System: various :: Rating: Teen :: Players: 1-4
Genre: Wrestling :: Released: 22 November 2011
By Damien Wilkens
29 November 2011 — Making a wrestling game is hard. Forget for a second even trying to deliver a somewhat up-to-date product in the given timeframe, you also have to replicate a complex and often misunderstood blend of, well, sports and entertainment. It's easy to see why most wrestling games are inconsistent at best and abysmal at worst. You have to simulate a choreographed fight under the limitations of a spontaneous, legitimate contest. It's a constant battle of expectation vs. execution, style vs. substance, and fantasy vs. reality. In a lot of ways, it's like the WWE itself.
Unfortunately, unlike in the real world, if you're disenfranchised with the WWE video game product, there aren't a multitude of independent companies providing an alternative. If you want wrestling on your Xbox 360, it's THQ's WWE series or nothing, which can be a bitter pill to swallow most years.
For all the perils of yearly releases, you really get the feeling with WWE '12 that more is being done to rebrand the franchise than just the name. Though the control scheme has seemingly been overhauled in every single iteration, this year's move back to the face buttons feels more permanent. It's surprising just how much more weight the wrestlers seem to have when their moves are no longer dictated by a flick of the analog stick. Combine this with the much hyped "Predator" AI technology, and matches feel initially fresher — despite looking almost exactly the same. It's still far from perfect. You still have guys like Mark Henry and Big Show exchanging wrist lock reversals in cage matches, but computer-controlled opponents are no longer a pushover. Instead of the CPU waiting to reverse your next move, you will be attacked from bell to bell. In a somewhat baffling move, selling has been reduced, and completely eliminated for some moves. An opponent that just received a devastating slam will often jump back up to his feet, albeit, clutching his neck. While this makes quick TV-style matches flow better, ladder matches are now more impossible than ever. It will take 14 ladder shots, three finishers, and a bloody shotgun blast before you reach that title — and only if you shot him on the ramp.
Until we reach a point where you're encouraged to work more towards an exciting match than a victory, there may never be a solution to what's ailed the series for so long: making matches look and feel as they do on TV. The new comeback ability is a step in the right direction, but it's only available to a select few wrestlers and is extremely easy to counter. After a few hours, the game starts to feel the same as it always has: clunky, full of awkward chain wrestling, and over in a matter of minutes. In that sense, WWE '12 is really good at simulating the typical Divas match.
The feature set is what you've come to expect, with some minor changes. All of the create modes are still intact; Superstar, entrance, move, and story are relatively unchanged from previous years. The big addition in this go-round is Create-an-Arena, which allows you to use custom logos to replicate or invent any configuration you could imagine. Create-a-Ring would be more accurate, as anything from the ramp onwards is off limits, crushing my dreams of reviving the epic Smackdown fist or relocating to a half-empty Elks Lodge for an ECW show. Users online have already created near-perfect renditions of the TNA and ROH rings, but as with a lot of the game, the changes are merely cosmetic and the appeal wears off fairly quickly.
Universe mode is back and a lot of the issues from last year have been addressed, namely the constant breaking up of tag teams and repetition of storylines. Angles actually seem to carry over several weeks instead of just acting as one-offs, and title matches can now happen on any show against any contender you choose. You can even rename and flat out replace RAW, Smackdown, and Superstars with any custom-made show of your choosing, along with its unique roster and arena. This is where things get to be a bit of a pain, however. Moving wrestlers to a custom show is needlessly complicated, as the game will still try to keep the mandatory roster of 15 onto one of the defaults, preventing you from making moves until the new show you're trying to replace it with also has 15. While great for fans of math puzzles, it's not so wonderful for those simply trying to make a cool roster of WCW guys for your new Nitro show. Universe mode also has a nasty habit of forcing storylines on you, regardless of your interest in them. For reasons I'm not quite sure I want to know, the game was determined to have Brock fight Jim Ross every single week for the affections of Layla, even though JR was set as a non-wrestling free agent. You can, of course, change these matches, but the game will continue to generate them until the story plays out. Shows will also retain the preset logic of their defaults, meaning you can transform the July Money in the Bank PPV into "Twitter, guest starring the Grappling Arts," but it will still include a Money in the Bank match.
Road to Wrestlemania, easily the worst part of last year's game, is actually home to some pretty interesting ideas this year. There is only one story to play through this time, split into three parts: Villain, Outsider, and Hero. The acting is still hammy and the storylines often feel like Tumblr fan fiction, but the execution keeps things interesting, cutting to important plot twists in the middle of matches. If there's any downside, it's that these cutscenes are clearly there to make up for limitations of the engine. Often you'll find yourself saying, "Man, I wish I could do that in the actual game."
And that's always been the main problem of the series. For every element of freedom, every new thing the game allows you to do, you're constantly reminded of all the things that you still can't. You can see everything in WWE '12 over a weekend, and online play adds little to the experience (there are still a ton of cheaters and the servers are down more often than not). All the added bells and whistles are a nice touch, but even after what's being considered a complete gameplay overhaul, the matches, well, they're still not that fun to play. Is it better than WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011? Absolutely, but it's also very much the same game we've been playing for years, and making the ropes a different color isn't going to do much in the way of changing that. It's difficult to say exactly where the series can even go from here, as you get the feeling that WWE '12 may legitimately be the best they can do on modern hardware. Much like the current wrestling product, there are no quick fixes or easy answers, just a loyal fan base and the hope that it can one day be as great as its potential.
Final Grade: 7/10.