It hasn't been an easy console generation for fans of both Nintendo and the WWE. During the era of the Nintendo 64, the system was easily at the top of the heap when it came to quality wrestling games, thanks largely to the effort of developer Aki's work on each of the N64's marquee grapplers. Then along came the GameCube, and with it a new developer, the creator of the PlayStation 2-exclusive SmackDown! franchise, Yuke's. Two GameCube wrestling games have been produced up to this point, and neither one is anything special, feeling more like afterthoughts to the SmackDown! games than anything else. For its third attempt on the Cube, WWE Day of Reckoning, Yuke's has put forth a far more convincing effort than in previous years. Featuring great graphics, a more-than-solid gameplay engine, and finally a story mode worth playing through, Day of Reckoning is truly the first great WWE game on the GameCube.
For those who are familiar with last year's WrestleMania XIX, or any of the Aki-produced wrestling games, Day of Reckoning's gameplay will probably feel like old hat. It's based on the tried-and-true weak and strong striking and grappling mechanics of old, and the only real differences in the basic gameplay are pacing and counters. The pacing of the matches is slightly more methodical this time around, though it still has an overall quick feel. Essentially, it's easier to plot out your moves and figure out exactly how you want to attack rather than just mindlessly hitting the grapple and strike buttons while hoping for the best.
This is good, because the counters in Day of Reckoning are extremely frequent. On the player side, you can still counter strikes and grapples by hitting the R and L triggers respectively, and it's about as easy (or hard, depending on your skill level) to do it as ever. However, the CPU-controlled opponents seem to be more adept at it this year. Unless your opponents have an especially weak counter rating, chances are that they will be able to counter quite a few of your moves during the course of a match. While this does keep you fairly well glued to the action, it doesn't always make for the most realistic looking matches, since it's rare to see that many counters during the course of a televised bout. Then again, the whole counter-friendly style of wrestling has never been one of the most realistic styles of wrestling gameplay to begin with, though it is one of the most fun to play. Here, the same description applies as well.
Day of Reckoning also features a couple of new elements to its gameplay: momentum shifts and a new weight-balancing system. Momentum shifts are exactly what they sound like--a sudden and abrupt shift in momentum during a match. If you're getting beaten down to the point where your momentum meter is that ever-dangerous color of dark blue, and the "danger" warning appears, you'll see an icon appear above your meter that shows the A and B buttons. If you manage to get up and then press the A and B buttons to perform a special grapple move on your opponent, you will perform a special momentum shift move that sends your momentum meter up significantly higher and sends your opponent's plummeting downward. While this might seem unfair, the good news is that you aren't necessarily guaranteed a victory by using a momentum shift. For one, you can execute only one per match, and second, while it gives you a chance to do some damage, unless you can absolutely dominate from there on out, chances are that your opponents will be able to come back, since they won't be totally decimated by the momentum shift. Still, this is a neat mechanic, and it adds a bit of variance to the pacing of each match.
Then there's the new weight system. Just like in last year's game, the size of your opponent compared to your own size greatly impacts your ability to lift him or her, which limits your roster of available moves against a larger opponent somewhat. However, rather than just making it out-and-out impossible for little guys to lift big guys, Yuke's has designed a new system that lets you lift the behemoths, albeit not without some effort. Essentially, whenever your wrestler tries to lift a heavier opponent, a meter will pop up over your momentum meter. If you quickly hammer on the A button, the meter will rise, and if you get it to the top, you'll perform the slam. This new meter is a nice addition, since it more accurately reflects what happens in real matches of this type, such as when John Cena lifted Big Show lo those many Pay-Per-Views ago.
With all of that said, while Day of Reckoning's gameplay is quite a lot of fun, it does have its flaws. For starters, the hit detection in the game is spotty in some key areas. Running attacks seem to be the most affected by this--it is oddly easy to simply blow right past an opponent with a running move, even if that opponent is completely stationary. You'll also occasionally miss strikes to downed opponents if your wrestler isn't positioned correctly. Another issue stems from the game's artificial intelligence. Make no mistake, across the board the wrestlers in Day of Reckoning are far and away much smarter than the wrestlers in any of the previous GameCube WWE games. However, while single and gimmick matches seem pretty well adjusted, tag-team matches are still a little off.
While you may frequently go for tags by nature, you don't need to. Most tag matches can easily be finished without ever having a tag-in, because your opponent will almost always wait an exceptionally long time to go for a tag. So all you have to do is hit a finisher (or two, just to be sure), shift your focus to the opposing corner, knock your opponent's partner off the ring, go back to the downed opponent and pin him, and nine times out of 10, you'll win. Again, tag matches are really the only matches that suffer from any AI issues, and the issues aren't horrible; but they do bring down the realism of tag-team bouts quite a bit.
When it comes to feature improvements, the biggest overhaul to speak of in Day of Reckoning is the new story mode. Anybody who played last year's WrestleMania XIX will tell you that the game's story mode was pretty awful. In this year's game, not only is the story good, but it's unique as well. The story in Day of Reckoning puts you in the role of a fresh-out-of-wrestling-school blue chipper of your own creation. You pick one of your previously created superstars, or create a new one, and then find yourself in a meeting with Mr. Vincent K. McMahon. Vinnie Mac says he's heard good things about you and is interested in offering you a WWE deal--if, of course, you show some moxie and perform well in the dredges of the WWE developmental league. Of course you agree, and you're off to the bottom rung of the proverbial ladder to earn your way into WWE superstardom.
Upon arrival in WWE developmental, you'll have to perform against a number of jobber-quality wrestlers, but not just in typical matches. Jonathan Coachman, who acts as sort of a guiding force for you early on in the story, will give you specific objectives for a match, such as performing a certain number of counters or aerial moves during a match or completing a bout without using a finisher. These types of objectives provided to you carry over once you make it to the Sunday Night Heat roster and then eventually to either the Raw or SmackDown! roster, though they become less frequent by that point.
Your first play-through of the story mode is likely to be your most enjoyable, as the story is quite linear and doesn't have any alternate paths. The only branching point is when you choose either the Raw or SmackDown! roster, and even then the story is essentially the same the whole way through, just with different characters playing the same roles and with altered dialogue to keep the story coherent. Some wrestling fans might also find themselves put off by the fact that you can't take an established superstar through the story mode and are instead limited to a created wrestler. While it is a bit of a hindrance, the plot of the story mode wouldn't make as much sense if you were to choose, say, The Rock or Triple H, especially since many of the main superstars are heavily featured in the script itself. And while the story itself isn't a brilliant work of fiction, it's just about as good as the storylines found in the most recent SmackDown! games and should keep you plenty entertained, at least during that first play-through.
As far as other features go, pretty much all the expected match types for a typical wrestling game are found in Day of Reckoning, including hardcore, table, ladder, TLC, cage, and hell-in-a-cell matches. All of these are pretty excellent representations of their real-life match counterparts, with perhaps the sole exception being hell-in-a-cell, which still annoyingly requires you to bust an opponent through the cage in order to climb to the top rather than providing a door. Yuke's has also included a bra-and-panties match, but anyone who played last year's SmackDown! won't find anything different about this version of the match--it's essentially a direct copy. Sadly, the elimination-chamber match found in the last SmackDown! game did not make its way into Day of Reckoning.
Day of Reckoning's weakest feature is actually its roster. Even though the game does feature more than 40 superstars--including legendary wrestlers Rowdy Roddy Piper, Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, Bret "The Hitman" Hart, Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake, and Andre the Giant--there are a few notable omissions, such as the Dudley Boyz and JBL. Fans of missing superstars will be happy to know that almost every missing superstar is easily creatable in the game's excellent and robust create-a-wrestler mode. A few more legendary wrestlers would have been a nice touch, but it's hard to complain about the solid inclusions like The Hitman and the original big man, Andre the Giant.
Once again Yuke's has brought out a pretty stellar create-a-wrestler mode. Most of last year's editable features are included again this year, including the many facets of wrestler entrances, such as camera angles, pyro types, and lighting schemes. More additions have been made to the layering system for costumes, so you'll be able to more accurately design the wrestler of your dreams or emulate a real-life superstar. Moreover, plenty of unlockable CAW goodies can be found in the game's shopzone mode, where you can spend cash you earn in the story mode to get extra arenas, weapons, appearance attributes, and moves. There are also a number of default move templates you can purchase that feature preset moves for big names that are no longer competing in the WWE, such as Steve Austin and Brock Lesnar, as well as a number of other, seemingly generic move sets (that are actually the move sets of big-name Japanese stars, such as Keiji Mutoh, Jun Akiyama, and Kenta Kobashi). Though most of the upgrades to the CAW mode this year aren't terribly big, they're still quite welcome, and all told, Day of Reckoning features a fantastic create-a-wrestler mode.
Graphically, Day of Reckoning is quite an improvement over WrestleMania XIX, especially when it comes to wrestler models. The wrestlers look just about as good as the models found in last year's SmackDown!, with tons of facial detail and superbly designed outfits. The animation is, across the board, far better than anything found in WMXIX. Moves have a significantly greater impact, and weapon hits are absolutely brutal. There are a couple of animation glitches here and there, such as the missed running attacks we mentioned before, some occasionally bad clipping, and a couple of slightly glitchy reversal animations, but these are few in number compared to the many great-looking animations. The in-game arenas all model the real-life set designs quite nicely, and save for a bit of slowdown that occurs during a few particularly pyro-heavy entrances, all the entrances look just about as they should.
The big audio upgrade made for Day of Reckoning concerns a number of licensed songs added to the mix to replace the obscenely generic and repetitive in-game music Yuke's has been reusing for a while now. The soundtrack includes songs by Styles of Beyond, Breaking Benjamin, Zebrahead, and Tantric, and it includes, of all things, the seminal early-'90s rap-rock hit "Bring the Noise" by Anthrax and Public Enemy. While these songs are a nice touch (especially since they can be used as entrance themes in the CAW mode), there aren't many of them, and a couple of the tracks have weird breaks that sound like skips but might actually be a half-baked method of editing out profanity. As for the usual WWE theme music, pretty much all of it is there, save for music for the legendary wrestlers and Ric Flair's real theme song. Very little of the in-game audio seems to have changed much from WrestleMania XIX, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, since the various slams, strikes, and cracks during a match all sound good.
When it comes right down to it, WWE Day of Reckoning is easily Yuke's most successful effort to bring the action of the WWE to the GameCube. The story mode, though perhaps a bit too linear, is still a humongous improvement over last year's game, and the overall improved gameplay, scads of match types, and deep create-a-wrestler mode should be more than enough to keep any wrestling fan busy for at least another year. Does all of this mean that Day of Reckoning finally manages to completely shake off the "SmackDown! afterthought syndrome" of past GameCube wrestling games? Not quite, but Day of Reckoning is still a big step forward for WWE games on the Cube. If you're a wrestling fan with a GameCube, Day of Reckoning should definitely be on your purchase list.