It wasn't always like this, THQ used to have some competition in the market of wrestling games. But even when I was much younger and Acclaim were in the ring scuffling for the title too, I still sided with Asmik and THQ. WCW vs nWo: Revenge and WWF No Mercy are still, to date, two of my favourite titles on the N64. It's the perfect entertainment form on which to build a solid video game franchise and, as the 'sport' has developed further, become more over the top with branching twisting storylines, bigger and brasher heroes and villains, so too has the virtual legacy evolved.
We got invited down to check out the latest, almost finished, build of the game for several hours to test out some of the new features. Normally when it comes to sports games, released year upon year, each with the severe apprehension that not a great deal has changed, we've never really had to worry about that with THQ's sweaty fighting franchise. It's top dog for a number of reasons as the customisation options and interactive depth get pushed forward more and more each year, and this year is no exception.
Stepping Into The Ring
Yuke's have finally incorporated the Havok physics engine into proceedings. You can now prop ladders up against the ropes, in between smacking people in the face with them naturally, tables will splinter and break when you throw your foes into them and you can chuck chairs at people now too. I got a few side glances and questioning looks as a result of my chuckling at this, but it feels more robust. If wrestling is all about selling the action, Havok helps THQ sell it far more robustly than ever more and it's all the better for it.
All of the presentational gloss you'd expect is there from official entrances (and you can create your own again) to the actions of the crowd. So often a problem in sports titles, the crowd appears to be dynamic because THQ have created several canned animations, mixed them up and dispersed them at random throughout the arena. Each year that number of variants goes up and it makes for seemingly far more responsive audience. If you look closely you'll be able to pick out copied crowd characters, but as a background feature it perfectly captures the mob, of which we feel a part, baying for entertainment.
If there is a criticism to be made, it's that the engine is looking a little clunky now. THQ's continuing commitment to the PS2, whilst admirable, is undoubtedly hampering the series' need for a core update. Whilst the incorporation of Havok does go some way to improve on the situation, there's still a fair amount of clashing where the glossy mask slips a little.
The Road To Wrestlemania
But the recent titles, if anything, have been all about what happens when you step away from the ring, the developers stuffing more variety, more options and more outlandish game modes into the titles each year. Wrestlemania is back, and you'll take control of either Christian, John Cena, Rey Mysterio or Chris Jericho, or opt to take on the Undertaker.
Previous titles have seen this mode incorporated as a series of stock events that involve an intro, a cutscene, an inevitable backstage encounter, a match, another cutscene and so on. This time around, though, everything is far more fluid. There's a mini backstage sandbox to explore, a training room where you can upgrade your wrestler's core skills - damage, durability and speed - as each encounter earns you precious XP now, and other wrestlers with whom you can interact. Push a guy three times and you'll kick off a backstage fight, victory induced through a KO.
As per usual, there are the usual storylines involving copious amounts of backstabbing, intrigue and the ridiculous - Rey's involves a car accident where he loses his memory - and there are a number of little issues too: clunky controls in the backend and awful lip-synching being two of the main culprits. Overall, though, it's a great new take on an established mode.
Being Mr. Universe
New to this year's instalment, though, is the WWE Universe mode. Presented with a near endless stream of Match Cards, everything is adaptable and customisable. Replacing career mode, you can now manage as much or as little of what goes on in the WWE Universe. Not keen on a match up? Change it, or simulate your way through it. Want to draw up a pay-per-view game? Make it happen. You can call as many or as few shots as you damn well please. Make a decision, though, and the game will remember your choices and adapt itself to please you. Like silly putty, or an especially well-programmed pleasure droid.
Stunningly, the in-game announcers will pick up on the changes that you make. Move a wrestler from Raw over to Smackdown and they'll comment on it mid-game. Dynamic and adaptive, it makes a real difference to the level of immersion...not to mention the feeling of puppet-master power that you'll get. It's all in the details, and that's something that THQ have clearly not only understood with the depth of this game mode, but embraced too.
In essence imagine all of the best parts of Exhibition, Career and GM Modes all stuffed in a blender and mixed into a steaming mountain of awesomeness. It's different every single time, as hands-on or laissez-faire as you like, and you'll come back time and time again. There's a reason I was there for 4 hours.
Last year's game was all about chucking boatloads of creation options at the player and they all look to be back again in force this time around too. I wasted no time in crafting a towering African sumo wrestler with angel wing tattoos, a bright white afro and a kilt. The customisation caps have been raised to allow for more variety, more of a personal touch.
Create A Move and Create A Finisher return too, now allowing for turnbuckle grappling finishers. Don't like the way a wrestler plays? Pick another one or just overhaul their move list completely. Seriously, the number of option of offer here is absolutely staggering, with plenty of additions to last year's model.
Although it's still not quite making the most of the current-gen hardware, there can be no doubt that THQ are pushing the boat out even further in terms of sheer content. The amount of toys to play with on offer at the preview day was staggering - the extra few hours definitely need - and I for one can't wait to get my hands on the finished version soon!