Professional wrestling in 2012 is largely terrible. Granted, I say this as someone who experienced wrestling's most recent "glory days," namely the period between 1996 and the early 2000s when the (then) WWF and WCW were locked in an embittered battle over who could produce the most entertaining Monday night multihour block of guys in tights pretending to angry hug one another. In WWE terms, this was the "Attitude Era," the period when stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and D-Generation X captured the imaginations of wrestling fans anew, and made "sports entertainment" a legitimate billion dollar business. I look at what wrestling was then, and compare it against what wrestling is now, and objectively, I feel that I can say that wrestling just ain't what it used to be.
And yet, sometimes I forget that many younger wrestling fans either were too young, or simply not around during these times. All they know is the modern wrestling era. They know that people like The Rock and Mick Foley are big time guys from a bygone era, but outside of some DVDs and recaps, it's likely they've never had the experience of seeing this stuff in detail. This is one of the many things that makes WWE '13 such a surprising delight. The producers at THQ have dedicated this year's wrestling video game to the Attitude of yesteryear, building a whole story mode around the history of superstars like Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, Stone Cold, The Rock, and many more. Even more amazing is that it's actually great. In improving a variety of things introduced for the first time in WWE '12, WWE '13 is by far the most playable WWE video game in ages. That playability helps elevate WWE '13's Attitude Era leanings into something more than just a nifty history lesson. In fact, it's probably the best storytelling a WWE video game has featured in as far back as I can remember.
Sure, it helps that THQ is straight up lifting great stories and matches from the Attitude Era, but in WWE '13, it's more about the way they're presented that makes the whole thing work so well. Each section of the Attitude Era mode is broken out by superstar(s). DX, Stone Cold, The Rock, the Brothers of Destruction, and Mankind all have their own chapter sections, which lead into a culmination in the weeks leading up to Wrestlemania XV. Each match you play represents a significant historical moment for that superstar. Remember when Hunter Hearst Helmsley first teamed up with Shawn Michaels on RAW in 1997 to form DX? Or how about the debut of Kane at Badd Blood that same year? Even if you don't, the story mode does a great job of setting up each match and related storyline with both text and video footage edited together by the WWE's own in-house video team. It's simultaneously educational and entertaining stuff.
The matches themselves are fun too, thanks in no small part to the ditching of last year's idiotic "press button to win" story mode finishes. Instead, this year's game introduces historical objectives both optional and mandatory. Most times, the mandatory ones simply involve winning a match a certain way, but other objectives can be far more specific. In the legendary Hell in a Cell match between Undertaker and Mankind, you are set up ahead of time to relive that match's most brutal moments. You will throw Mankind off the top of that cage, through the announce table, and down to the ring. In very specific moments where the original match featured scenarios not playable in the game engine, the game will cut away to a pre-rendered scene, but it's all done in-engine, and is surprisingly seamless. If anything, I was surprised by how much the game asked me to do. It's one thing to play the infamous "Montreal Screwjob" match between Michaels and Hart, and it's quite another to actually be able to put Hart in the Sharpshooter, and have a digitized Vince McMahon run out and preemptively call for the bell. Honestly, the only thing missing was Earl Hebner.
All the arenas, fonts, and other related aesthetics are here, along with a couple dozen Attitude era superstars, from the big guys, all the way down to more minor players like X-Pac, The Godfather, and the British Bulldog. It's not all-encompassing, as certain era-relevant superstars like the Hardy Boyz, the Dudley Boys, Al Snow, Hardcore Holly, and Steve Blackman aren't around. And I do wish THQ had found a way to clear roster spots currently held by era-specific versions of superstars already in the game--honestly, does anyone really need one version of Triple H, let alone three?--but beyond that, the roster is hard to argue with.
Of course, nearly all the current WWE superstars are on-hand as well. The most interesting thing to me about having the dual rosters is how striking the difference is between them. Looking at the Attitude era, you've got these insane, cartoonish personalities that evoke their larger-than-life personas. And while I love current guys like CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, and Cody Rhodes, it's incredibly telling that the modern roster essentially blends into a blur of random dudes when held against the Attitude era roster. That's hardly THQ's fault, but it is something I found myself noticing more and more as I played.
And while paid DLC is not something I often take pleasure in mentioning, I have to say that this is the first year THQ has ever actually had me excited about DLC in a wrestling game. The main roster itself is actually shockingly up-to-date, given how often these games seem to be a year behind the actual on-TV product. But there are some recent additions--like Damien Sandow, Antonio Cesaro, AJ Lee, and Ryback--that are missing. They are currently scheduled to be released as DLC, along with a host of classic Attitude Era favorites like Val Venis, Rikishi, Gangrel, and even the Loose Cannon Brian Pillman. It seems like THQ has finally figured out how to effectively keep up with TV wrestling, and that's pretty awesome.
For as great as all these bells and whistles are, none of it would matter if the in-ring action were no good. Last year's WWE '12 put this series on a positive gameplay path for the first time in ages. Despite some rickety parts, it played surprisingly well. WWE '13 builds on the ideas laid down last year and refines them. The core grappling and striking systems are the same, but the pacing, reversal timing, and overall "feel" of the matches is pretty great. Little additions, like OMG! moments (where, with a stored finisher, you can do things like knock an opponent through the guard rail, or collapse the ring when superplexing one of the game's larger wrestlers), and being able to reverse attacks into finishers (much as Randy Orton tends to do with the RKO), are a big plus. Momentum swings and big time comebacks inherent to professional wrestling are well represented here, and the in-game animations have continued to improve. Stiffness and wonkiness with wrestlers not connecting properly has definitely been lessened, though it's not gone altogether. You'll still see some weird physics glitches once in a while, and I still think the grappling engine is a bit over-reliant on reversals, but by and large, playing WWE '13 is actually quite enjoyable.
It helps that the developers finally figured out a way to drastically improve the in-match presentation. Is commentary still kind of a mess? In spots, yes, though during the Attitude Era mode, you're at least transported back in time courtesy of commentary from good ol' Jim Ross and The King. In fact, some of the story matches feature commentary audio from the original matches, which is a nice touch. Even better than those changes, however, are the changes made to crowd noise. Undoubtedly, wrestling is always better when set against the backdrop of a hot crowd. Seeing people go apeshit over a Stone Cold Stunner or People's Elbow is arguably half of what made the Attitude Era so fun to watch. THQ has addressed this in kind, ramping up the crowd audio to a fevered, ravenous pitch when matches begin swinging the hero's way. It's not always the most natural progression--sometimes the audio goes from crazy to dead quiet out of nowhere--and occasionally crowd noise will drown out Attitude Era commentary bits. But when it works correctly, matches have never felt more energetic.
This leads us to the remaining chunks of content in WWE '13, namely the holdover stuff from years past. Universe mode is much as it's always been, albeit with a few more tweaks in its randomly generated storylines to give players more control over what happens show-to-show. I still think it's better to use the story editor to create your own storylines, especially given the sheer volume of available story tweaks available. The usual create-a-wrestler/entrance/move-set/finisher/arena/logo/highlight reel modes are all still around, as well as a highly limited create-a-title mode. All this stuff is as good as it's ever been, of course. It'd be nice if next year we got some fixes for some of the lingering jankiness in the create modes, but even with occasional hiccups, it's hard to hate what's on offer here.
The last remaining elephant in the room would be WWE '13's online servers. While matches were playable last year, lag kept popping up in weird intervals, and for long periods of time, the servers simply refused to connect matches, or let players download user-created content. This year, those issues largely seem gone. I've been able to download content without any hassle, and the matches I've tried to connect to have worked nine times out of 10. We'll see if the servers hold up under the weight of a full player base, but right now, everything appears good to go.
While it might sound counter-intuitive for a game to look to the past to move forward, that's precisely what WWE '13 does. It's not so much about the roster as it is about the reverence it pays to the Attitude Era throughout its various modes and features. WWE '13 remembers when wrestling, and by proxy, wrestling video games were great. It remembers the pageantry, the silliness, and the death-defying stunts that made wrestling such a hot commodity a decade ago. Modern fans will still get the wrestlers and features they've grown accustomed to, while also getting a taste of what wrestling's past brought to the table. Nostalgists will have close to a dozen hours worth of matches and stories from one of the WWE's greatest eras to play through. It's been a long time since I've been able to earnestly recommend a wrestling game to just about any type of fan, but WWE '13 is most definitely worth such a recommendation.