Welcome again to another installment of the longest yearly franchise in wrestling history. THQ took the reigns of the WWE franchise back in 1999, and has never looked back. They were never numbered before until the brand wars of 2004 started, and the franchise was known as "Smackdown vs. Raw" for the better part of the last decade. This year, with the idea of WWE's brand wars going away, and reverting more toward a "Supershow" format, THQ has switched up the franchise name, and branded it simply "WWE 12."
Last year's game was an absolute masterpiece and the devs must have known what a tough challenge it would be to top it. The addition of offline and online Universe mode were franchise-defining, and the fact that gamers were finally able to share their created wrestlers (aka CAWs) for others to download was perhaps my favorite addition of all time. I was disappointed last year to see that you could only download 50 CAWs at a time, and was a bit disappoined to hear that this year held that same restriction, however, there's too much new that they've added to ease that sting. Welcome to WWE '12.
The roster of current wrestlers itself is huge, yet strangely uninspiring, but that isn't THQ's fault at all - That's just who the roster is. With the WWE building their business out of NXT and the new crop of wrestlers, there are many first timers new to the game. Expect a huge influx of NXT introductees, including Alex Riley, Husky Harris and more. Once you begin to unlock the roster, 70 superstars are available, with variations too. Cody Rhodes, for example is available with the facemask, as well as in Dashing Form. All superstars continue to be trumped, however, by the inclusion of Brock Lesnar, who agreed to appear and has been more than jovial in helping promote the game. It's neat to see him back.
Let's cut straight to matchplay improvements, since the majority of the time will be spent in the ring. The two biggest things you will notice are the addition of ring rope physics and difference in camera cutaways. THQ said they were unhappy with the way that camera cutaways happened during big moves, so they worked with the WWE to obtain more realistic camera angles in arenas, and have adapted those to show rather than the random ones you saw before. This means no strange cutaways to the announcers, or underneath the ring apron when a move is being done. Ring rope physics mean the ropes shake violently when anything is done in the ring, and react better to wrestlers touching them. This is a neat addition to the franchise, especially when you consider it was a fan request THQ was listening to. Both of these new additions add a great presentation element to the game. My only gripe with both of these additions comes with the camera cuts, however. I have an iron clad stomach and can ride any roller coaster, watch any gory film, and so on. I couldn't help but feel a bit motion sick at the knee-jerkedness of the cutaways this game. They happen so fast, and so oddly that it took my eyes a lot of time to adjust. It's not quite as subtle as it used to be.
Two big visible gameplay improvements are geared toward submission wrestlers. The new submission system, labelled "breaking point" builds tangible suspense toward winning by submission, as opposed to before, where the redder the screen was during a submission, the easier the possibility of submission was. In this game, you're given a meter to work with to see how close you are. Getting yourself closer is done through a new limb targeting system, which lets you target a specific arm or leg, and destroy that enroute to a submission win. This addition allows wrestling gamers to create a stable sense of in-match "psychology" which didn't exist as blatantly before.
Within matches, more presentation changes abound which enhance the overall experience. A comeback system will re-energize weakened fighters to the point where they could regain momentum of the entire match, hit a finisher and win. Call this a bit of "Hulk Hogan" syndrome, also commonly seen (if you can remember that far back) to the Rock and Roll Express of the NWA. Wakeup taunts entice weak opponents into a signature or finishing move, and you can button cache a finisher to take place as your opponent stands up, as opposed to pulling them up and then doing it. You'll understand it when you see it - It's a good flow addition.
Not a good flow addition (not yet anyway) is the enhanced collision detection. Given to add a heightened sense of reality and awareness, this adds a realistic, yet clunky element to the gameplay overall. THQ meant well with this. They really did. As sports games create a better awareness of sprites and their capabilities, WWE 12 has attempted to follow suit. Unfortunately, ice rinks and soccer pitches are bigger than a wrestling ring, and wrestlers constantly colliding with each other, and everything ringside ends up slowing much of the game's flow down. This is very much noticed during Royal Rumbles especially, when you have up to 6 wrestlers in the ring at once jumping in amongst either and bumping into each other. I will discuss this more in the final ratings.
As I'd previously mentioned, Road to Wrestlemania is redone too. Thankfully, you no longer play 6 different unrelated paths. Now, it's just intertwined over a couple year period with 3 different paths - One for Sheamus, one for Triple H and one for a CAW, voiced by Austin Aries. No need to worry about optional roads. No need to worry about having to play it over and over again because you missed something 7 weeks before and can't unlock Hornswoggle's alternate hat. Best of all, no throwaway matches in Road to Wrestlemania. Everything you do is relevant to your storyline. There's no more having to build up 5 weeks of momentum, only to have a nothing match with Primo in week 6, followed by storyling building in week 7. Presentation is great as well. You really feel like you're a part of the show when you see that they've attempted to counteract loading screens with "coming up next" montages and look-aheads. A huge thumbs up for all of this. This is the best RTW mode to date.
Universe carries no sophomore jinx either. THQ clearly listened to fan complaints, as everything major that was wrong with Universe is rapidly being fixed. If you consider Universe being the keys to dad's car, Universe 2.0 is an entire fleet worth of keys. It's no longer impossible set up your own title shots (22 belts are in this game altogether.) This is because there was an unfriendly logarithm that only listened to certain rule sets. This has been switched now. You can call the shots and make your own title matches. With the new arena creations, you can also create an entire federation and shows, which I will discuss more below. You can even import existing shows - WCW Nitro, Thunder, ECW - anything you can think of, which leads into customising; something that fans have always asked for is MORE customization. Nevermind creating wrestlers or entrance jackets, but what about arenas and shows? WWE 12 takes what it did last year (Universe mode,) and does more. "Create an Arena" is here now where you can customize your own ring, ring aprons, turnbuckles and even wrestler intro chyrons. The possibilities are endless here. You can take all of Universe and do it up youself. You don't even need to worry about running a WWE program yourself. John Cena and Randy Orton can transition over into the "Steve Wrestling Federation" and compete on "Raw is Steve" for all the belts.
Create a Wrestler has also been tuned up. New hometowns, new poses, new entrances and the ability to better customize entrance videos abound. You can even customize a 4-bit ring entrance with pre-determined names (up to 600 in all,) though strangely, some of the names in the past aren't there. "Matt" is a fairly common name (I know better than anybody,) but it's not there in the selections, for example. However, Yosef will be happy to know his name is. You can build your own entrance videos as well. In all, there are 10 different creation tools, and over 80 match types to choose from. In true WWE franchise fashion, however, you've got to earn your way to all the options available to you by playing.
Let's take a look at the way everything breaks down in the final report.
Graphics: 9/10 - When it comes down to it, many aspects of this game are these are the best graphics that have ever been seen in a wrestling game. The foreground and gaming surface are in beautiful high definition, with very clean sprites. Many graphical clipping troubles having been resolved, and rendering is done perfectly so that you're not bound to see the wrestlers collapse inside themselves with certain moves as you had in previous years. My only gripe with the graphics is that it seems like some background cinematics have been scaled back, and it looks really strange when the game interacts in HD in foregrounds, and non-HD in the backgrounds. A great example of this is rendered Pay Per View intros and sets, where the game itself is in HD, but the set is not, and they both act at the same time. If you don't know what I mean, check the game out on a 50+ inch TV when it happens. It sticks out. Still, it's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things - The playing field and wrestlers themselves couldn't be any better.
Sound: 9.75/10 - There are no major outstanding issues to sound. The attention to the little details are fabulous, as always, from the voiceover work in Road to Wrestlemania, to the fact that THQ has added an echo to the entrance music to make it sound more realistic in the arena overall. CM Punk fans will appreciate the fact that he comes out to "Cult of Personality" as opposed to "The Fire Burns," which you don't normally see this quickly since he just made the switch recently. The game institutes a bit of an older school feel as well, kicking back to the old Smackdown games where some of the wrestlers speak to each other in the middle of matches more than just grunts. Sheamus, for example, will taunt other wrestlers in the middle of brawls and reversals.
I need to say very little about the play by play commentary because it seems like there's enough new dialogue that it doesn't cycle the same 5 or 6 catchphrases every match. My only improvement point here might be crowd interaction, which seems to live and die with bigger moves. I know one of these days they will get to the point where crowd noise can rally face wrestlers, and things along those lines, and you can see the groundwork being laid for it, but I'd like to see a bit more independence from the crowd in future games. They, like good play by play commentary, can add a lot to the match.
Control: 7/10 - This was the most challenging aspect of the game for me when I first played it, and when I had the chance to sit down with it for hours, I still couldn't ascertain why they changed the controls so drastically once again. After the new system in SvR 2007, the changes were subtle in '08 and '09, and then the huge changes in 2010 and minimal changes in 2011 left it to where I thought everything was spot on (and there was still ample room for new mechanics like the limb targeting system.) In making the controls seemingly easier, it's become harder than before to play the game. I only wish I could access the old SvR 2011 controls and switch back because, really, this game is far superior to already fantastic 2011 game, but the controls have been a hindrance of sorts to my gameplay experience, especially since I put hundreds of hours into 2011 and hours of having to learn those controls after they changed them in 2010. It was a bit of a culture shock of sorts. This is my plea as a reviewer and longtime fan of the franchise - PLEASE figure out what you'd like to do with your controls, and leave it that way.
Gameplay: 8/10. When you leave your franchise in the hands of one developer, they have to be capable of delivering a special product to be deserve the exclusive. WWE 12 is a special product in the making. It was very much there last year, but when you've spoken to the devs of this game, you understand their thirst for satisfaction is neverending, and sometimes, you end up overdoing it a bit. Limb Targeting is perfect. Breaking Point is a bit tough to figure out at the beginning, but pretty realistic to the way wrestlers sell submissions in WWE. This year's major gameplay flaw is the collision recognition/detection engine, which seems to create a lot of problems it tries to fix.
The wrestlers interact with the environments and each other almost a little too well. It was all too easy to overlook wrestlers running through each other's limbs before, because it made for a smooth gameplay experience. Now that everything has tangible space onscreen, you find wrestlers bumping into each other and things with greater ease, and interacting with items more realistically. However, this carries a bit of a downfall as well, as it's almost too easy, and too much interaction. The first 40 man Royal Rumble I played took nearly 2 hours to complete because of the new collision additions, interruptions and added difficulty to eliminate opponents. Reversals went from being too easy to do, to almost too hard, while the CPU on the easiest difficulty tends to reverse with much more ease.
The analyst side of me did some side by side comparison between 2011 and 2012, and found that the CPU reverses approximately 600% more often in WWE 12 than 2011. Some will find that as a challenge, and some will find it frustrating. Take it as a good challenge and move on - THQ's teaching you to diversify your moveset and make yourself that much more ung back to collision trouble, the interaction with the environment has led to a couple cases where the wrestlers get stuck in things momentarily and then pull themselves out. This only happened a couple of times, however, and it appears I may be the only one this happened to, so it's likely not going to happen to you.
Presentation: 10/10. There's one major reason this is a 10/10. Go play the last couple years of the franchise, and play this year. The difference is night and day. Sure there is much recycled that the hardcore gamer will pick up on right away. Argue if you will that much of the game "feels" the same. Then tell me that everything done differently wasn't done right. The attempt to bypass blatant loading screens with vignettes and match previews bring the game that much closer to the realistic presentation aspect. The Road to Wrestlemania mode has become much easier to follow along with, and all of the dead weight has been eliminated. I like the fact that you don't have to concern yourself about going through optional pathways, and keeping track of how and where your unlocks come from.
The menus present themselves better, and load much faster than 2011, especially as concerns with switching between divas, created wrestlers and DLC. Getting rid of the heavy animation was a great idea. The Universe Mode looks and plays fantastic too. The mark of confident development is when the team is happy to hand you the keys to the kingdom and let you create your own experience instead of being forced to play theirs. Allowing you to take control of the Universe and pretty much do whatever you want with it is big amongst the wrestling community, who I had earlier noted in my preview enjoy customizing every aspect through online e-feds and fantasy wrestling. If NBA 2K12 set the bar for sports game presentation, this one sets the bar for sports game customization. All other sports games will now have to play catchup if they wish to create this interactive an experience.
When it comes down to it, this game is a winner once again. The biggest problem with "yearly" game franchises are that they become stagnant. At some point in time, THQ saw that Smackdown vs. Raw was getting a bit stagnant, and starting with 2010, they began to break the game out of that mould. In the last 3 editions, this game has gone from "good" to "fantastic." With the weak controls and overdone collision detection issues, this game has a few mechanical flaws that could stand to be improved. The rendering glitches I encountered appear to be outliers, as they don't happen often enough to be a "thing" and will probably get patched up as the year goes.
Once again, I will continue to stress WWE has done the right thing giving exclusive licensing rights to THQ. If you purchased SvR 2011 and are wondering if you should be rushing out to buy '12 - I would say give it a rental and make your decision based on that. There's enough here that it's worth purchasing, however, you may take issue with things like the difficulty of the Breaking Point system, and the fact that the collision engine interrupts more than it helps when you're not used to it. If you've been holding off the last few years and have been waiting for the one to purchase - This is it. No questions asked. Put this on the shelf with NHL 12, Fifa 12, and NBA 2K12 for "Sports Game of the Year" candidates, because it deserves definite consideration. This is a great way to send the sports gaming season into the Holidays and should make happy the owners of the stockings they fill this holiday season.
Come discuss the franchise with us on our message boards, or on Twitter. You can find our site on Twitter @XboxAddicts, and I'm always around to chat @Paliontology. See you in the ring!
Suggestions: Just my request for a stable control system, and a huge please from me to allow more than 50 created community wrestlers at once.