THQ "No-Sells" our expectations.
If the words heel, babyface, angle, shoot, squash, heat, bump, sell, job, over, promo, workrate, and worker mean anything to you, then WWE ’12 is potentially the fan service you’ve been waiting for from the yearly mediocrity formerly known as Smackdown VS Raw. However, while this reboot finally accomplishes the feel of a WWE broadcast, with all the theatrics, sharp camera cuts, and kayfabe drama of a match, you can’t help but notice just how poorly conceived the surrounding modes and systems are—particularly the online infrastructure. It’s still a fun game. In fact, it’s a very fun game. But it’s difficult to recommend wholeheartedly given the desperate need for an overhaul patch that doesn’t seem to be on the way anytime soon.
Before going into several of the hair-pulling frustrations found in WWE ’12, it’s worth noting that the gameplay has never been sharper. Face buttons make a triumphant return as the primary system for grapples and strikes as opposed to the right stick-based control scheme of previous Smackdown games. Thanks to much improved pacing, the controls here are precise and easy to pick up. Context sensitive grappling (and chain grappling) brings fluidity to the matches, with a superstar’s more recognizable moves requiring a groggy or damaged opponent. (A mat wrestling system would have been nice for some of the more technical guys, like Daniel Bryan and Tyson Kidd, but given that this is a new engine, I’ll cut them some slack.) WWE ’12 also does away with many of the more complicated systems of previous Smackdown titles in favor of accessibility. There are still a number of mechanics that trigger various minigames (mostly quicktime events), but you won’t be focusing on a myriad of different meters this time. Despite the lack of a proper HUD (other than context sensitive indicators for your signature and finisher moves, comebacks, hot tags, etc) most of the familiar systems from the previous games are still in place, such as area specific damage. They’re just heavily streamlined. This results in matches that feel quicker and are instantly gratifying. And while the A.I. isn’t perfect, far from it, it puts up an entertaining fight on the higher difficulty settings. Combine that with dynamic camera angles, overall decent animation (with a few glaring exceptions), and the aforementioned accessibility, and WWE ’12 often masterfully mimics its televised sport—within the boundaries of the ring.
Specific aspects of the presentation, however, while occasionally serviceable, aren’t as polished as the gameplay. Out of ring action is clunky, and the surrounding arenas look terrible. Superstar models and entrances are consistently hit or miss; for example, Arn Anderson looks almost lifelike compared to Alberto Del Rio, whose poor entrance (which is disappointing, considering the spectacle of Ricardo Rodriguez, who here sounds like he isn’t even trying) and character model is more consistent with a decent Create-A-Wrestler than it is with a member of the main roster. Given that the development cycle can’t possibly keep up with the constantly changing WWE programming, some inaccuracies (such as Mark Henry being a face, Sheamus a heel, certain wrestlers appearing who are no longer with the company, inaccurate movesets, etc) are excusable, but others just feel lazy. Audio is decent during a match, aside from the expected terrible commentary, of course, but poorly mixed crowd noise during entrances often drowns out both the announcer and the theme music. Certain animations can be a bit strange, such as Edge’s Spear, and the general Smackdown clumsiness still exists: I ran into a persistent glitch in the TLC match where putting an opponent through a table via a flying move would break the table, but would not affect the wrestler, leaving him levitating midair on his back for the rest of the match.
The Road to Wrestlemania returns with a single campaign split into three separate stories: the Villain with Sheamus, the Outsider with Triple H, and the Hero with Jacob Cass, an NXT winner who is supplemented by one of your created wrestlers. The stories aren’t particularly good (in fact, I’d go as far as to say that they’re complete nonsense), and with one exception (The Miz), the voiceover sounds obligatory and soulless. But poor performances and laughable storytelling aren't the problem. The problem is, though, that none of these stories are fun to play all the way through to their respective conclusions: Instead of simply winning each match, you’re completing a vague objective in order to prompt a button press to trigger the next story bit. Most of the time, this will entail destroying your opponent for an arbitrary amount of time, hitting Y with both wrestlers near some general area, and then watching as your character loses the match regardless in a pool of ways devoid of logic. I understand what they were going for here, but there had to have been a way to accomplish this within the context of a player controlled match without making it feel like your prior actions were meaningless. Instead, you’re just watching the outcomes instead of participating in them, and since what you’re watching is bollocks, it’s a chore to play. And as if the objectives weren’t bad enough, constant, contrived backstage brawls -- which limit your moveset and control poorly -- against numerous wrestlers at once (anywhere from two to four) are almost enough to warrant paying eighty points on the Marketplace for the code that unlocks everything. The Universe mode has potential, allowing you to essentially be the booker and edit everything, creating your own WWE calendar, but it’s a bit obtuse for players who aren’t diehards. Still, it’s a much better experience than the Road to Wrestlemania.
The aforementioned editing is where WWE ’12 becomes a possible vehicle for endless fan service, and also where its most disappointing flaw manifests. Almost anything can be edited or changed. Created wrestlers, created arenas (a new feature to this year’s game), finishers, logos, entrances, attires, etc, can all be imported into the Universe in addition to being shared online. You can create your own storylines and even download and play storylines created by an already dedicated community; this alone has the potential of eliminating the stigma of the poor story experience found in the Road to Wrestlemania. The deep creation and editing capabilities go far beyond what we’ve come to expect from THQ, and it really does feel like a love letter to the fans, but the surrounding online infrastructure is a disaster. As far as competitive play goes, if you can actually get into a match, the game plays with practically no latency. However, most attempts at signing in are returned with a “WWE '12 SERVERS NOT AVAILABLE. PLEASE TRY AGAIN” error. This issue has rendered the online sharing useless, as it never works. I managed to download an incredible Kurt Angle the sole session where it didn’t immediately boot me, but subsequent attempts are treated to the same error message almost as fast as you can press the A button. If you somehow manage to get into the search menu, searching for specific created content or scrolling past the first page of popular downloads also kicks you from the server. I was able to figure out a way around this for playing online matches (joining a friend’s game from the main menu as opposed to the online menu, which only worked about half the time), but the most intriguing aspect of the online, the WWE Creations, remains broken—even after several “updated” developer newsletters in pure public relations speak detailing that the main issues have been “resolved,” and that they’re hard at work fixing any "remaining problems." It’s unacceptable.
The unfortunate thing here is that an otherwise fun, deserving wrestling game, filled to the brim with content, has to be labeled under the same mediocrity as its incrementally updated predecessors. WWE ’12 is the most fun I’ve had with a WWE title since Smackdown: Here Comes the Pain, but it seems as if these games can’t take a single step forward without taking three whole steps back. Resolving the online issues would mean a lot, as I’ve accepted that these games will never be the prettiest or have the most detailed, smooth animation, and will never play without a few bizarre glitches and collision issues. However, with the package currently restricting me to a single playthrough of the Road to Wrestlemania, meandering in the Universe, and playing exhibition matches void of any real purpose, terrific gameplay or not, WWE ’12 is a tough sell—sort of like taking a bump for Hulk Hogan.