Ditching the SmackDown vs. Raw title, last year's WWE '12 gave the wrestling series a major overhaul with a fresh look, a new engine, and streamlined controls. While the much-needed reboot may have revitalized faith in the franchise, it still had some lingering problems that held it back from true greatness. WWE '13 isn't quite as revolutionary as its predecessor, but thanks to a superior campaign mode and tighter gameplay, it's drastically more enjoyable.
Authentic ringside showdowns explode with all of the testosterone-laden bombast and roaring crowd enthusiasm of the real deal. Pyrotechnics, boisterous announcers, and grand entrance sequences do a great job of setting the stage for each brutal matchup. When it comes down to trading actual blows, WWE '13 sticks closely to last year's fast-paced formula, which is a good thing. The same simplified controls conveniently map strikes, grapples, Irish whips, and special moves to individual buttons, making it easy to pull off maneuvers and deliver awesome-looking move sequences without struggling to remember elaborate combos.
Your attack moves also vary depending on your position and how much punishment you've dealt to your opponent. Despite the fact you're a burly dude clobbering the snot out of other burly dudes, there's a certain grace to the ebb and flow of matches as the advantage shifts back and forth between wrestlers. The excitement builds once the sweat starts flying: wrestlers show injuries and fatigue, and the action ratchets up to its peak with wilder signature moves. New "Spectacular Moments" add to this frenzied energy by letting you dish out elaborate finishers like smashing opponents through the announcers' table, hurling them through barricades, and breaking the ring itself. They're a thrill to pull off, and make you feel even more badass than usual.
Most of the other wrestling gameplay improvements are subtle, but they make a real difference. WWE '13's action feels tighter and more cohesive than last year's revamp. Though not all of the visual bugs are squashed, there are far fewer problems that interrupt the flow of combat. Transitions between moves are animated more smoothly, and airborne maneuvers connect with greater precision, boosting the realism of matches. This is a big improvement from some of the more jarring visual transitions in last year's matches.
This time around the reversal system is a lot more forgiving too, which solves one of the more aggravating conundrums of WWE '12. You still need quick reflexes to time your blocks and turn opponents' attacks against them, but there's enough wiggle room now on the default settings that you won't feel like you're being put through the meat grinder the second you're caught unprepared--unless you want a steeper challenge, that is. When you do miss, an onscreen indicator tells you whether you're too early or too late, instead of leaving you frustrated and guessing as to why you're getting getting your face bashed in. This helps to improve your timing so you can better anticipate when your next opportunity to break your adversary's attack chain will arise.
Beyond the option to boost or reduce the overall difficulty, you can even dig into the nitty-gritty and fine-tune the effectiveness of AI reversals to suit your ability level. Toggling the "experience" level of each match can further adjust how much damage each move does, affecting how long matches last. These additional layers of optional flexibility go a long way towards boosting accessibility. Though there's plenty of challenge here for experienced wrestling game vets to chew on, WWE '13 is a great entry point for newcomers to the franchise.
WWE '13 isn't lacking in one-off options for those who want to jump right in and experiment with the different match types against the AI or human opponents. From backstage brawls and Royal Rumbles to cage matches and tag team bouts, there's a ton of variety to explore. A beefier range of creative options let you craft a massive amount of customized content--including unique wrestlers, moves, storylines, and entire stadiums--that can be used in online multiplayer matches without having to upload creations first. Even better, this content can be used in the returning managerial-heavy WWE Universe mode that lets you simulate or play entire seasons of SmackDown, Raw, and Pay-Per-View matches. With so many options available, it's tempting to sink months of time into crafting content and tackling matches before you even dive into the solo campaign's great main event.
In contrast to WWE '12's weak Road to Wrestlemania campaign, the excellent Attitude Era mode is a great replacement. It's one of the biggest improvements in WWE '13. Covering some of WWE's most notable matches, rivalries, and encounters from the Attitude Era (1997-1999), the new solo campaign is chock-full of audio and video clips culled from wrestling's historical archives. Nostalgia factor aside, some pretty rocking showdowns are found in the lengthy run of matches divided into character-focused chunks. These matches have you playing as a rotating group of wrestlers, including Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mankind, The Undertaker, and more, as they tackle some of the most epic encounters of the period. While most matches in the campaign let you win by pinfall or submission, mostly optional historical objectives for each showdown spice things up, and completing them unlocks bonus goodies like extra matches, special outfits, arenas, championships, and wrestlers.
Considering the franchise's annual nature and the fact that last year brought such a huge overhaul to the series, it's not a surprise that WWE '13 doesn't innovate as substantially as its predecessor. It feels like the same game in many ways, but lots of subtle tweaks help make up for the shortcomings in WWE '12. The small refinements add up, particularly when rounded out by the handful of bigger additions. The stellar Attitude Era campaign alone alone is a huge draw, and if you're a longtime avid wrestling enthusiast. WWE '13 is a big step in the right direction.