THQ has reached a crossroads with its premiere pro-wrestling franchise. After last year's fetid effort, WWE SmackDown vs. RAW 2011, the producers behind the series famously proclaimed that this was the year everything changed. From the name on down, everything was to be overhauled. Finally, we were told, this would be the year that the gameplay morphed into something other than another meaningless retooling of the same engine we've been enduring since the middle years of the PlayStation 2 era. Finally, wrestling games were going to cease to suck.
Now that WWE '12 is in the wild, I can report that much of what THQ proclaimed is at least half true. Where previous sequels have smacked of non-effort, WWE '12 does feel like an earnest re-envisioning of what simulation wrestling games have been for years. The new engine paces matches better than anything we've played in years, and now all those insane accouterments Yuke's has been building up around that old, rickety game engine are actually fun to play. To be fair, in no way is WWE '12 a slam dunk--that new game engine offers up nearly as many quirks as it does improvements--but as a meaningful step forward for this franchise, it signals something that wrestling fans have mostly been without for the better part of the last several years: hope.
First and foremost, it's the gameplay that sells WWE '12. It's difficult to describe exactly what's changed without delving into obnoxious minutae that's meaningless to all but the most insane of fans, but most of the core changes are lumped in with what THQ refers to as "Predator technology." This tech represents a fairly significant overhauling of the series' animation mechanics, allowing for more freedom and opportunity for reversals and counter attacks. Whereas every move was more or less a canned animation before, each major move now has multiple spots where a player can reverse it. Let's say you're about to deliver a huge superplex from the top rope to an opposing player. That player can reverse the lockup in the corner, the moment after being placed on the top turnbuckle, or the moment where your wrestler stands up on the ropes to deliver the move. Perhaps in an effort to counterbalance the sheer volume of counters now at a player's disposal, the timing window for reversals has also been shortened, meaning you have to be exceedingly quick on the draw in order to reverse a move.
It's a tricky balance, but it works more often than it doesn't. If nothing else, it actually adds an interesting pace and momentum shift to how matches tend to play out. I'm not sure if it's directly related to the Predator tech, or more ancillary changes elsewhere, but WWE '12 simply has the best match "feel" of any sim wrestling game in ages. Matches move with the kind of momentum swings absolutely vital to real (well, "real," anyway) live wrestling. Especially noteworthy is the change to signatures and finishers. When you've built up enough momentum for a signature, all you have to do is press the Y or triangle button while standing in the proper position to deliver the move, and it's on. Once you hit the move, you immediately move to being able to deliver a finisher. In a neat little twist, certain taunts actually will set opponents up for those finishers too. If you're playing as, say, Steve Austin, and you're ready to hit a Stunner, he'll do his taunt where he flails his arms, demanding his victim stand back up, while the opponent does precisely that, groggy all the way.
It's a play to the pageantry and theatrics of wrestling that has scarcely existed in these kinds of games that simultaneously doesn't sacrifice the competitive nature of the games themselves. You're still fighting to win, but the way the matches move and feel are more directly analogous to what's you see on TV. Now, it's not exactly perfect yet. Physics are still wonky in a number of spots, especially when it comes to weapon attacks and outside the ring antics, presumably because Yuke's still hasn't quite figured out how to naturally use the Havok physics engine. Also, the momentum-based grappling system installed in previous sequels still isn't particularly great. It's too hard to naturally do the moves you want to do (outside of finishers and signatures) since so many of the best grapple moves can't be done unless your opponent is stumbling around in front of you. Lastly, the total lack of HUD in this year's game is a nice presentational touch, but from a gameplay perspective, it's a bit troublesome, especially when you're trying to figure out if you're anywhere near finishing an opponent. You'll see your opponents start to grab parts of their body as they get worn down, but that signature/finisher icon that signals your near-victory tends to just pop up out of nowhere.
On the subject of presentation, this is one area where WWE '12 hasn't really made any huge strides forward. In some ways, the game does look a little sharper than the last few SmackDown! sequels, but mostly that's in tangential elements, like arena visuals and pyrotechnics. The wrestler models haven't vastly improved, meaning we're still looking at the same weird faces and crummy hair that we've been enduring for ages. Animations also seem to be in a weird spot these days. Roughly half the moves look genuinely great, whereas the other half look stiff, lifeless, and even a bit floaty. It's especially noticeable with strikes, though many of the older, more base-level grapple moves also have this clunky look to them that invokes the old Acclaim N64 wrestlers of yore.
And then there's the commentary... Look, I think we're well beyond expecting miracles on this front. It's been such a noose around this series' neck for so long that anything even vaguely resembling an improvement might seem like a gift from the heavens. And lo and behold, there is a modicum of improvement here. Mostly, it's that Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler appear to have mostly recorded new lines of dialogue, much of which actually talks about the wrestlers featured in the game. They're still stiff, unfunny, and periodically delve into bizarre, utilitarian territory with comments on wrestlers focusing on specific parts of the body, such as, "Man, I don't know if he meant to focus on the head there, but he's delivering a lot of punishment!" or some such. And yet, hearing these two work this year didn't make me want to reach into my ear canal and punch through my own ear drums. That cannot be considered anything but positive progress.
Perhaps because of all the effort Yuke's sank into this Predator tech, most of the surrounding modes haven't changed much at all this year. The one to see the most alteration is the Road to Wrestlemania single-player mode. Whereas in the past, you would choose from one of several storylines and play through them at your leisure, this year's mode features one long, continuous story that features three distinct story threads. The first revolves around Sheamus and his quest for domination, whereas the next involves Triple H and his return to the ring. Finally, there's a rookie storyline involving a created character. It's perhaps a smarter move to craft one, singular, coherent storyline for this mode, but the big problem with this method of execution is that if you don't care about Sheamus or Triple H, you're still stuck playing as them for long stretches of time. The writing in this mode isn't strong enough to transcend what ever likes or dislikes you might have for these characters--in fact, it's pretty bad.
Then again, these modes have always featured stories that felt like cast-off storylines from TV that the bookers had the good sense to cancel. This year is simply no different. What is different is how those story beats actually play out. In previous years, you were pretty much just winning every match, even though that's not really how wrestling works. Here, you're tasked with specific objectives in each match, which range from simply beating specific opponents, to wearing down opponents.
OK, so that's not really much of an objective range, but what is different is what happens once you meet these objectives. Once you do, a big button icon appears over the head of the opposing wrestler. Hitting that button engages a cutscene that shows your wrestler getting interfered with, you interfering with someone else, or whatever the hell happens in wrestling these days. Essentially, the designers have taken control of the story's primary events out of the player's hands. While I'm a big fan of trying to throw more of TV wrestling's tropes into the experience of the video games, completely removing control from the player is not an ideal way of handling this. There has to be a happy medium somewhere, where players can still participate in all the screw jobs and double-reverse screw jobs so vital to wrestling's chemistry without resorting to joyless cutscenes.
Maybe they'll figure out that happy medium next year, but at the very least, if you find yourself dissatisfied with the Road to Wrestlemania, you can always take the battle online, or engage in any number of the myriad create modes contained within the game. None of these options have really changed much since last year; there is a new create-an-arena mode, which is pretty cool if you have it in your head that you want to build an old school WCW Thunder or TNA arena (just don't worry about WCW Monday Nitro, as that's already an unlockable). Wrestlers, storylines, entrances, moves, finishers, arenas, and whatever else--short of a create-a-title mode, or a create-an-announcer mode (please!), pretty much everything you could possibly want is there, and the ability to download and upload creations online is still awesome. I've already acquired completely acceptable versions of AJ Styles, Goldberg, and Rob Van Dam within a day of the game's release, and the classic ECW arena that's already up is superb. Now if someone could just make me a 100% accurate version of Glacier, Mortis, and Wrath, my life will be complete.
Online competition does still have its hiccups, especially in the Royal Rumble mode. I ran into a lot of weird connection hang-ups and disconnects, possibly because the servers are still sputtering under the weight of sudden traffic. The matches I did get into, however, largely lacked lag of any kind, so if you get a good match-up, you'll be fine.
One place you probably don't want to be spending your time is the WWE Universe mode. This debuted last year as a sort of alternative to the fully-scripted stories of the Road to Wrestlemania. Here, you can play through dynamically generated show schedules on any TV show or PPV, playing as any wrestlers you feel like. You can set up interference in matches, toy with match rules, and basically book as you please, but because the actual story bits are largely randomly generated, actually pulling a coherent story or rivalry out of this mode borders on impossible. It's not that it isn't fun to play around with these matches, but the whole interface and set-up is so unwieldy and complicated that at a point, it's barely worth fussing with because you'll never get the completely desired result.
And that's the one key thing that WWE '12 still has yet to overcome. Namely, its general unwieldiness as a game that a mass audience can play. Much as EA's Madden franchise has struggled to maintain accessibility while still catering to the hardcore fanbase, THQ and Yuke's haven't quite found the ideal formula for making a wrestling game that anyone can enjoy. In a weird way, it's WWE '12's bad luck that WWE All-Stars also happened to come out this year. Not that the two games are any more directly comparable than Madden and NFL Blitz, but All-Stars' stripped-down, fast-paced mentality felt like a breath of fresh air, especially compared with SmackDown! vs. RAW 2011's decrepit, shambolic gameplay. WWE '12 certainly pushes THQ's simulation wrestling business in a far more positive direction, but this game still has yet to find completely solid footing while balancing the needs of the existing fanbase alongside the needs of the fans who either have never tried one of these games, or simply have left long ago.
Still, this is the first year where I feel like I can actually recommend a WWE game in earnest. Granted, it's a caveat-laden recommendation, but a recommendation nonetheless. Considering how long it's been since one of these games actually felt playable, let alone enjoyably so, it's almost worth putting up with the various peculiarities and more antiquated elements just so you can actually have fun wrestling again. WWE '12 is arguably more a signal of better things to come than a great game in its own right, but hey, at least it's something, right?