WWF Smackdown! 2: Know Your Role
Good news, 90s kids. The Rock is still as cool as you remember him, and, provided pre-teens continue to lack discriminating taste when it comes to film making quality, always will be. For as long as the disposable Disney cash cow keeps Dwayne Johnson in a job and away from the ring, you won’t find The Rock making any ill-advised returns to the ring as an out of shape jobber, nor will you watch the Brahma Bull being put through his paces in cheap gimmick matches with mid-card TNA pugilists. He’ll never wind up on reality television, and you won’t open up a newspaper one day to read about him overdosing on horse tranquilliser cocktails. The most electrifying man in sports entertainment will certainly never produce any horrifically underwhelming pornography starring Joanie Laurer. Much as we’ll miss him, the departure of the Great One from our lives at least leaves the character preserved in the amber of history, forever in his prime.
Other childhood memories are altogether more attainable. Unlike its eyebrow raising cover star, Smackdown! 2: Know Your Role sits snugly inside my PSone to this day, ever ready to be rediscovered and pored over with the thick spectacles of a score-assigning critic rather than the rose tinted ones of a nostalgic fan. What remains to be seen is whether or not the one-liners are still as memorable, the shirts still as loud, and the elbow drops still as elaborately garnished as back in the day.
Certainly this is a game threaded expertly with all the pomp and circumstance the attitude era was renowned for. Hearing Jim Ross scream about how “Anything can happen in the World Wrestling Federation!” during the loading screen is now a familiar reminder of how things were in the days before brand extension, elimination chambers, and the near constant residence of the World Heavyweight Championship around the waist of a certain Mr. Hearst Helmsley, and back in the day was an exciting opener to a massive release. Follow this up with an action packed opening video, chock full of footage from wrestling’s golden era, and the message is delivered to our pre-teen minds with a measure of clarity: 2000 is the best Christmas ever. At the time, the game was more than capable of backing this early flurry up with a hugely satisfying fighting engine framed with a considerable variety of game modes which kept the play fresh until the release of Just Bring It on the PS2.
Almost nine years later and, upsettingly, the gleaming façade doesn’t hold up for quite as long. Selection screens are puzzlingly disparate, without any common style throughout the offering. It surely couldn’t have demanded a Herculean effort on behalf of the coders to make every aspect of the game retain a uniform menu pattern, and while it doesn’t pose any significant threat to our enjoyment of the game, it does serve to cheapen the experience somewhat.
What lies beyond these screens, however, is a wealth of features almost as impressive now as it was when Smackdown! 2 was produced. The game is a highly polished package which features every WWF wrestler and match type worthy of note at the time, although the impressive statistics plastered across the box (“Over 50 WWF superstars!”) is sometimes achieved at the expense of any true diversity. Many game modes are interchangeable with others or poor recreations of the real-world events, and superstars’ storyline personas rarely factor in to cut scenes or match tactics. As such, expect to see Kurt Angle and Eddie Guerrero deliver identical DDTs, or Stone Cold Steve Austin and Chyna knocking out the same suplex during a casket match which could easily be an “I Quit” match for all the tactical difference it makes. Still, by the time THQ have thrown a host of fight locations beyond the limits of the squared circle into the bargain, even the most cynical of detractors would be forced to concede that there’s considerable bang for your buck here.
This rings even more true in light of the several highly detailed “create” tools included. The create-a-wrestler mode is an undisputed improvement upon previous PSone entries, with enough clothing and facial feature inclusions to allow for the creation of a realistic competitor or freak show exhibit in equal measure. Know Your Role is also the pioneer of the now-mandatory nods to rival promotions, with face paint and tattoo items just begging to contribute to the likenesses of Goldberg or Sting. All in all it’s a tidy little package, in which a relatively meagre amount of effort is rewarded with a custom character you can be proud of. Or at least one for which you won’t be roundly mocked.
Of course, all of this is trivialised by comparison with the fight mechanics, the most crucial element of the game by some margin. First impressions are mixed; in a genre which has become increasingly about spectacle at the expense of experience, the immediacy of the grappling is, perhaps expectedly, disorientating. No triple-layered attacks to be found here – it’s a rush to strike first and swing momentum in your favour before building to a succession of manoeuvres, each more of a slobberknocker than the last. This to-the-point combat may be unfamiliar to fans of sports entertainment but it does far greater justice to the fighting genre than any recent WWE attempts, creating enthralling bouts almost every time Smackdown! 2 is booted up. The lack of the “left trigger / right trigger” guesswork in reversals will strike some as dangerously oversimplified, but in reality the mechanic is still nuanced and delicate enough to hit just the right balance of skill and luck, and with the fast pace of match-ups entire outcomes can hinge on split second discrepancies and timely reversals. It’s unelaborated back-and-forth fun, and as with all entries to the wrestling genre extended beatings can build a sense of frustration and helplessness, but it only takes a moment for the tables to turn and the result to be firmly back in the balance. More than other instalments, Smackdown! 2 gives everybody, from a complete novice to a dedicated smark, the chance at glory. Weapons are underpowered, characters samey and repetitive, and the outrage of watching an opponent get back to their feet just moments after what should’ve been an earth-trembling stunner is unspeakable, but taken as a whole every fight in the game is a joy to be part of.
It’s a real shame, then, that the career mode can’t do the action justice. THQ saw fit to fill each event with eight – count them – matches, of which your character will be part of one, or none. Instead of offering you the chance to skip the rest of these bouts, like any reasonable pro wrestling game, Smackdown! 2 instead puts you at the mercy of coloured bars which deplete under the picture of each participating superstar until one empties, indicating a victory for the opponent. From start to finish the operation takes perhaps 10 seconds, but it’s the soul-destroying loading in to and out of each one that really irritates. The reasoning behind this seems to be that after specific matches you can watch the backstage events of the show unfold, but unless you really care about whether or not Essa Rios is satisfied with his opening fixture victory over Funaki, they are completely worthless. Only very occasionally do any of these pauses have relevance to your character or the storylines of the week, and when they do it appears to be out of sheer luck. The option to cut directly to the main event chase and avoid the lower-card bush-beating could’ve made this a viable game mode, but as it is we can do without. There are only so many cut-scenes you can impatiently tap X at before concluding that The Rock was never that awesome anyway.
So, as a fully-fleshed game perhaps Smackdown! 2 doesn’t have what makes its modern siblings the occupiers of free time that they are, but sometimes all you care about is knocking that smug grin from Triple H’s chubby, nose-dominated face. On those occasions, this is your game.