Last year's WrestleMania X8, the first-ever wrestling game to find its way to the GameCube, was met with mostly mixed reactions. THQ opted to go with the developer of its SmackDown franchise, Yuke's, rather than longtime N64 wrestling developer Aki. The result was a game that effectively mixed together elements of both companies' games, and while it was fun for the most part, it lacked the depth and polish of THQ's other WWE titles. A year later, we have WrestleMania XIX, the follow-up to WrestleMania X8, and while the game does fix a number of the gameplay flaws found in its predecessor, it still lacks the polish of its counterparts and has some fairly serious problems that unfortunately hold it back from its full potential.
For the most part, WrestleMania XIX contains the same style of gameplay as WrestleMania X8, but with some notable differences. For starters, the grappling system in the game is much more like the Aki style of grappling, with strong and weak grappling moves executed depending on how long you hold down the grapple button. The move you perform both in grappling and striking corresponds to the direction you're holding on the control stick. There is also a run button as well as a pickup button to go along with the basic controls. Taunts are performed using the directional pad, and the right and left triggers dodge strikes and grapples respectively.
Since this gameplay system is modeled after the Aki engine, the pacing of the game is similar as well. Whereas in the SmackDown series, the gameplay is often fast and feverish, WrestleMania XIX is far more leisurely paced and methodical. The action does feel a bit faster than last year's game, but only by a small margin. Overall, the gameplay feels far less repetitive than WrestleMania X8, as there are several more moves to choose from for each wrestler. The countering system, however, is still as unforgiving as ever, and you'll have to be extremely precise in your timing if you want to block or reverse your opponent's attacks.
Another Aki-inspired component introduced into the WrestleMania series this year is the concept of location-specific damage. Submission holds and attacks to specific regions of the body do progressively more damage the more you focus on an area. Repeated attacks to the head, body, legs, and arms will eventually cause your opponents to become visibly injured in that area and will make them prone to tapping out if further damage is done there. This definitely creates an air of realism in the game that was missing from X8, and it adds some nice depth to the gameplay system.
For all these changes, though, one factor that has remained largely untouched is the game's tough (and cheap) artificial intelligence. Multiwrestler matches, like triple-threat and fatal four-way matches, can be an extreme pain at times, because opponents will frequently gang up on you. In cage and ladder matches, it seems as though the AI characters are no longer quite as bad about unfairly shaking you off the cage after you've beaten them down, though sometimes this is for the worse, because in some infrequent cases, we noticed the AI-controlled characters were just standing idly by while an opposing player climbed up a ladder to grab the belt dangling from the ceiling.
The game's handling of special moves and momentum hasn't changed a lot. Momentum is still a key factor in how you play the game, and a player with high momentum will find it much easier to stave off attacks, climb cages, scurry up a ladder, or perform any other necessary task. If you've taken an extended beating, however, and your momentum meter has dropped, you'll have an uphill battle ahead of you. Special moves are still attained by a meter that progressively builds each time you perform a move against an opponent, and once the meter is full, you'll be able to enter your special state by pressing the strike and grapple buttons at the same time. Once you're in the special state, simply press the strike and grapple buttons simultaneously in the position required to perform the move. Specials can be performed from practically any position--for example, The Rock's "The People's Elbow" attack is performed by standing over the opponent's head while he's down, whereas his "Rock Bottom" move is executed from a standing front grapple.
WrestleMania XIX contains all of the industry-standard match types, including single, tag, triple-threat, fatal four-way, handicap, and royal rumble matches. All of these matches have varying types (except for the royal rumble), including normal, hardcore, ladder, table, TLC, ironman, cage, and hell in a cell matches, and they're all basically the same as WrestleMania X8's match types, with all the same mechanics and rules. There is also a separate king-of-the-ring mode, which allows you to design an elimination tournament with 4 to 16 wrestlers, with either single or tag rules and nontitle or title stipulations, with the WWE championship, world heavyweight championship, WWE tag team championship, and world tag team championship titles up for grabs. Additionally, the game contains a tutorial, hosted by Tough Enough head coach Al Snow, that teaches you the game's basic gameplay mechanics.
The biggest game mode addition to WrestleMania XIX is its story mode. Simply titled "revenge," the mode is far different from your average wrestling story mode, since practically none of it takes place inside the ring. As the story opens, your chosen wrestler is being escorted out of a WWE arena by two security guards, who explain that you've been fired from the WWE by Mr. McMahon and that you're not to ever show your face at a WWE event again. After being tossed out the door, you're immediately approached by Stephanie McMahon, who offers you a contract requiring you to perform certain services that will exact revenge on Mr. McMahon.
Essentially, your ultimate goal in revenge is to create chaos, and eventually ruin Wrestlemania. The mode has four levels, with six missions apiece. These levels range from the arena construction site, to an outdoor parking lot, and even a shopping mall. Examples of some of the missions you'll have to undertake include destruction missions, where your entire goal is to wander around, beating up cars and signs; objective missions, where you'll have to find a certain object or area of a level, and fight your way to it; and simple beat-'em-up missions, where you have to eliminate a series of security guards, and other blue-collar employees of Mr. McMahon.
There are two major problems with the revenge mode, both of which completely destroy any possibility of fun. The first is that none of the missions are particularly well designed or interesting to begin with. Maybe in an action adventure game it might make sense for your main character to run around a construction site, throwing bad guys off a ledge into a pit of blackness, and then try to locate some tough-to-reach item--but considering this is a wrestling game, the whole adventure element just feels really bizarre and out of place. Additionally, all of the missions are extremely repetitive in their design and flat-out uninteresting to play.
The second and most damning of issues in revenge is that most of the missions involve multiple enemies coming at you at once. While most of these enemies are just generic-looking thugs dressed like construction workers and security guards, evidently they're all actually really good wrestlers and can perform moves like spinning toe holds and swinging neckbreakers with the greatest of ease. Add in the fact that you're almost always going to be taking on two to three bad guys at once, and you're going to find yourself in an intensely frustrating situation in practically every mission, especially in any situation where you have to climb a cage or pole, where, in somewhat of a throwback to X8's unfair AI, no matter how bad you beat up the bad guys, they'll almost always magically find a way to get up just in time to stop you from reaching the top. All in all, revenge mode feels like it was thrown together using the worst aspects of a generic action game, mixed with the concept of 2000's WCW Backstage Assault, and it just isn't any fun.
Fortunately, WrestleMania XIX makes up for the lack of a decent story mode by providing a much-improved create-a-wrestler feature. The game's create-a-wrestler is basically a stripped-down version of WWE SmackDown! Shut Your Mouth's create-a-wrestler, but with a few added bonuses. All of the standard moves, appearance features, and logic/attribute functionalities can be edited to your particular desire, and there are plenty of available choices for each section. You should find it easy to create some of the newer additions to the WWE roster, since pretty much all of the necessary clothing and attributes are there. WrestleMania XIX also gives you more choices in designing your wrestler's entrance--you'll be able to decide what music your wrestler will use, which Titantron entrance video will play, what animations your wrestler will perform on the stage, on the ramp, and in the ring, and even what sort of pyro, lighting, and camera angles you'd like to use.
There are also a number of unlockable items that can be bought in the shopzone, which is modeled after the WWE's own merchandise store. In here, you can purchase new parts for your created wrestler, like new hairstyles, clothing options, entrance features, and moves. You can also buy new weapons that will appear during hardcore matches and the like, as well as attribute points that you can use to upgrade your created character's abilities. The one downside to the shopzone is that the only way to earn cash in the game is by playing through the revenge mode, and in order to buy all the unlockable items, you'll have to play through the mode at least a couple of times. Still, if you're willing to suffer through it, there's plenty of rewarding stuff to unlock.
From a graphics standpoint, WrestleMania XIX improves a few things over X8, but only marginally. The biggest improvement is shown in the wrestler models, which are significantly more detailed and far less generic looking. All the wrestlers have their correct faces and body builds, as well as all their trademark tattoos and costumes. All of the game's arenas are very well done, with good crowd graphics, excellent lighting, and some cool-looking pyro--though there are only five regular arenas in the game. Most of the facial animations from X8 have carried over into this year's game, and while they looked great last year, they aren't quite as impressive in XIX. In fact, this can be said for the bulk of animation in the game--most of the animations seem a bit on the stiff side when compared to SmackDown! Shut Your Mouth, and they don't flow together all that well. There are also some pretty rough clipping problems and a few obvious glitches in certain portions of the game, especially in the revenge mode, where frequently you'll see characters start to wig out and violently vibrate if they get sandwiched between another character and a wall. The revenge mode also has a free-form camera system that, for the most part, is just completely useless. You can control the camera with the right C stick, but rarely can you ever put it into a useful angle, and usually when you do finally find one, one of the game's replays will immediately revert you back to a horrid angle.
The biggest overall improvement Yuke's has made in WrestleMania XIX is in the category of sound. WrestleMania X8 didn't have much going on in the way of audio, and it didn't even feature most of the wrestlers' trademark theme songs. WrestleMania XIX contains nearly every wrestler's correct theme song and does so in very good quality. Additionally, nearly all the in-game sound effects have been upgraded, with far more realistic slams, smacks, crashes, and similar effects. A few wrestlers in the game actually have voices as well, including Al Snow, who periodically praises or admonishes you during the tutorial mode, and Stephanie McMahon, who appears in a couple of cutscenes in revenge. Most of the in-game music consists of passable, if uninspired, rock and techno tracks that aren't any better or worse than the standard wrestling-game fare.
WrestleMania XIX does do a number of things right, in that it makes some key improvements to X8's gameplay system, and the bevy of available match types, along with the decisively deeper create-a-wrestler mode, should provide wrestling fans with plenty of longevity. However, though WrestleMania XIX is a definite improvement over its predecessor, the game's few graphical hang-ups and detrimentally bad story mode ultimately mar what could have been a really great game. As it stands, though games like Def Jam Vendetta and Ultimate Muscle: Legends vs. New Generation are technically better wrestling games, WrestleMania XIX is still the best WWE game available on the GameCube, and, consequently, any GameCube-owning WWE fan would do well to give it a shot.