E3 2002: WWE SmackDown! 4: Shut Your Mouth hands-on

We got our hands on a playable version of THQ's next SmackDown! game.

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At THQ's booth this year, a full assortment of wrestling and wrestling-branded titles were on display, but few were as difficult to get playtime on as the single WWE SmackDown! Shut Your Mouth demo. The sequel to SmackDown! Just Bring It, from developer Yuke's, features improved graphics, slightly tweaked gameplay mechanics, and an updated roster featuring the WWE's most popular new superstars.

WWE SmackDown! 4 Shut Your Mouth borrows much of the gameplay of the previous SmackDown! titles, but it has addressed the concern that standing grapples were far too easy to pull off by limiting their range severely. When a character attempts a grapple within the outer range of what in previous games would have performed a move, it will instead whiff the character's arms in empty air, exposing him to a counterattack. And since strikes can be countered effectively with the square button, matches become much more strategy-oriented than in previous games, in which the player with the quickest draw on the grapple button could dominate a match.

The demo version of SmackDown! 4 we played had only a handful of characters available--specifically Hollywood Hogan, The Rock, Booker T, Triple H, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Lita, Stacy Keibler, and Rob Van Dam. We took each of these characters out for a spin and found their special moves to be intact, as well as a very individualized standard grapple and strike maneuvers, which gave us the impression that SmackDown! 4 will have the most accurate moves set of any wrestling game released thus far.

Despite the impressive move variety, the most striking feature of WWE SmackDown! Shut Your Mouth is most definitely its incredibly detailed character models and overall graphical improvements upon Just Bring It. Each character's face has been modeled with excruciating attention paid to minute details so that each character we played with was a virtual spitting image of his or her real-life counterpart. Stacy Keibler had the same look, The Rock couldn't be conceivably improved in any significant way, Rob Van Dam was dead-on, and Hollywood Hogan looked gloriously accurate, down to the last wrinkle. While the overall character models still bore the limitations of the PS2 hardware--in that they were still slightly jaggy and didn't look quite as smooth as those we've seen in WrestleMania X8 or WWF Raw--the SmackDown! 4 faces and the corresponding facial animations looked better than anything we've seen in a wrestling game.

Rob Van Dam, who was in attendance greeting boothgoers, was extremely well represented in the current build, and his character was well suited to highlighting one of the other graphical improvements--realistic flowing hair. The hair in previous SmackDown! games was fairly poor in quality, but this facet of the characters has been improved by leaps and bounds, with individual strands swaying back and forth and flaying out across the mat when a wrestler is on his or her back. While still not at the level of true realism, it can now be said that the characters' hair will not substantially detract from the game's realistic look.

RVD also had a full complement of unique grapples and strikes, which showed off the game's incredibly custom-fitted moves sets. His regular standing grapples included a variety of his signature maneuvers, including an arm wrench followed by a series of high kicks, as well as the high kick followed by a back leg sweep. RVD's fighting stance was dead-on as well, with a very bouncy hop that gave his character the same energetic feel as he does during his live performances. His variety of standing strikes was dead-on as well, with spinning heel kicks, wheel kicks, and other moves that he's well known for.

The Rock was just as well re-created. His custom DDT looks as good as it has ever been re-created, with the kick to the opponent's gut looking quite convincing. His handstand exit from the ring was also included, not to mention his complete repertoire of finishers. Interestingly enough, The Rock's sharpshooter isn't a finisher in the current demo but is instead one of his face-up submissions. However, The Rock's sharpshooter looks as good (or rather accurate) as ever before, looking noticeably different from how a Bret Hart would perform it. The Rock grabs the opponent's legs and cinches in the first step of the hold, drawing a roar from the crowd and looking up in determination. He then turns the opponent over and lays in the hold in his unconventional near-standing position.

Stone Cold Steve Austin really gets into the stunner when he pulls one off. After dropping an opponent to the mat, he'll slide face down next to his face and begin yelling, as he's been known to do. Hollywood Hogan is remarkably well portrayed in SmackDown! Shut Your Mouth as well. One of his most jaw-dropping moves could nearly bring a wrestling fan to tears. As a counter to a strike, Hogan takes a punch across the face and begins shaking his head while wagging his index finger back and forth, much to his opponent's disbelief. He then returns the favor, nailing his opponent with a massive fist, drawing an immense roar from the audience.

What we saw of SmackDown! 4 was most impressive, and we were left wanting more. Of all the wrestling games we've played recently, this title seemed to have the greatest potential for re-creation of individual character moves. And it may potentially have the strongest story mode thus far. Stay tuned to this space--we'll have more on SmackDown! Shut Your Mouth in the immediate future.

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