For all of the success that THQ had with its wrestling games during the era of the Nintendo 64, the publisher has yet to amass quite the same level of enthusiastic response for its titles on the GameCube. Neither of the company's previous two GameCube offerings, WrestleMania X8 and WrestleMania XIX, were bad games, but neither of them managed to capture a real following either.
For the company's third foray into wrestling on the Cube, it seems as though the third time might be the charm. Titled WWE Day of Reckoning, this game looks like it could have all the tools necessary to finally be ranked up in the same tier as THQ's megapopular SmackDown series. We had the opportunity to spend some time with an unfinished build of Day of Reckoning, and we're happy to report that so far this is easily the best GameCube wrestling game we've experienced to date.
Day of Reckoning's gameplay style hearkens back quite a bit to the days when Aki Corporation-developed wrestlers ruled the N64 ring. In last year's WrestleMania XIX, developer Yuke's debuted an interpretation of the Aki wrestling engine that, while a big improvement over the first WrestleMania game, didn't quite make for a fully successful mesh between that style of wrestling and the more traditional Yuke's style. In Day of Reckoning, the pacing of the action has shifted even further toward the more methodical, sim-based Aki style, making better use of the control scheme and ultimately making the game more fun to play.
You'll still be able to perform weak and strong grapples and strikes by tapping or holding down the proper buttons, but in Day of Reckoning, it seems as though the basic flow of the game caters much better to this style of control. The countering system won't be changing, so you will still have to time hits of the right and left triggers to counter strikes and grapples respectively.
Though not many other major changes seem to have been made to the gameplay, there is one other notable addition. Day of Reckoning will feature an all-new weight-balancing system to help make matches between wrestlers of significant size differences closer to the realm of WWE TV. Even though it's highly unreasonable to expect a little guy like Rey Mysterio Jr. to be able to lift a behemoth like the Big Show, it is, in WWE terms, possible. Anyone remember John Cena lifting that monolithic Big Show a couple of times a Pay-Per-View or two ago?
To make this a reality in the game, the developers have added a new pickup meter that comes into play when smaller wrestlers try to pick up the bigger ones. By tapping the A button repeatedly, you'll see the meter go up, and if you get it high enough, you'll be able to slam a big guy. This also plays into your wrestler's statistic in the category of strength, so if you've got a stringy-armed guy, he also will have some trouble lifting the larger fellows.
While last year's WrestleMania XIX was ultimately a good game, it was held back significantly by one of the least pleasurable story modes we've ever had the misfortune to experience. The good news is that Day of Reckoning seems primed to correct that mistake with a brand-new story mode that is actually enjoyable to play. Essentially, the story mode follows the path of an up-and-coming rookie wrestler looking to make it in the big leagues of the WWE. You create this green recruit by using the game's create-a-wrestler mode (or by using one of the default, generic schlubs already in the game), and then once he or she is created, you have your first meeting with Vincent K. McMahon. Vinnie Mac tells you that he's heard good things about you and that he's willing to give you a chance to make it in the WWE, but before he'll put you on TV, you'll have to earn your shot in the bush leagues of WWE Developmental.
Clawing Your Way to the Top
Your first series of matches will be against no-name rookies in the developmental league. As you begin to work your way through the ranks of generic plebes, Jonathan Coachman (aka "The Coach") acts as your trainer. Rather than train you with typical mat technique or weight lifting, however, he will instead send you out night after night with specific objectives to achieve during your matches. One night, for instance, he will ask you to perform a certain number of counters to your opponent's grapple moves. Another night, he may ask you to win without ever performing a special move.
Once you have managed to prove yourself, you'll earn a spot on Sunday Night Heat and eventually gain a contract with either the Raw or SmackDown roster. However, as with any rise to success, your character will encounter a lot of opposition and backstabbing once within the ranks of the WWE elite, which will eventually lead you to a number of feuds with the WWE's finest.
Outside of the story mode, Day of Reckoning seems set to feature pretty much every match type you would expect in this day and age of wrestling games. You'll be able to engage in standard single and tag matches, as well as table matches, ladder matches, ironman matches, bra and panties matches, cage matches, and, of course, the always entertaining hell in a cell match. The roster itself looks to be fairly robust, though not quite as deep as some of the other recent WWE titles to hit the market. However, aside from the usual roster of WWE tough guys and gals, you'll also be able to unlock a number of classic wrestlers by playing through the story mode. A few of the classic names we saw included Rowdy Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant, and Bret "The Hitman" Hart.
Additionally, if you find a particular favorite wrestler omitted from the game, chances are you'll be able to create him or her using the create-a-wrestler mode, which looks to be about on par with some of the better create-a-wrestler modes we've seen. The interface is quite intuitive and easy to navigate, and there are a multitude of options for how your wrestler can be designed. Furthermore, you can use cash you earn during the story mode to purchase new moves and appearance attributes from the game's shopzone mode, which is just like the shopzone mode in the most recent SmackDown game. You'll also be able to buy new weapons with which to bludgeon your opponents, as well as new Pay-Per-View arenas.
Graphically, Day of Reckoning is looking like a fairly major improvement over its predecessors. The player models are much more detailed now and are less cartoony than in previous iterations. You'll see much more definition in body builds and a huge amount of polish and detail put into each individual wrestler's face. We also noted a bit of a shine effect on each model that seems to capture that sort of glistening "I just sprayed myself with a lot of water before I walked out here" look that wrestlers tend to have when they come through the curtain into the arena.
Many of the move animations have been completely redone. The moves themselves are still hand-animated by the team at Yuke's, so as to give the game a slightly more exaggerated feel when it comes to the hits. This is actually the visual aspect of wrestling that the game seems to capture well, as every single slam, smack, and hit looks quite brutal, especially the weapon hits.
From what we've played of WWE Day of Reckoning thus far, we feel fairly confident that this should be the game that GameCube wrestlers have been hoping for. The new story mode seems to offer a far more enjoyable experience than last year's game, and with all the different match types and in-depth create-a-wrestler features, there should be more than enough to keep wrestling enthusiasts entertained. WWE Day of Reckoning will hit stores late next month. We'll bring you more on the game in the coming weeks.