Some franchises are destined to sell by the bucket load no matter their quality. Certain sports franchises, for example, will hit the top spot in the charts upon every yearly release. This is partly because the sports they’re based on are so popular and partly because of the lack of serious competition. The WWE titles from THQ fit into this equation as perfectly as any other. Only THQ produce WWE games, and WWE is popular, therefore THQ will sell a lot of WWE games every year. No matter what the quality is like.
Of course, the obvious problem here is that the publisher and developer will become complacent. They’ll rest on their laurels safe in the knowledge that the money is as good as in the bank already. Anyone that has played the WWE series in recent years (formerly known as Smackdown vs Raw) will know exactly what I’m talking about. Let’s be honest, innovation and improvement have been in short supply from the franchise since this generation of consoles launched.
So it’s pleasing then that WWE 12 bucks the trend of minimal effort and minimal yearly differentiation, providing a new control system, all-new presentation and much improved visuals.
The most immediate of these changes is the presentation. Events are introduced by a short video that mimics the style of the real WWE – complete with audience close-ups, voice over commentary and pyrotechnic explosions from the stage. Camera angles during a match are also based on those used on television, with cuts to close-ups upon the execution of big slams, finishing moves and pin attempts.
Any remnants of a HUD has been completely removed, your only method of judging your character’s health is now by watching how the character model carries itself. If your wrestler is walking slowly then he/she’s legs are probably screwed, if they’re holding the arm then that’s about to give out. The lack of a HUD seems like a slight change, but it’s one that helps put you in WWE zone rather than videogame zone.
When you see that you’ve injured a specific body part you can hone into that area by using the new limb targeting system. The implementation is not perfect but it’s good enough to weaken limbs that relate to your wrestler’s key submission techniques (if they have one). For example, you’ll want to injure the arms if you’re playing as Alberto Del Rio or the legs if playing as anyone that uses a figure four leg lock or Boston crab.
Limb targeting is performed by pressing the right bumper and then the face button that corresponds to the body part you want to attack (head, legs, left and right arm). The system falters in that it can only be executed when your opponent is standing in a ‘groggy’ state or when you’ve initiated a grapple attempt. That limitation is irritating because successful attacks are at a premium in WWE 12, making you wish you could attack the same body part with every attack.
The reason attacks are at a premium spawns from the reversal system, which the CPU seems to excel at but are incredibly difficult to pull off for anyone without the reactions of a cat. Reversals happen against you so often that matches tend to lack the back and forth flow of a ‘real’ WWE match, instead playing out in short bursts of attacks from each side.
This makes dominating victories a rarity, both players usually at death’s door by the time someone scores a pin. If you were given the option of targeting the same limb for every attack this would probably change.
The reversal system also makes it difficult to beat more powerful opponents. Big Show, Undertaker, Kane and anyone else hovering around the seven-foot mark inflict more damage with every shot than you could ever hope to. This means your only chance of success is to hit them with twice the number of attacks they score on you. In turn, that means you usually need to score twice as many reversals. A feat that is difficult to achieve.
When you do manage it the gameplay is satisfying and easily the most varied of the series thus far. Animations look fantastic, the visuals themselves are great and each wrestler has a wide range of attacks to choose from (helped by the moments when you can employ limb targeting). It’s just a shame that most matches don’t turn out that way. The occasional moments of wholehearted enjoyment are ruined by frustration elsewhere.
Multiplayer solves the bulk of these issues and the plethora of game modes makes it the best option for anyone with an interested friend. The showboating nature of the core content means head-to-head play is a dish best served in local co-op, as the ability to effectively gloat and celebrate success is lost without being able to crotch chop (that thing ‘DX’ does) your friend’s face at close range.
The primary single player mode is the returning Road to Wrestlemania. This sees you take control of various wrestlers as you work through a pre-defined story that cannot be altered. Road to Wrestlemania’s story plays out through weekly Raw and/or Smackdown events as well as monthly PPV’s.
Inter-match moments of in-ring banter and backstage shenanigans are fully voiced by the wrestlers themselves (a feature that will only be noticed by fans of the WWE – which most of you reading this probably are), adding greatly to the believeability of the wacky storyline. Wacky even by WWE standards.
Road to Wrestlemania is genuinely enjoyable, but it is sometimes let down by fiddly objectives during matches. For the story to make sense certain events must take place at the end of a bout, usually this involves a certain wrestler having to pin a specific other during a tag-team match. The way the game makes sure this occurs is by removing your ability to tag in a teammate. A ‘feature’ that’s infuriating when you’ve just taken a beating and know you’re about to lose.
I want to tag here but I can’t because the game doesn’t want me to. The real WWE is silly, but that’s just stupid.
Road to Wrestlemania is not all that long, which is where WWE Universe comes in. Universe sets up event cards based on your previous matches, creating on-the-fly rivalries along the way. However, if you don’t like the matches the CPU has chosen you can always edit them to your liking. Again, this is a mode improved by playing with a friend as you can each take certain wrestlers (i.e. one take the good guys and one the bad) and make your own storylines as you go.
You can even use the (again) excellent create-a-superstar to insert yourself or any manner of muscle-bound he-man/girl into the proceedings. (Our wrestler Doug The Douche is currently in a long-running battle with Kofi Kingston for the United States title).
All in all WWE 12 is a fun overall package that struggles to properly incorporate all of its new elements. The number of changes is commendable but a few of them still need tweaking. Despite that, this is the first time in a long while that the future is looking genuinely exciting for the series.