I don’t feel embarrassed to say that there was a time I used to enjoy playing wresting games. This isn’t because I was only as old as my shoe size back then (14) but because they were good fun. There was WWF WrestleFest in the arcade, which had huge crowd drawing colorful visuals and a four player mode, and then later WWF Wrestlemania by Midway with large digitized sprites and Mortal Kombat style special moves. WWF Superstars on the original GameBoy was probably the best brawer for the system too until the belated conversion of Street Fighter II turned up. It’s WWF: Royal Rumble on Mega Drive though that I have the fondest memories off, as I used to play it loads with a friend. We’d play Royal Rumble mode cooperatively, and also giggle like the immature schoolboys that we were over the ability to smack the referee in the chops.
Thanks to a brain full of nostalgia, it was the Royal Rumble mode that got my attention first. It’s a 30 man affair where 12 players can partake – if you get thrown out early then chances are you’ll get to ‘respawn’ as a randomly chosen character. It can take a while to get into a game (due to hosts leaving the lobby, people not choosing characters straight away, etc) but matches can last around 20 minutes and they’re pretty engaging. Once you have the opposition against the ropes a button bashing mini-game occurs which can be particularly challenging if there are two people trying to throw you out at once. Survive though, and you’ll get awarded extra experience points. Spectating isn’t as thrilling but the developers have at least been thoughtful enough to let you bet on who’ll be thrown out next.
Another thing that makes Royal Rumble mode one of the highlights is because custom made characters can be used, so it’s a good chance for people to show off the weird and wonderful wrestlers they’ve created. I used my effigy of Kratos from God of War, although after designing him I released that I shouldn’t have bothered. With his pasty white skin and ginger beard, WWE legend Shamus bares more than a resemblance to Kratos anyway. You can also design posters for people to hold up in the crowd via a basic art package.
Presentation is a real mixed bag. Really mixed. The character models look brilliant as does the crowd which is made up of 3D humans – most pleasing is the way that they scarper if you leave the ring and start fighting near to where they’re standing. The animation though looks a little disjointed. The individual moves look smooth but if you string a few together they don’t flow seamlessly with characters changing stances in the blink of an eyelid. Fortunately some nifty camera work makes up for this, zooming in when performing a finisher or adding motion blur and slowdown to powerful punches. After playing most of EA’s annual sports games recently the commentary also comes across as being incredibly poor in comparison. Sometimes they even say the same thing three times in a row. Sometimes they even say the same thing three times in a row. Sometimes they even say the same thing three times in a row. Annoying, isn’t it?
The tutorial mode fairs much better – as soon as the game loads there’s a ring to mess around in, much like FIFA 11’s kick-around arena, where hint boxes pop up to teach you the moves. It’s much more entertaining than a dull, forced, tutorial.
It’s this, coupled with an easy to learn control system, that makes the game fun to play. It’s not as joypad punishing as THQ’s own UFC: Undisputed either and everything can be tailored to your own preferences. You can even simulate matches in the WWE Universe mode if you don’t want to play them. Fun is also a word I’d use to describe the Road to Wreslemania story mode. The voice acting is a bit ropey and the backdrops are far from being stunningly detailed but there it’s pleasingly varied. You’re free to walk around backstage and talk to characters, or start a fight by shoving them as they go about their business. Skills can be upgraded too by visiting the doctor. Backstage brawls are amusing – the opposition can be lobbed into vending machines and trashcans, folding chairs and fire extinguishers used as weapons. Deep and sophisticated it isn’t, but you have to admire the variety and freedom. Which, coincidentally, pretty much sums up the rest of the game as well.