How do you solve a problem like WWE? The extravagant, vaudevillian pantomime vision of sport, where the appeal lies not only in giant, granite carved blokes in pants smacking each other around, but also in the construct of the deliciously trashy soap-opera storylines that underpin it all.
Yukes and THQ have been trying to reconcile these two disparate elements of the industry for years and, in fairness, have generally made a pretty good fist of it. The erstwhile Smackdown vs RAW titles have arrived like clockwork, and have been reliably decent if rather stagnant. With a simplified moniker, WWE "12 wants to position itself as something of an overhaul. It isn"t. Not really. Despite the promise of an all new "Predator" engine on the back of the box, the wrasslin" itself will be familiar to anyone who has touched a WWE game in the last decade or so.
That"s not to say there aren"t improvements to the grappling. Smackdown v Raw had become fairly bloated, with an overly complex stick-based control system and stilted animations. WWE "12 pares things back a bit, reverting to a largely straightforward button-control method: grab your opponent by the short hairs, press a direction and A to slap them around in a variety of improbably athletic and violent ways. A new feature this year is the option to deliberately target a body part in order to cause massive damage to a limb before trying a submission move. It"s nothing you couldn"t do before, but in giving you feedback and an extra selection of nasty moves, it brings a simple layer of tactics to the surface.
In addition to the simplification of the wrestling, animation blending has been improved. Which is crucial in a game that relies so heavily on chaining canned animations together. The result is a more accessible and fluid grappler that"s very easy to dive into and have fun with. And it is fun, capturing the sense of choreography and brutal physicality that defines professional wrestling. It"s like a dance, except your partner smashes your head in with a chair at the end. Let"s have that on Strictly.
But those opposing goals of capturing the theatre of WWE while also providing a sharp video game beat "em up that requires skill can"t help but clash. The counter system, for instance, can be infuriatingly capricious at times. An icon will appear, indicating when you need to press the right trigger to counter a grapple or strike, with the idea being that you learn when to counter a specific move, eventually not needing the button prompt. Which is fine. Instinctively pressing the counter button to escape a big move is one of the game"s greatest pleasures. But that"s when it works. And often it feels like the game is arbitrarily deciding that, no, your counter won"t work this time in order to give your AI opponent a chance to get a few good licks in. It"s a similar story when it comes to opponents countering too, for lengthy periods of matches an AI opponent will fail to counter at all, allowing you to constantly knee them in the head with little to no opposition. Then, all of a sudden, they"ll counter everything.
You understand the logic, to a degree. If a player becomes too skilled in countering, the game could lose any sense of drama. Other foibles are more obvious and less easy to forgive. Some moves will see wrestlers sliding into position if they"re too close to the ropes, while other environmental issues grate. For instance, if there"s two of you going tooth and nail at the top of a ladder and you initiate a slam to the canvas and a third opponent pushes the ladder over, the original move animation will continue playing out high above the ring in thin air. There"s just these rough edges to the engine that WWE games have never quite squared away. Which is a shame, as when WWE "12 is in full flow, the usually excellent animation and TV-style presentation deliver a crunching, enjoyable spectacle.
And there"s a ton of content to enjoy with it too. The main single-player draw is the reworked Road to Wrestlemania. While in previous editions, RTW allowed you to choose your superstar and play through a slightly more freeform campaign, WWE "12 lays on a beefy, linear storyline as you play three assigned superstars --villain Sheamus, outsider Triple H and user-created hero Jacob Cass-- over 18 months worth of WWE programming. The plot, penned by genuine WWE script-writers, isn"t half-bad. The start is underwhelming, but as the campaign progresses, the writers throw in a fan-pleasing throwback to the WCW Alliance storyline from the early 2000"s. You get the feeling the video game medium has allowed the writers to let their hair down a bit, supplying a story that would probably be unfeasible in real life (such as it is). It"s good fun, let down by some mediocre voice-acting --with the exception of Triple H and The Miz-- and some strange production fluffs. Cutscene animation is wonkier than in-match, and occasionally the sound mixing will be so off you can"t even hear the dialogue.
But the real issue lies in the execution, by turns excellent and infuriating. Rather than having you sweep through a procession of matches, it tries to place you in the role of an actor playing a part. So rather than matches playing out to a pin or submission, they"ll often have scripted spots and requirements. Which is a fabulous idea in theory, and there are times when it succeeds. An Elimination Chamber match, for instance, asks you to defeat certain opponents in certain areas before a certain other bruiser is allowed out to play. It manages to hit a sweet spot of supplying a challenge in the gameplay while following a scripted WWE match.
However, most of the time the matches amount to you smacking your opponent about for a bit until a glowing Y button prompt appears above their head, you press it and then a cutscene plays out, usually amounting to your guy getting a kicking. It upsets the balance, making the brawling beforehand feel inconsequential. You could argue that"s true of WWE matches in real life, but the point is this method drives a wedge between player input and the game moseying on at its own pace. Worse, some of the restrictions can be weirdly oblique, the game often failing to tell you if you can tag in your partner, or if you can pin your opponent and win clean or wait for that magic button prompt.
The most consistent offender tends to be backstage brawls which always take place in the same corridor and usually asks you to take out your opponent in a specific area. So after battering your foe for a while, you then get the daft situation of you constantly trying to Irish whip them into the right crate or vending machine. And the game can be particularly finickity about where that finisher will work.
It"s not a deal breaker, but it"s annoying. Especially as, for a lot of the campaign, you will be enjoying the show and appreciating the better moments. There"s the basis of something good here though, and it would be nice to see Yukes approach the format with a bit more confidence.
Something that Yukes has utter belief in --and rightly so-- is their ability to create a masterful suite of customisation. That you can tweak every aspect of a created superstar, right down to tights design and how you get in and out of the ring, goes without saying. However, you can also cut custom entrance videos, cobble together a unique finisher, make your own crowd signs. The depth and breadth is terrific and continues to expand. You can now create your own arenas with custom-drawn canvas prints. Fancy crafting your own TNA or Ring of Honor arenas? If you"ve got the skill and patience you can go right ahead. Furthermore you can even write your own storylines, complete with dialogue and cutscenes. The tools are flexible and easy to use, and it"s distressingly easy to lose hours tinkering with the various options. Explaining to my wife why I spent an entire afternoon designing wrestling pants wasn"t the easiest conversation.There"s also WWE Universe, which is a rolling calendar of programming that you can fully customise. Edit rosters, bring back WCW or ECW if you fancy it, create stables and initiate feuds. If doesn"t have the same theatrics as Road to Wrestlemania in its matches, but is a flexible mode for the long-term committed.It is, however, perhaps a little aimless. I would have liked the option to pick a superstar to play as and have the game include him regularly throughout the programming, rather than me shoehorning him into every broadcast. What also might have been really interesting is to challenge the player to build feuds, championship runs and PPVs in order to boost ratings. Anyone remember Promotion Wars or Extreme Warfare? An advanced, playable interpretation of those wrestling management games would be mana to students of kayfabe.
The most disappointing aspect of WWE "12, however, is that an apparently meaty online component is completely borked. Matches are difficult to get into, and when you do manage it, they tend to be plagued by lag and latency issues. Of greater impact is that the community creation centre, where you can download created superstars, arenas and storylines, is also troubled by connection issues. There are some talented people making brilliant stuff on there, and it"s a shame that their work isn"t getting the exposure due to connection issues. I checked the online portion regularly, only to be greeted with a message from THQ acknowledging the problems and promising a resolution. A few weeks after release and the problems persist.
Disappointing, because Yukes have clearly put a lot of effort into the online integration, only to fall at a technical hurdle. It"s a common theme for WWE "12, a good game dragged down by the most irritating of foibles. It"s certainly the most interesting WWE game in a while, and you get the feeling Yukes know what they want to do. It"s just a question of if they have the time, budget and freedom to do it. As it is, they have produced a game that is a fairly close facsimile of WWE itself: extravagant, trashy, rough at the edges but always strangely compelling.
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