If there's one thing wrestling games have taught us, it's, You can't have it all. You might have great gameplay but too few modes or plenty of match choices but a lousy create-a-wrestler or a great premise with uninspiring action. Or you could have just about everything . . . but it's in Japanese. Unfortunately, WWE Day of Reckoning seems to take a step-and-a-half back for every step it takes forward, the result being a very good game that feels incomplete in all but the most important areas.
Here's what's done right: graphics, gameplay, and CAW. Pretty much everything else needs to go back to the shop for some retooling. Of course, graphics, gameplay, and CAW are pretty damn important to a wrestling game.
Building the perfect beast
The characters certainly look good, the backgrounds get the job done, and the created superstars convincingly blend in. The only major grievance related to visuals is the sometimes embarrassing slowdown in four-player matches. I've heard complaints about slowdown in some previous WWE titles, but this is the first one where I found it to be distracting. Overall, though, this is an attractive, if overly shiny, game, with realistic character models and passable animation. Not bad so far.
The gameplay is definitely Day of Reckoning's strong suit. This is the most satisfying wrestling engine I've played yet, with each moment of competition full of possibilities. You can go for a grapple move, a standing strike, or a running or rebounding move with lightning speed and precision. Flying moves connect more surely than ever before. Up to five special moves can be assigned per wrestler, giving you extra reason to be jittery when your opponent is on fire. Smaller grapplers trying to body slam huge monsters have to contend with a lift meter filled by rapid button presses, and there are other instances where it pays to jam A, but it's all balanced out with the timed maneuvers. And an on-screen display keeps track of how damaged each part of the body is, to better help you plan your finishes.
Reversals take center stage, and developer Yuke's steady evolution continues with the addition of a "Momentum Shift" super-reversal move. When a wrestler's momentum meter is on "Danger," hit a grapple with A and B to switch meters with the opponent. Simple but highly effective. It's a welcome addition to a great engine and is one more step in capturing the excitement and strategy of a real-life match. It's the digital equivalent of a low blow or a thumb in the eye as the opponent goes in for the kill.
Now we're cooking. And create-a-wrestler keeps it going strong with deep features and user-friendly presentation. Individual face and body parts are customizable for shape, size, and color. The clothing and accessories selection isn't too shabby, and with placement and paint options, you have no excuse for a sloppy CAW. As usual, the order in which options are listed is a bit off, so if you're not a veteran of WWE character creation you may find yourself backtracking when a late choice undoes an earlier one, but it's not nearly as bad as in Raw 2. Best of all, once the wrestler's look is just right, you can pose him or her for the snapshot used in the select screens! Fire Pro and SmackDown have used a default set of portraits and other games only used a silhouette, but this is the first time I've seen an option to save a portrait made from the actual model.
Speaking of Raw 2, Day of Reckoning takes the same type of entrance builder we saw in that release and improves on it. Personally, I don't view entrances more than once or twice, but it's still rewarding to put together a custom walk to the ring, dictating pyros, camera angles, lighting, music, video, and the way a wrestler walks and gestures. There is only one non-Superstar Titantron video to use, as usual, and the music tends to have annoying lyrics, but it's still a decent package.
Moves are assigned a letter grade depending on how effective they are, and attribute points can be allocated in different ways depending on what kind of wrestler you want. By default, moves are grouped by type in any one list, but they can also be sorted alphabetically. There is a generous selection à la carte and in some prefab templates featuring wrestling stars past and present, American and Japanese. No major complaints here (besides the usual whining about how Fire Pro's personality creation tools are so much better - but I swore not to mention that game too much when reviewing other series).
Yuke's hits the Rock Bottom?
But for all that Day of Reckoning does right, the game is still a letdown in many areas. Story mode is linear and only accommodates one player. The only choice you are asked to make is whether you will join the Raw or SmackDown roster, and that doesn't affect anything besides the characters involved. The storyline remains the same, whether you like playing as a heel or a babyface. Even when the game looks like it will give you a second branching path, you are dealt a swerve.
If you don't mind all that, the story is all right. Your created wrestler starts out in the minor leagues fighting nobodies and eventually makes his way to Wrestlemania. The whole thing takes several hours and includes enough match types and special conditions to keep it interesting. A grade after each match translates into points that you can use to pump up your stats. There are backstage cut scenes, but no areas to fight in behind the curtain. The farthest you can go is the entrance stage.
I was never a huge fan of backstage areas and the Elimination Chamber, so I don't personally mind that they were left out of Day of Reckoning, but multiplayer season mode and title defenses outside the story would have been more than welcome. And I'm still not sure why the Royal Rumble is as messed up as it is. Once your character is eliminated, that's it. You can't assume control of another wrestler, and if all the human players are eliminated, the match just stops. To put it bluntly, that's just stupid.
I don't really want to put down this effort too much, since the gameplay and create-a-Superstar are going in the right direction, but I can't in good conscience call this an excellent game, either. I think when all is said and done, I will look back on this game with more negative memories than positive ones - unless Yuke's takes out even more features in subsequent releases. The ideas are there, we just need to take it home. In wrestling terms, WWE Day of Reckoning is like a thrilling match that ends in a count-out.
· · · Nick Vlamakis