After seven instalments over six years, THQ and Yuke's have officially retired the WWE "SmackDown vs. Raw" series and trotted out a franchise reboot with a brand-new animation engine. It's a real sign of the times, as the WWE in general is trying to break out of the long-time stagnation that's been dubbed by many as "The John Cena Era." And for the developer's part, they've done a fine job of adapting to the rapidly-changing landscape despite having to plan their games well in advance of the actual, physical TV and pay-per-view product.
Right off the bat, I'll be the first to say that WWE '12 is an incredibly entertaining fighting game. While the sheer roster size and almost overwhelming variety of creation modes shows depth, the various in-ring gameplay adjustments are what really sells this as a better product than both SvR 2011 and 2010. For the first time in years, the controls don't feel like such a pain to learn since they've essentially gone back to a more arcade-like style.
Instead of having to memorize different types of strikes, slams, and grapple moves for each situation, the game contextually does the work for you, depending on ring position and how damaged your opponent is. Of course, you'll still need to memorize a few new things like "wake up" taunts and special submissions, but the simpler controls remove a lot of guesswork. It'll only be a problem when you wind up repeating the same move over and over, but that actually works as encouragement to mix up your attacks.
When you're playing with a lot of friends, though, is where the Predator Engine really shows that it's done its homework. Knowing that finishing moves and "Dynamic Comebacks" can be interrupted at a moment's notice really adds to the frantic pace of most matches, even though the new animation system doesn't compensate for the sometimes-horrible targeting. Just about every match type benefits from this, too -- tag team fights are much better due to the smarter animation, and special matches like the Elimination Chamber don't feel or look nearly as clunky as before.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said about the graphics or presentation, which continues to be a mixed bag. Visually, most wrestlers look incredibly good at first glance. Specific attention to the fabric detail on costume textures is really noticeable on an HDTV screen, and that just makes Create-a-Superstar wrestlers look better as a result. But no matter how good the details look, the actual, physical talent still needs some work.
For the longest time, I've tried to peg exactly what's looked "off" about WWE Superstars and Divas like The Miz, Natalya, and Sheamus -- and I finally have the answer. It's the facial animations, or lack thereof. Simply put, a lot of wrestlers in the massive roster still have a sort of wooden, stiff look to them that makes their in-ring entrances a bit creepy. But considering how good most character models look from head to toe, that's something much more forgivable than the other visual missteps, like the blurry Titantron clips and environmental textures. Close-up, they look plain bad in comparison to the rest of the game's graphics, and they're increasingly more noticeable the longer you look at them.
Unfortunately, the game's biggest problem is the Road to WrestleMania mode, which is the worst it's been in a few years. Instead of separate storylines starring a handful of the current top WWE talents, WWE '12 turns the mode into a continuous 18-month long story arc that stars Sheamus, Triple H, and a created wrestler in a single narrative. While it's an interesting idea, the core problem is that the mode isn't flexible. Several matches have a requirement for you to advance, whether it's winning a match with a certain stipulation or activating a button prompt to cue a cutscene. Unlike past RTWMs, it doesn't feel rewarding to advance through the plot because you're being led around by the nose the whole time, instead of being given a choice about how the fallout from each match affects the show.
Thankfully, you can skip Road to WrestleMania altogether in pursuit of the user-generated content, which still proves to be the real meat of the game. Custom arenas, finishers, storylines, characters, and entrances are fun to mess around with, and downloading created content from other WWE '12 players continues to immensely bolster the replay value. Moreover, WWE Universe 2.0 and the ability to micromanage each wrestler's momentum/stats make the game a great companion piece for the actual TV shows and PPV events. Even though some things need to be tightened up, WWE '12 shows that the video game side of the franchise is still improving.