Doing more than simply dropping the SmackDown vs. RAW moniker that has prefaced the last run of WWE games since 2004, WWE '12 aims to refresh the long-running wrestling series' recent stale leanings with redesigned gameplay and an all-new game engine. While it still packs a massive roster and is brimming with all of the over-the-top macho bombast and ridiculous braggadocio hardcore wrestling fans love, not all of the updates are for the better. It's easier to jump right into the ring and start hammering away at meaty dudes with vigor, but overaggressive AI and a near-broken attack counter system sap the fun. Unfortunately, other problems add to the pile, making it tough to enjoy the game's authentic trappings.
WWE '12 mirrors the energetic spectacle and cheesy swagger of the television programming it's based on with admirable gusto. Outside of the ring, there are plenty of flashy, grand entrances and throngs of cheering fans eager to see endless combinations of the game's huge selection of wrestling combatants bludgeon one another in style. When it comes to the matches themselves, the action is fast-paced and intense. The game's overhauled engine showcases a nice level of detail in the character models, and the animations are more fluid this time around when transitioning between attacks and reversals, but it's still rough around the edges in spots. Collision detection is off at times, and some transitions are a little too fluid. For example, it's possible to go from throwing a punch at your opponent to almost instantly being upside down between his legs in a midair pile driver--weird instances like this can happen so fast that you don't even know how you wound up being ground face-first into the mat. Other times, though rare, the game bugs out altogether. One glitch causes a wrestler to float very slowly toward the screen, through the ropes, out of the ring, and into the air above the crowd, forcing a reset of the match to restore order. That said, major bugs are infrequent, and most matches do look realistic enough to appease followers of the sport.
Retooled with accessibility in mind, the gameplay flows quickly once the fists start swinging. Strikes, grapples, and Irish whips are single-button moves that change with your position, yielding more elaborate attacks as opponents grow weaker. Whittling your adversary's stamina down opens up room for sweet signature moves and fancy finishers, and a new limb targeting system lets you deal damage to specific areas of the body when grappling. Everything works pretty well, with the exception of defensive maneuvers, which are a major stumbling block. WWE '12 gives you and your opponent far more chances to counter each other's attacks, but the window of opportunity to pull off these crucial reversals has been shaved down to almost nothing. You have a split second before contact to tap the right trigger to block or reverse. These prompts don't always appear onscreen when they should either, and more often than not, hitting the corresponding button at the right time doesn't register.
Your computer-controlled foes, on the other hand, are adept at countering almost everything you throw at them (at least on the game's default difficulty). They adapt to your move patterns quickly too. It's extremely frustrating to get turned into a slab of battered meat and lose several matches in a row because every counter you attempt fails to stick--even when it feels like you're quick on the draw. While you can dial back the AI to a more comfortable setting, the problem doesn't go away. It does feel satisfying when the tide turns in your favor, but once things start going wrong, it easily snowballs into a match-ending catastrophe.
For those who can tune out the inconsistencies in WWE '12, there's an abundance of play options to dig into. WWE Universe returns with a never-ending run of matches and lots of flexibility to tweak the experience to suit your whims. Any number of matches on the schedule can be simulated or played hands-on, and it's a lot of fun to hop in and play an interfering role in certain matches. If you just want a quick game or two, there are a slew of options for configuring one-off matches. Multiplayer modes are flexible too, and playing against other humans locally or in online matches is preferable to the irritating AI, though you still have to face the prospect of rage quits due to unresponsive attempts at countering.
Having the freedom to create your own content to play in the game is another area where WWE '12 shines, since you can craft everything from your own custom wrestlers and movesets to entrances and storylines. The story-driven Road to Wrestlemania, on the other hand, is one of the game's biggest disappointments. It has three lengthy chapters that explore heavily scripted storylines centering on Sheamus, Triple H, and a custom wrestler you create, but these matches are some of the least enjoyable encounters in the game. They often revolve around unclear yet strict objectives, and deviating from them results in failure.
The franchise may have been in need of some serious tinkering, but the impact of the gains made in this next evolution of the series is canceled out by the leftover problems lingering in the formula. While a few improvements feel like a step in the right direction and will no doubt hit the sweet spot for some players, there are crucial areas where WWE backslides. Insidious AI and the weak story mode are among the bigger culprits, but the fact that such a huge portion of the gameplay hinges on a horribly imprecise reversal system is a real deal-breaker.