Even if the rest of WWE '12 were mediocre, I'd still be grateful to play it because of the storylines. You see, the ones on television right now aren't so hot, with the WWE hotshotting the belt every couple of weeks and TNA still struggling to find its speed after nine years. But a Yuke's/THQ-produced wrestling show? Well, I'd give it a shot. Just like nearly everything else in the game, the writing is pretty good, with not . . . quite . . . enough flaws to sully the experience.
WWE '12 is the best game in the series, hands-down.
But let's start in the ring before we get to all that behind-the-curtain stuff. The familiar-yet-constantly-tweaked Yuke's engine is back in WWE '12. That means you have a lengthy list of moves from which to choose, most of which depend on only a single strike button and a single grapple button. By using your position in relation to your opponent and pressing the left analog stick in different directions, you can pull off an impressive variety of attacks. Once you get good at the basics, you can incorporate tricks like dragging your opponent into place and targeting general areas of his body.
This year's entry sees a significant number of additions, giving you a lot more to do. There's more reason now than last year to keep tabs on how tired your opponent is and where he's hurting most, especially if you want to recreate the psychology of a real match. As your opponent gets weaker, your moveset adapts, and you can even choose to weaken him strategically - working the legs, for example, before going for a "breaking point" submission that will put him away. You can once again store finishing moves, and you can now trigger mini games that will save your skin in the royal rumble or give you a second wind when you're close to being pinned.
Both the gameplay and the customization options exist on two levels. If you just want to hop in and play with a few friends, you'll find the controls are fairly easy to pick up, and there are even quickie design options if you want to make a unique wrestler in a hurry. Heck, you can design a serviceable custom entrance in just a few minutes. Then, if the mood strikes, you can go in and micromanage all the lighting, pyrotechnics, and wrestler swagger to your heart's content. Similarly, as you play, you'll begin to pick up the timing of counters and reversals, which are key to mastering the game, and you may reach a point where you want to take it to the next level. While you're in the learning phase, you can easily go in and adjust a variety of sliders that affect not only the enemy AI but also the ease of pulling off your own moves. Everything in WWE '12 is designed to make you happy, while never rushing you one bit.
The erstwhile SmackDown vs. Raw games are infamous for losing moves and features from year to year, but you'll be happy to know that the number of both available moves and gameplay options are as vast as they've ever been. If you noticed that one of your favorite signature moves went missing in last year's installment, wade through the Create a Moveset and you'll probably find something to smile about. If you absolutely must play a fatal four-way in a ring surrounded by 500-degree flames, here's your game. Some of the old hotspot attacks are gone, but the only unforgivable omission is the ability to perform moves while on the announcers' table. You can pull out the monitors like you're setting up a devastating move, but you can never actually finish the deed.
But even with all the wonderful options - a huge selection of wrestlers, nearly every type of match you could ever reasonably expect (including a championship scramble and a forty-man royal rumble), incredibly deep creation tools, highly personalized difficulty levels, and WWE Universe mode (which allows you to decide all the champions and fully book every single Raw, SmackDown, Superstars, and pay-per-view) - there are some areas that can be polished. The pathfinding is weak at times, as evidenced by John Cena walking in place against a flat ladder in one of our matches. Instead of going around or stepping over the obstacle, he continued to stare at me while walking in place outside the ring, stuck in an idiot's moonwalk. Sometimes opponents just kind of stand around, and teammates hit each other way too often when they're trying to get at you. Also, wrestlers in WWE '12 often kick out at the 1-count, even after finishers, when this is rarely done in actual televised matches.
While playing "Road to WrestleMania," the main story mode, I also experienced some logic problems. I thought "Road" was rock-solid overall, with well-written and dramatic moments that at times put the actual wrestling shows to shame. One elimination chamber match in particular was tightly scripted and excellently paced. The objective in a "Road to WrestleMania" fight could be anything, and in the case of the chamber, the developers used this fact to great effect, breaking the match up into segments to better control the flow and to tell an engaging story. One of the more famous angles of the last ten years was revisited and was, to tell you the truth, booked better than it was on TV. But there were some technical quibbles.
The worst problem in the story mode was found when restarting some matches. If your wrestler was beaten down before the bell, he would start the match at a disadvantage. That makes sense. However, if you restarted the match, he would begin in perfect health, as if nothing ever happened. What's worse, in one match, I was teamed with Husky Harris (no, that's not the bad part, though that is pretty bad) but my guy didn't show up for the match because of a storyline event, so Harris took on the opposing team by himself. This was all important to the story. But I stopped the match and went back to it to find that my wrestler showed up after all. This led to a silly cut scene where the guy you just used in the match comes out from backstage at the last second to, uh, save himself(?) and set up the next chapter. Things like that aren't a game-breaker, but they are laughable and even annoying.
It's the same when everyone (except Jerry Lawler, who was the only one to give a perfectly authentic reading) uses his "studio" voice reading the voice-over script. It feels goofy to hear Kevin Nash calmly reciting his lines in front of a roaring crowd when almost every interview he ever gives on TV involves him shouting. There's a potential to polish these games to the level of some of the big sports titles released by EA and 2K sports, but we never quite get there it seems. In this regard, WWE '12 lags behind even WWE All Stars - that is, there are too many moments that pull you out of the game.
The tools that WWE '12 brings to the table are impressive. This is the best game in the series, hands-down. But it should be a little better at this point. If we can keep 100% of the things that worked this year and truly build on them, this series can potentially please both the arcade and sim crowds to a great extent. Maybe the developers just needs a bigger budget or more manpower? I mean, besides the repeatedly unrealized potential that has become the series' calling card, you have the superb expandability afforded by the online sharing mode, but it's been crippled for more than two weeks by terrible server issues.
Almost there. Almost.