Bigger. Badder. Better. They're the three words game developer THQ uses to describe the 2011 version of its popular wrestling series. After seeing the game running in all of its baby-oil-drenched flesh, and taking control of some of its new features, we've got to agree that this is one of the biggest updates the franchise has seen in some time. Gone is the Smackdown vs. Raw branding that has headlined the series since 2004; instead, this year's game will simply be titled WWE '12.
While the name has gone on a diet, the content has done anything but, bulking up to more than 80 different match types and including more than 70 Superstars, Divas, and Legends. The figure is inclusive of future characters available as downloadable content, but the company has promised that by September, at least one more Legend will be announced as being playable. The main story mode will span more than 12 hours in length, while the never-ending Universe mode, 60 different unlockables (such as arenas), and almost a dozen different creation tools should give this game plenty of life.
One of the most often-requested features from fans has been the chance to create and customise the places where the stars get down. WWE '12 finally obliges and sees the introduction of a ring-creation tool that will let you build theatres from the ground up with a variety of different looks. Some examples that we saw included a John Cena-branded main stage, D-Generation X, and classic WrestleMania liveries. Players will be able to customise most elements in the environments, picking promos to run across electronic billboards, turnbuckle pads, barricades, announcer tables, aprons, and the mat, all the way down to individual strands of rope enclosing the ring. We saw a wide range of pre-created logos, textures, and national flags available, spanning everything from army camouflage and blood-splattered cloth all the way to cow print.
Working with them is as simple as choosing the design and moving it around the surface that you want to apply it to with the analog stick, before using the D pad to scale within proportion or skew perspective. None of the images in the bank take your fancy? Beyond messing with colours, you'll be able to create original artwork with multiple layers. THQ devs on hand at the event admitted that they hadn't yet ironed out all of the final details but suggested that future texture packs may also be made available as DLC. We had fun knocking up a design using the available templates with our basic craft skills, but there's scope here for quality original creations, which can then be used for your own matches, or, if you're the generous type, shared with other members of the game's online community.
Building the ring is enjoyable and all, but we weren't there to paint. We wanted to feel the crushing injuries sustained when fist is introduced to skull. Thankfully, we got a chance to explore some gameplay during our demo, and we were surprised to feel how far it seems to have come from WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011. A new animation and rendering system adds some much-needed life to the ring, with the ropes and floor bouncing in time as bodies hit the mat. Pacing has received a major overhaul, and, in line with other sporting titles, the performance of each wrestler is tied to the individual's designated attributes. Time between moves has been considerably reduced--some of the dead time and button mashing waiting for characters to return to their feet. As you'd expect, early in the match players have far greater stamina, snapping back up with ease after being knocked down, and slowly taking longer to recover as they take a pummelling, or as the match drags on in length.
The result is gameplay that feels much less stop-start, giving a natural flow to the action, but never feeling like you're sitting around mashing and waiting for something to happen. Combined with the game's new, smoother animation system, grappling looks and feels better as you transition from one hold to another. It's not without its quirks, and we did see the occasional slightly jarring movement, but it's much improved over last year's game and, indeed, everything that has come before it in the series.
Fans of fighting series like Street Fighter and Tekken will also be pleased to see the introduction of a revenge-style meter that works as a comeback system. Players on the back foot and staring down the barrel at a loss can turn it all around quickly, and, if you can successfully land your character's three-hit combo, you'll be further rewarded with an instant finisher. Likewise, Super Finisher moves have been introduced, with each character receiving a fight ender by successfully nailing a signature move. Artificial intelligence difficulties in the single-player mode will also be getting a major overhaul in WWE '12, with fans receiving much more challenge from the Hard and Legendary modes than they had previously.
Character models have received a spit and polish, and their likenesses to their real-world counterparts are now much better, but, by far, our favourite new feature is the introduction of more cinematic camera angles during matches. The game sucks you in as the view switches to a close-up showing looks of agony for each choke and slam, further mirroring the presentation of the television broadcast style. Camera cuts are slick, fast, and dynamic, so you don't need to worry about losing your character positioning or missing a beat as it goes back to a wide view of the ring and the action continues.
The game's full roster will include names such as Kelly Kelly, Rey Mysterio, Undertaker, Daniel Bryan, Kane, Michelle McCool, Vader, and Mr McMahon, amongst others. The Rock will be offered free as a preorder incentive for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii versions of WWE '12, although we're interested to see which faces will fill the remaining gaps in the list.
For what has largely become a yearly sports title with a few new features thrown in, WWE '12's new name appears to signal a major turning point for the franchise. We had a lot of fun making our own unique venues and dropping RKOs, and we're looking forward to seeing more of it in the ring. Look for the game in late November this year.