detailed facial animations that change throughout a fight to reflect if they are in pain or ecstasy. Animations of both moves and basic actions are smooth and fluid, being a far cry from the jerky movements and glitchy animations that riddled previous instalments of the THQ franchise.
The ring ropes have received extra attention in this version of the title, and the new physics are hit and miss really. When it goes right, the ropes seem to react very realistically, but at other times they might flap about in a crazy manner, simply in reaction to a big move on the centre of the mat, which rather detracts from the other high graphical standards, when the wrestlers make their big entrance into the arena, however, it is really spot on. Pyrotechnics and smoke or light effects match up with their real-life counterparts very accurately, the electricity of being in a WWE arena is palpable at this point.
SOUND: Again, Yuke’s have done a great job in obtaining all of the proper music tracks and getting full superstar voices for the game. Throughout the story mode, most characters will speak and, despite the fact that their acting might be a little stilted, fans will be delighted with the depths the developers have gone to in order to re-create their favourite sport. Wrestler entrance tunes are all included and background music is suitably inspiring for your next brawl. From top-to-toe, the game certainly sounds like the authentic wrestling experience.
GAMEPLAY: As well as moving away from the old game brand name, the title is trying to move towards a more free-flowing and realistic simulation of the sport. With what they call “Predator Technology”, THQ are aiming to re-create the unpredictability and speed of wrestling, where moves can be quickly reversed or interrupted, without the animation cycles looking strange and jerky. Moves that would have forced the character models into pre-set positions, such as the People’s Elbow, where The Rock and his opponent would be warped to the centre of the ring in the past, now occur more naturally wherever you happen to be. The system doesn’t work perfectly, for instance, in my first Royal Rumble matchup, when another wrestler tried to interrupt my moves I found myself floating through the ring ropes and passing underneath the ring itself on several occasions. These kind of things don’t happen as often as in the past, but this game still doesn’t manage to eradicate the unfortunate reputation the series has for strange collision issues. As hard as they have tried to eliminate the issues, it is unfortunate that they still exist.
In terms of the grappling action, the control method has been switched up a little. Opting to drop strong and weak grapples from the game, players will now perform a range of different manoeuvres which are largely dependent on the position and physical condition of their opponent. The more you have worn down your enemy, the more devastating attacks you will be able to unleash. Also, a body-specific damage system has been included, whereby when you enter a grapple, the right analog stick can be used to target a particular limb or part of the body, and unleash the pain on that area. The more you attack that body part, your opponent will react accordingly and seem in pain, for instance favouring a good leg over one you have smashed to pieces, and from there it is easier to make your opponent submit in the “Breaking Point” submission system. These alterations mean that sometimes you won’t be too sure what exact move you are going to pull off, and it was easier in the past to plan your attack, mixing up quick moves and strong ones, but it harkens back to the days of the Nintendo 64 wrestling games like No Mercy where you could focus on one arm and keep attacking it until the other wrestler couldn’t take it any more.
The very action of pinning each other has also been changed. Instead of madly hammering any buttons you can in order to escape, a meter now appears on screen and you have to hold down the escape button, trying to release it in a small blue window of opportunity as it quickly fills up. The worse for wear you are, the smaller your window and the faster the meter fills. This makes the act of getting out of a pin seem even more frantic than before, and is perhaps a more skillful method than has been employed before. It certainly gives players who aren’t good button mashers a better chance at avoiding a pinfall. Over-the-top-rope eliminations from Royal Rumbles have now been altered too, here a sequence of quick-time button presses will appear on-screen, and each combatant races to input them first. It makes a nice change that the game has moved away from such a reliance on tapping buttons for most actions, and injects some much-needed variety into proceedings.
Computer A.I. is fully customisable, as in past games, whereby the player can adjust their reversal rate, taunting and risk-taking, amongst other elements, to tailor the challenge to their own needs. But it must be said that with the default settings, computer-controlled wrestlers tend to just bang out cheap reversals and repeat the same irritating combos ad infinitum, and sometimes you will find it very hard to even get back to your feet without being attacked again immediately. These matches therefore dont feel very realistic, and descend into struggles just to break the combo of the A.I. This is hindered further by the fact that timing reversals is harder than in the past, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as in multiplayer in the past, gamers could find themselves in massive reversal chains, with neither one being able to successfully execute many moves.
Another factor that can help struggling players is the “Dynamic Comebacks”, whereby a wrestler who is close to losing is given a boost within pinfall and submission siutations, and they can try to string together a few signature moves in order to gain two finishers, which could help turn the tide of the fight in their direction. This is a very nice feature, that mimics the “Hulking up” type of comeback made famous by Hulk Hogan, where the impossible victory is somehow made possible. And that is really what wrestling is all about, unexpected turns of events and unlikely outcomes make the sport unique; this new feature makes the game feel much closer to that spirit.
MULTIPLAYER: Due to the potential trickiness of A.I. opponents, and the fact they can resort to cheap methods, playing with friends or online opponents always creates a far more exciting experience. Matches are of course much more unpredictable, but that is what WWE is famous for. Four players are supported locally for almost all games modes, and up to twelve gamers can jump in for frantic brawls over the internet. Having matches with so many players involved is a great addition, but we are yet to reach the heights of a 30-man Royal Rumble, where each competitor is player controlled by an individual – that has long been my online wrestling dream! Other than that, the offering is wide, and despite a few lag issues, the game plays pretty smoothly online, even when the ring starts to fill up and tables are smashing and ladders are flying about. The real madness of professional wrestling comes to life when you have half a dozen real gamers scrambling to be the first one to reach a title belt, for example, and this higher level of competitiveness and excitement is a step above the single player modes.
LONGEVITY: The title is very in-depth, the game includes over sixty grapplers, ranging from the big names down to the minnows and rookies. DLC promises to add even more characters to choose from at regular intervals, so even if your favourite Superstar isn’t in the game from the off, there is a good chance they will be added later. On top of that, all of the match types you could possibly imagine a included in the game, amongst which are Ladder, Table and Steel Cage matches, the dreaded Elimination Chamber and the free-for-all Royal Rumble. The “WWE Universe” mode also makes a return, which is a calendar mode where players can play, simulate or edit the popular WWE weekly shows to their hearts content. Titles can change hands, you can re-brand the name of the show and you can shape how the WWE Universe changes, without all the cutscenes and other restrictions of the story mode. This plays a little like a brand management mini-game, and will surely add to the length of time you spend in-game, but it also expands on the customisation options the game is famous for.
Creation modes make a return for superstars, entrances, finishing moves, storylines, highlight reels and also an all-new arena creation, where players customise their ring and its surroundings. The best new feature though is the ability to share your creations online. The Smackdown games have long fostered players who will carefully re-create past wrestlers and other fighters who are not included in-game, as well as moves and entrances. These are often incredibly accurate and in-depth, but take a long time to complete. Now, those of you who aren’t quite as “enthusiastic” can now profit from the hard work of others and download their creations. This should be a great way of creating a real community of customising players, and is a fantastic idea – why this wasn’t thought of sooner is amazing.
VERDICT: The Smackdown series has wildly veered between simulation and an arcade experience over the years, to varying results, but perhaps this instalment is the first for some time that has really introduced some exciting new ideas, not all of which that work, unfortunately. The grappling system has been refined and tweaked, so that the game plays in a different style, and the different game mechanics add a lot of variety to the in-game actions and struggles. But it is in the multiplayer modes that the game truly shines. Only in the insanity that ensues from a multi-competitor brawl with friends does the game feel exactly like the product you see on TV.
When the game tries to force the issue, in the story mode, it all seems too restrictive and the spontaneity and excitement of the sport is buried in layer upon layer of exposition, conversation and over-the-top presentation. Wrestling is best when it is pure and allowed to evolve naturally, as it only can when the computer is involved as little as possible. If you intend on playing this game alone, you may be let-down a little, but those who invest the time in online play will be rewarded by something that is incredibly fun. This game may not be the “best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be” but it makes a good attempt at re-inventing the wrestling game wheel.