I thought about making this title “The State of Wrestling Games” but what would be the point? The Fire Pro series has been shelved, and THQ has exclusive rights to the WWE, which pretty much has a monopoly on the wrestling world. Yeah, there’s that organization called TNA floating around but it has done nothing to even dent the WWE behemoth. Plus I never played the lone TNA video game, though I heard it was pretty terrible.
By default, this ends up being a topic on WWE related games. Now, I posted at length about my current WWE and wrestling related affections earlier. Which is to say, while I enjoy the spectacle and talent it takes to produce a fun night of professional wrestling, I am not an active fan of the WWE. I also mentioned in that post, as well as others, that I still find the video games appealing, mostly because of their create aspects and because the gameplay usually delivers an overall solid experience.
Unlike the NFL or MLB, which used to have multiple publishers putting out an annual game, the WWE (or then, WWF) always had one publisher working on their games. Early on it was Acclaim which produced the bulk of the 8-bit and 16-bit games like “Superstars” and “Royal Rumble.” During the Playstation dominated era, THQ, together with Japanese developer Aki, emerged as the big play-maker in the wrestling video game world with their hits based on the WCW brand, “World Tour” and “Revenge.” This prompted the WWF to ditch their longtime partner and switch to THQ.
Initially THQ maintained the same strategy with the WWF that it did with WCW,
which was to use different development houses for the different platforms available. For the Playstation, the developer Yukes was used which had a successful Japan only series under its belt called “Toukon Retsuden” while Aki was left as the Nintendo 64 developer. Yukes was given the Smackdown title, while Aki would go with a PPV name for its game, “Wrestlemania 2000” and the following “No Mercy.” This approach created a sort-of false competition. While THQ ultimately won no matter which game consumers sided with, there was a great debate each year over which title was superior. Both were very different experiences. The Smackdown series was faster with more animations present despite being on the inferior Playstation hardware while the N64 games were more methodical and featured the tried and true WCW game engine. Despite not being a very realistic (and I know how silly that sounds on the surface given that “real” is hardly the way most would describe the world of pro wrestling) experience in-ring, the N64 games were given the label of being a simulation based experience. The Smackdown series was viewed as a more arcade experience, meaning it was more about entertainment than authenticity.
I was a Playstation guy so naturally my bias was slanted towards the Smackdown series. For me, after spending many many hours with the WCW games, it was a breath of fresh air. The first game was unrealistically fast, but the approach was more appropriate in terms of emulating what was seen on television. In the N64 games, just about every move was preceded with a tie-up, meaning the two wrestlers grappled each other’s shoulders and would execute moves from there. While a fun and useful gameplay mechanic, it didn’t look realistic. At the same time though, in a Smackdown game a guy could get blasted with a steel chair and then get right back up. Slow moving characters like Mankind zoomed around the ring and practically ran up the turnbuckle. The N64’s more methodical pace, while too slow for some characters, was more authentic.
Regardless, I do feel both titles helped push the other. When it was announced that “No Mercy” would have a ladder match, Yukes responded by not only adding one to their game, but also added the Hell in a Cell match and casket match.
After “No Mercy,” THQ dropped Aki in a cost-cutting move. THQ gave Yukes the Playstation consoles as well as the Gamecube for their games. For the Playstation 2, the Smackdown brand was continued while the Gamecube had a Wrestlemania based series followed by the “Day of Reckoning” series. The Gamecube games tried to emulate the Aki developed games and while the early titles were dismissed, the “Day of Reckoning” series was mostly well received. Anchor was given the Xbox and made two lackluster games released under the Raw subtitle. Again, to cut costs, THQ consolidated everything under Yukes after a few years and decided to focus solely on the Smackdown game, now titled Smackdown vs Raw.
This is how it has been for the last few years and will likely continue, with occasional off-shoots like “WWE Legends” or the upcoming “WWE All-Stars.” To say things have grown a bit stagnant would be an understatement. While there was never true competition at the publisher level within the WWE games (though there certainly was when WCW and ECW were viable brands), there was at least some at the developer level. Now that Yukes focuses mostly on one game released across all consoles that sense of competition is all but gone.
I have not been an annual purchaser of the Smackdown vs Raw brand, preferring to
take a year or two off because each installment is usually pretty similar to the previous one. Even with that approach, there’s still a lot of of stagnation from one release to the next (that I play). I’m going to now focus on this past year’s release, the 2011 version of Smackdown vs Raw.
From a gameplay perspective, it is unchanged. The only change I can notice is that some moves have been removed, and some new ones added. It definitely does not feel balanced as more moves were removed than added. And given the storage capacity of today’s disc mediums (especially the Playstation 3’s Blu Ray), there doesn’t seem to be a logical reason to remove any moves unless of course it is just to re-introduce them in a later game as something “new.” Match-wise, I do not see any additions here either. The last new match was added a couple of year’s ago and was the Inferno match, which to put mildly, sucks. Smackdown 2 added a casket match, which no longer exists (admittedly, it was terrible), while the first game introduced the “I Quit” match which was actually pretty interesting and I don’t why it was ever removed. The special referee match is also gone which allowed the player to play as a wrestler serving as a ref. If for nothing else, this match should still exist for story-line possibilities in the game’s story designer. One of the cooler matches the series added was the Buried Alive match. In this match the combatants brawled in a no holds barred setting, with the ultimate goal being to get your opponent into a casket on the stage and then bury them. It was a suitable replacement for the casket match and one that actually worked well. There was a gameplay mechanic that let the user perform a “casket finisher” which was the only thing that needed refinement. Which is to say, they just needed more finishers animated so that nearly everyone wasn’t just performing a powerbomb. Unfortunately, the match no longer exists.
A match that has never worked well is the tables match. And since the tables match is still fairly common for the television product (unlike the previously mentioned buried alive match) so it has remained in the games for awhile now. Early on it was even worse, the matches would usually last about 30 seconds as it was fairly easy to put an opponent through a table. Now it’s more challenging. If you manage to get a table set-up and perform a move that would put an opponent through it (like a suplex, for example) the table will often buckle but not break if the opponent hasn’t been significantly weakened. The AI will often reverse other moves designed to put it through. What annoys me is that the ability to stand on a table has been removed from both the weapon-based table (found under the ring or laying at ring-side during a tables match) and the announcer’s table. The announcer’s table is more annoying because that one is big, normally allowing for both wrestlers to stand on it at the same time. In past games it was possible, but no longer. It’s a fairly common site at a pay-per view event to see a wrestler go through an announcer’s table (usually spanish) but in the game it can only happen via a top rope move. Superficial complaint? Of course, but if it was possible last year why isn’t it this year? The game used to have a few stock animations for the regular tables for this, usually powerbombs and piledrivers with a few special moves thrown in. At least now it is possible to perform standing moves beside a table to put someone through, but if my character does not have a directional based finisher (as in, one that allows the user to control the direction the opponent is being thrown as a result of the move) he can’t use it to put someone through a table. This means no Rock Bottoms through the table, or Stone Cold Stunners, or the majority of created finishers. My favored created wrestler has what is basically “The Dominator”* as his finishing move, which is one that most would think would be something that could be easily performed through a table, but no luck.
*For those unfamiliar with the former WCW and Attitude era WWF/E wrestler Faarooq, The Dominator is basically a side powerbomb. Instead of the opponent landing on his back, he lands on his stomach/face.
A feature added in 2006, GM mode, is also no longer present. A suitable replacement has never been introduced. For those that skipped that version, the GM mode gave the user control of one brand, Smackdown or Raw, and put it in competition with the other brand. You created the card for each event and were allowed to cultivate rivalries between wrestlers that could be monitored. Keeping a rivalry going as long as possible made the crowd more interested leading to a bigger payoff in the form of ratings when the two combatants squared off. Keep a rivalry going too long though and the crowd would get bored with it. You could simulate everything or actually play the matches which gave you a chance to affect the outcome. It was a fun mode but was over once you beat the other brand over the course of a year. Ever since experiencing it I wanted the developer to take it one step further. Perhaps the WWE balked on such an idea, but I wanted it to be a realistic portrayal of the actual television product. Meaning it could be scripted, instead of existing in the “kay-fabe” world. You would operate as a director, perhaps to give the mode a plot set-up you would be Vince McMahon’s hand-picked commissioner/GM/whatever challenged to generate better ratings and attendance for the product. You would still have to manage superstar personalities and egos. Perhaps Triple H doesn’t want to lose to Chris Jericho, which makes him unhappy leading to a subpar performance and bad matches. You would have to somehow placate his ego to make him happy again. Happy wrestlers mean more inspired wrestlers which lead to better matches and better fan reactions. Not only would you pick the card and winners and losers, you would also have story-lines to choose from. Maybe Big Show is injured and needs some R&R, so you pick the “run over by car” plot to get him off TV for a few months. And then when he comes back he gets to seek revenge on his mystery attacker. The mode would basically combine the GM mode with the story designer mode, it would just add goals. It could even keep the Smackdown vs Raw angle and give you control over only one show with Vince wanting to see which show could get the best ratings.
This is the part where I nit-pick the current game even more. As I mentioned before, I love the create aspects of wrestling games. Naturally, I use almost exclusively created wrestlers so anything that makes my guy more authentic is awesome. The ability to use custom soundtracks for entrances was a great addition sparked by the addition of hard drives in most consoles. Now any song I can think of my guy can enter to. This year’s game attempted to let the user create an entrance movie from clips and stock animations. The clips can be from a saved match. This sounds good, but doesn’t work very well. For one, the clips all have to come from one match and you have to either manually save them after a big spot or pick from the highlights the game selects after the match has concluded. You can’t mix and match the two. Being limited to one match makes the resulting video look redundant. My guy is just beating on John Cena in all of his clips. There’s no logical explanation for this limitation other than THQ/Yukes is lazy and/or greedy. It’s also buggy, as in my only attempt all of the clips I saved resulted in my character appearing as a sort-of mashup of his various different attires. His body is his default attire, but for some reason his head ended up as his attire 3 head. Considering it was a pain-staking process to create the spots and save each one down, I never tried it again. He has his own entrance video, it just looks pretty stupid but I guess it’s still better than seeing the generic WWE logo on the big screen.
Another thing that disappoints me is the underwhelming story designer. On the
surface, the story designer sounds like something that was created just for me. As a kid, I like many others, would create story-lines in my head and play them out endlessly. Usually this resulted in me creating a PPV card for my various rivalries to be settled. Now I can make this come to life. The only problem is the small amount of animations at my disposal. I have so far only made one scenario (“Masked Kane Returns” on the servers) and it takes place over a year. By the end of it I felt like I was all out of animations to use and had already re-used several. In THQ’s defense, I made my story linear meaning I omitted the branching category of animations but even there, there aren’t a lot of variety. Specifically speaking, there needs to be more “attack” animations. Say after a match, I want Kane to run in and chokeslam Edge, I can’t do that. I can have him run-in and punch him or hit him with a chair, but he can’t perform his finisher. A simple “finisher” animation where the character runs in and does his finishing move seems like an easy thing to code. There needs to be more match-interrupting attacks too, there are basically two. I need my guy to get screwed out of a few matches, how about one where he gets hit with a title belt or the opponent uses the ropes for a leverage pin? Maybe a crooked ref moment a-la Survivor Series ’97? There needs to be more beat-up animations as well. I want to have a guy taken out of commission for a month or so, my only options are the chair beating or car rundown. A simple “throw through table” would work, or con-chairto (guy’s head gets smashed between two chairs). Adding on this premise, an animation that puts a guy in a wheelchair or on crutches would also be effective for when he comes back, is searching for his mystery attacker, etc. This may seem like a lot to ask, but the truth is that Yukes didn’t really add anything to this mode from year one to year two, which is unacceptable. I’d like to create more scenarios but I don’t know if I can do so without feeling like I just created the same thing. The creator also really needs more ways to end a match. Right now, the person playing is told what needs to happen in order for a match to be completed. There are people who are really good at the game, and it’s also not the hardest game ever created, so simply stacking the decks in the AI’s favor to make the player lose is not feasible. Plus, if I want them to lose they’re told so before the match begins, which isn’t much fun. The alternative is to have a match end once they’ve inflicted a certain amount of damage on the CPU controlled wrestler(s). Then an animation can be triggered showing the player get screwed out of a win. I want more options to end a match. Say I schedule a Hell in a Cell match, how about the match ends when both opponents are on top of the cell after the AI wrestler has taken X amount of damage? A cut-scene could then trigger where someone gets thrown off the cell and is hurt so bad the match ends. Or in a ladder match there could be an option for the match to end just before the player removes the belt/briefcase from its hanging position over the ring. This could again trigger some sort of cut scene where the player is forced to lose. In the end, the player still has to “win” the match and as the creator I get to insure that the script continues on the way I want it to.
As someone not interested in the TV product, I don’t really care who is on the active roster. I do care when some guys are just hastily added. For last year’s game, my ire is directed at Yukes and their version of WWE Legend Stone Cold Steve Austin. I would like to create a scenario centered on him, but his character is so terrible I’m not sure it’s worth it. And he’s terrible strictly because Yukes is lazy (and they used a horrible actor to motion capture his entrance). For one, he has only one attire which is his standard black boots and black trunks. Ever since 1997 Austin has always entered the ring at least sporting his trademark vest. Not present. Backstage he would usually sport denim shorts and a Stone Cold t-shirt of some kind. In any story I create for him he’ll have to wear his black trunks and black boots, and only that regardless of his environment, which will look pretty dumb and redundant. Am I nit-picking? Of course, but if Yukes is going to take the time to add the character at least do it right, or don’t do it at all. Why would I ever pay money to download additional wrestlers if the ones in the game are this shoddy?
This post turned into more of a rant than I anticipated. Truth be told, I’ve spent countless hours with WWE games over the years including the 2011 version, but I am nearing the point of burn-out. Without real change for next year’s game I don’t see myself buying it. And that goes for the following year. I do not regret my most recent purchase but it certainly hasn’t turned out the way I had hoped, but unfortunately it mostly turned out the way I expected it to. I was mostly drawn in by the scenario editor, but knew it would be severely limited (you also pretty much can’t make one where a created wrestler is the focal point, since it limits you to how many times a created wrestler can be used – it’s stupid) and would only scratch the surface of what I wanted it to be. Perhaps the genre is just dying a slow death. If only the Fire Pro series could get some funding for a big, over the top, release. At least with Fire Pro the gameplay is there, it was just alway lacking the bells and whistles. I can deal without big entrances and that sort of crap, but how about simple chair shots and tables? Nope. Wrestling fans still gobble up the latest game but I am left to wonder if wrestling fans will ever get the game they truly want, let alone the one they truly deserve. Smackdown vs Raw has become the Madden of wrestling games, much to the delight of THQ, and much to the ire of fans across the globe.