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WWE Smackdown! Here Comes The Pain

WWE

The WWE flavour of wrestling is an odd form of entertainment with an odd audience. More of a soap opera than an actual sport, the fixed bouts and shows attract a wide range of people of different ages. The first group who constitute the viewers are excitable pre-teens who have failed to realise the phony nature of the programs. Next are the older teenagers who know that it’s all fake but still enjoy watching WWE (but they don’t tell anyone though, because it’s far too uncool). Finally, there’s the older generation who dip into the nostalgia watching with their sons, reminiscing about the shows when they were little. I admit that I was once a casual viewer of WWE (or WWF as it was known then), brought into watching it after playing the first Smackdown! game on PlayStation. A magazine I used to subscribe to rated it as one of the best fighting games around and not being a fan of traditional 2D beat-em-ups, I thought I’d give it a shot. It turned out to be a damn good game and sparked an interest in the programs, much like the first Tony Hawk game inspired so many kids to get out on the streets skateboarding.

Gradually the appeal of the TV shows wore off and consequently the games as well. When the PlayStation 2 came along with WWF Smackdown! Just Bring It, I gave it a go and it lived up to expectations. I ploughed through the modes, creating wrestlers and so on until one day, when it all came to an end. Little did I know, there was a bug in Smackdown!‘s PS2 debut. Selecting a single, lowly item in the create-a-wrestler mode caused the complete corruption of the game file, destroying all of my precious, time consuming work. Needless to say, it was devastating. The next genteelly-titled game, Shut Your Mouth came along, but I wasn’t interested; the pain was still there. A lesson to all developers – test your games before they go to retail!

“Some things never change, some do” – The Matrix Trilogy

It’s 2003, the WWF is now the WWE and a new Smackdown! game is out. No doubt the wrestling scene has changed and after a bit of research, it appears that Mr McMahon now owns the whole industry, bar the real wrestling organisations. The Big Show is still rather large and The Rock still has his elastic eyebrow, but a whole host of other stars who I’ve never heard of have joined the show. Smackdown and RAW appear to have split with their own rosters and there seem to be far more title belts than I remember. It’s a lot to take in and it leaves me a tad confused.

Yet, as I quote, some things never change. As I found out, the Smackdown games are still king of the hill, outdoing all other contenders. One of the reasons why they’re so good is that they have to be better than the ‘real’ thing, almost by definition. You see, there would be no point in making a game exactly true to real WWE wrestling, because then you couldn’t win if it wasn’t scripted to be. As a result, the games are actually more realistic than the real thing. Ironic, isn’t it?

Smackdown! Here Comes The Pain (HCTP) is no normal annual update. Each year, Yukes – the developer – tweaks the game engine a little bit further and HCTP is no exception. Basic grappling is now expanded to sixteen separate moves giving far more attacking options and greater variety to bouts. The other plethora of moves are all present, with the controls taking up a mighty six pages of the game’s manual. HCTP cleverly mixes button bashing with precise button presses; most moves require exact timing to execute while getting an opponent to submit demands frantic button hammering. For newcomers to the games, it all may feel a bit daunting at first, but we can all learn, can’t we?

One criticism of previous Smackdown games has been the lack of support for the analogue sticks, resulting in extremely sore thumbs after several bouts. Thankfully HCTP makes full use of both sticks, with the left controlling movement and the right controlling taunts. Strangely, these can’t be used to menu navigation, but this is no big problem. A couple of other controls have been switched around since I last played the series; the square button now handles actions while the shoulder buttons counter your opponent’s moves. Other aspects of refinement are the ability to steal your opponent’s finishing move and use it on them or alternatively counter it completely. In previous games the Smackdown moves were unstoppable, but now using them doesn’t always guarantee success.

Matches aren’t just simple ‘beat them ’til they fall’ events though. Smackdown games have always had a tactical element to them, but HCTP expands on this with a body part specific damage system. Next to the star’s name on the HUD is a blue body which indicates the wrestler’s physical condition. As he or she gets gradually beaten down, different areas of the body change colour to yellow, orange and then red. This has negative effects on your opponent which you can capitalise on, winning the bout. This extra layer of gameplay depth allows you to plan your attacks, weakening your target down until you can deal a finishing blow. Another subtle improvement is the removal of the ability to target the referee, which in previous games because extremely annoying in matches consisting of more than six characters. The referee now skirts around the action, rarely getting in the way and avoiding being hit himself.

Like previous Smackdown! games, Here Comes The Pain‘s gameplay is balanced and deeply satisfying. The A.I. is excellent with few glitches or flaws, making single player games almost as enjoyable as multiplayer ones. Talking of multiplayer, up to six people can play at the same time using two Multitaps, resulting in frantic matches which can occupy you and your friends for hours. In both single and multiplayer, the gameplay is both deep and enjoyable; just what the fans want and deserve.

HCTP‘s roster of wrestlers is both updated and extensive, with over sixty stars and the ability to create a number of your own. This year, each wrestler has attributes such as strength, speed and technique which has a direct effect in the ring. The Big Show can no longer be lifted by anyone; only the strongest can do so. The create-a-wrestler (CAW) mode has always been a strong point in the Smackdown! series and the latest title takes the mode even further. Every single possible aesthetic feature of your character can be altered, resulting in the most comprehensive create-a-character mode ever. Name me another game where you can tweak a character’s eyebrow angle and depth. Exactly. Seeing your own comedy characters march down to the ring with their rainbow-coloured afros is a sight that has to be seen. Keeping the game’s roster up to date is a big thing for fans, and with the CAW mode, they can add new stars, edit original ones, change the movesets and alter the game’s stables (groups of fighters) at will. CAW benefits most though, when combined with the Story mode, allowing you to take your wrestler from rookie status to being the most popular superstar on the show.

Just Bring It‘s story mode was a tad disappointing, with repetition and inflexibility. Yukes have learnt from their mistakes and HCTP‘s story mode is both unpredictable and comprehensive. Before each show you’re taken to a locker room screen which acts as a pre-match menu. Here you can venture off backstage to meet other stars, purchase unlockables (more on them later), adjust your wrestler’s attributes, check the game’s stables, look up wrestlers’ stats and proceed to the actual matches. Through various interactive cutscenes, you can carve your own way through the story mode, winning titles, making more money and gaining a reputation. Usually for every match you win, you receive 1 Superstar Point and for every match in which you’re defeated, you lose a point. These points are vital as you need them to be able to challenge the champions and ‘relieve’ them of their title. The story mode is enjoyed the most when you take your created wrestler from a newcomer to the champion of champions. You’ll win a few low risk matches, gain experience points which you can increase your attributes with, then build their skills up until the can start to to challenge the title holders. It’s addictive stuff and it’s never the same each time.

The live shows have so many match types, but HCTP has somehow managed to fit them all in. You get the normal single matches with or without managers, tag team matches normal or tornado (all four fighting at the same time), 6 man tag, hardcore matches with weapons (includes a motorbike!), lumberjack, cage matches, elimination chamber, hell in a cell, last man standing, submission, ironman, 3 stages of hell, royal rumble, first blood, survival, elimination tag, ladder, table ladders and chairs, special referee, slobber knocker and finally bra and panties. We all know that the WWE use women as eye candy more than anything else and the bra and panties matches just take the piss. The new mode has been hyped up a lot, but it’s really not that good. Two of the ‘divas’ fight to rip each others clothes off, except that it isn’t really much fun. There’s only two garments to remove and to be honest, there’s no point since you don’t see anything. Excitable early-teens apply only.

The Smackdown! series has the odd trait of items appearing one game and being removed another. I remember one such feature which allowed you to create a pay-per-view event, play it and then it was given an audience rating out of 100. It was a good alternative to the season mode, but sadly it seems to have found its way into the Bermuda Triangle of game development. It’s not all bad news though, as THQ and Yukes have listened to their fans and have introduce various new features. Blood is included this time due to popular demand and is implemented through the damage system. Repeatedly smashing your opponent’s face in will result in a dramatic blood letting. Every time after that which involves the same sorts of moves result in blood being spilled again. Yukes have kept it sensible though, with none of the claret staying on the ring, but visibly shown on the characters’ faces.

Talking of visuals, Smackdown!‘s graphics are as accomplished as usual, with the sixty or so wrestlers visibly recognisable from their real life counterparts. The stadia are detailed with authentic stages, fireworks going off and a 3D crowd (instead of the old cardboard ones). The game runs at a healthy framerate throughout, even when there’s eight or so characters onscreen at once. Camera angles highlight particularly ferocious moves, although these can be disabled if you tire of them. The most striking section of the visuals has to be the animations, which have now been motion captured from the stars themselves. When you see The Rock pulling moves in the game, it’s an exact copy of what he does in real life. Just motion capturing moves is no big deal, but doing it for the hundreds of moves (I wouldn’t be surprised if there were over 1000) and then linking them all together so smoothly is something to be admired. Some exceptionally vicious moves make you cringe, it’s that good. Overall, HCTP‘s graphics aren’t the absolute best you’ll see on PS2, but they do a great job linking up all the other elements of the game into a well presented, visually pleasing package.

Of course, WWE isn’t WWE without the music that accompanies it. All of the star’s theme tunes are present (well, to my knowledge) and so are those of the various shows. While cycling through the menus and during actual matches, various songs play, some catchy, some not so catchy. The music can be turned off though if it does get to your head, much like the camera angles. The awful, repetitive commentary that was in Just Bring It is gone thankfully, replaced by the background music. The sound effects are adequate, with crowds booing and cheering, the wrestlers slamming opponents onto the mat with a palpable crunch. HCTP‘s audio doesn’t shine as much as the game’s other elements, but it does what it needs to do to and does it well.

Like previous games, HCTP‘s replay value is immense. New superstars, move sets, loading screens and attire can be unlocked through the story mode, giving incentives for playing more and more. Unlockables aren’t the only motivation for playing on and on though. The story mode, exhibitions and multiplayer will keep you occupied for months, especially when combined with the superb create-a-wrestler feature. The gameplay is balanced and addictive, and it’s all neatly tied up with good presentation, graphics and audio. Countless times while reviewing Smackdown!, I’ve snuck off for just one more match in season mode, gaining more and more experience so I can challenge for a title. It’s not just one element that makes HCTP great, it’s all of them put together, complementing each other.

WWE Smackdown! Here Comes The Pain is the pinnacle of wrestling games, outshining all of its competition. The original game was a shock to other game developers and Smackdown! 2 was and still is the fastest selling Playstation game in the console’s history. With this heritage behind them and using the wealth of source material available, Yukes have gone beyond the call of duty to make the latest Smackdown! game the best wrestling title ever. The amount of depth and attention to detail is incredible; I haven’t even touched on the animation creation system, the factions or the match types in detail. The game’s elements are well thought out and it accurately represents the full spirit of WWE entertainment. It’s quite possibly the best licensed game ever created, staying true to the source material and being damn good fun at the same time. Both graphics and gameplay are accomplished and are combined with a lengthy lifespan and decent audio. HCTP is, in football terms, like combining FIFA 2004 and PES 3. Unstoppable.

10 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is the Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2000. Get in touch on Twitter @PhilipMorton.

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