It's hard to make a truly accurate wrestling game these days. A lot of the games out there simply take the wrong approach, treating wrestling as an actual sport with strictly defined rules and regulations. Most games overlook the soap-opera-like plot that, along with generous helpings of sex and violence, make wrestling shows some of the highest-rated programs on television today. And many games also leave out or muss up the little things - things that casual fans wouldn't notice or care about but things that could really make or break a game for a hard-core wrestling fan. WWF SmackDown! isn't perfect, but it does a lot of things right and represents the first real step in the right direction the genre has taken in more than two years.
The first difference you'll notice between SmackDown and all the other wrestling games out there is the speed. SmackDown plays significantly speedier than any other wrestling game, and this lends a fast and loose feel to the proceedings. To complement the speed, the gameplay has been kept fairly simple. But unlike other games in the genre that try to deliver a simple control scheme, SmackDown never feels oversimplified. It doesn't have the slightly complex fighting-game-style moves of WWF Attitude, nor does it have the oversimplified timing-based attack system of WWF Wrestlemania 2000. SmackDown goes for a more action-packed style, and it manages to pull it off beautifully. The game has a reasonably up-to-date roster, including new wrestlers (well, new to the WWF, anyway) like the Dudley Boys, as well as all the old favorites, including Mankind, Undertaker, Kane, X-Pac, Chyna, Triple H, The Rock, Val Venis, the Hardy Boys, and many more.
The game has almost everything you could ask for in the modes department, and unlike in other games, the modes actually offer meaningful differences in the gameplay department. The I Quit match actually forces you to grab a microphone and put it in your opponent's face while asking him if he gives up. Special referee matches actually let you play as the referee. You can either play it straight or count as fast or as slow as you like - or you can just not count at all and start beating the wrestlers up yourself. The hard-core and pin-anywhere matches make it easy to fight your way out of the ring and back into other areas of the arena, including the parking lot, the entryway, and of course, a boiler room. The loading time between areas is impressively short. Cage matches, three-way and four-way dances, tag matches, handicap matches, battle royal, King of the Ring, and survival matches are also available. You can also create a pay-per-view event and your own wrestler, but the create-a-wrestler mode isn't too flexible - it requires that you choose from heads, upper bodies, and lower bodies, rather than letting you customize each body part and piece of clothing individually. Aside from appearance, the mode is nice, letting you set up each move, from punch to taunt to finisher.SmackDown's season mode is the best career-style mode we've ever seen in a wrestling game. It doesn't try to act like a quest for the belt, where the game ends as soon as you win the championship. Instead, it moves on from month to month and event to event, never really coming to an end. You'll see all of the WWF belts change hands quite often, and the game even gives you the option of changing wrestlers every few months, as well as removing a few of the WWF superstars from the lineup entirely. Tired of feuding with Mr. Ass? You can either change to a different wrestler or simply turn Mr. Ass off until you feel like bringing him back. As you progress through the season mode, you'll unlock new wrestlers, such as Ivory and Prince Albert. Unfortunately, they aren't simply added to your roster - their body parts are just unlocked in the create-a-wrestler section. The season mode also contains the beginnings of some plotlike elements - another first for the genre. It's mostly limited to pre- and post-match cutscenes, which consist of a wrestler walking backstage, a wrestler yelling in the ring, or two wrestlers backstage. Occasionally, one or two wrestlers will attack a third wrestler while he is walking around backstage. All of this has an effect on a wrestler's heart meter, which is displayed before the match begins and serves as a biorhythm-esque indicator.
For a PlayStation game, WWF SmackDown! looks pretty amazing. Things may look a bit blocky at times, and the crowd isn't exactly stellar, but the animation and frame rate, which remains rock solid regardless of how many wrestlers are in the ring, really sell the game. The wrestlers move quickly, but the game still looks realistic. Squint and you might think for a split second that you're actually watching the real thing. The game shows a real attention to detail. Wrestlers get bruised up as they get beaten, and each character has a few different facial expressions. The Rock's special move, The People's Elbow, has finally been rendered perfectly in a game, complete with the removal of his elbow pad. Little touches, like the mat bouncing and the ring apron moving after a power bomb, really add a lot to the look of the game. The game has nice collision detection, and multiple-hit animations make the game constantly impressive. The camera moves around when needed, delivering some nice close-up shots of finishers and other big moves.
SmackDown's one rough spot is the sound. The game is awfully quiet for a wrestling game, lacking both actual voice work from the wrestlers and commentary of any kind. The in-game music can get a little repetitive, also. The game really would have benefited from some voice, but the sounds of the hits, smacks, and wrestlers hitting the mat are all really nice.
The little things that debut in SmackDown, such as a never-ending season mode and inklings of a plot, really make the game feel fresh and new. Hopefully, THQ will expand on these new developments in the future and include some speech as well. It's great to finally see a new wrestling engine that actually brings something new to the table, and all wrestling-game fans (even those who are a little burnt out on other games in the genre) should find something in WWF SmackDown! that makes it worth the purchase price.