WrestleMania XIX is an excellent series of steps forward from where we stood with WrestleMania X8. And that's the bottom line ...
Impressions from the Final Build. Scroll down for my previous impressions ...
A word of warning: some of the things I'll go over are extremely nit-picky, and won't impact your gaming experience at all. But as a fan of both games and wrestling, they're things that caught my eye enough to mention.
The game gets off to a great start with an intro package similar to the "Desire" spots that WWE would run that serve to explain that this isn't just a "rigged sport", but that it's a lot of hard work and determination that leads up to a huge show like WrestleMania. The audio is taken from the promos for the WrestleMania XIX Pay-Per-View event, but the footage is from the live show. Anyway, it's a great intro that captures the atmosphere and electricity of the Super Bowl of professional wrestling.
There are several modes of play, including the standard Exhibition mode, "King of the Ring" which is a tournament to capture title belts, "Revenge" which is the heavily publicized (and somewhat controversial) story mode where you're kicked out of the WWE by Vince McMahon, and have to earn your way back into the company. Create-A-Wrestler is back and quite deep, ShopZone (hosted by Stacy Keibler) is where you purchase Create-A-Wrestler parts as well as moves and entrance animations with money earned in the Revenge mode, and a Tutorial Mode that plays out like MTV's Tough Enough, hosted by Al Snow and starring a couple of trainees that look suspiciously like a couple of the winners of Tough Enough. A note on the King of the Ring mode, expect things to be fairly silly in application, since the random bracketing (which can be changed around by the player) makes for some goofy matchups, and some even more unlikely outcomes. Imagine my laughter when Lita came out on top in a match against Triple H. Revenge mode is a bit campy as well, requiring you to throw guards off of buildings or destroy cars, but serves its purpose well. Expect to have a chuckle at the idea of having to destroy the construction site where they are building the arena for WrestleMania XIX, which was held at fairly well known Safeco Field in Seattle.
There are a lot of characters in the game, and the characters (save for Goldberg) were locked down as of the WrestleMania XIX broadcast in March. There is no sign of the brand split being in effect, so all wrestlers are available in all modes. At first blush, there seems to be a fairly RAW-heavy contingent of grapplers, with many up-and-coming SmackDown! stars missing (such as Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin). The entrances are fairly accurate, and while many of the wrestlers look pretty good, they have a somewhat cartoony appearance compared to their real-life counterparts. They move somewhat robotically, until they get to an animation that is unique to the wrestler, which looks more realistic. In fact, there are quite a few surprises in store, such as the classic "Flair Flop", which I was certainly not expecting. The reasoning for the rough animation is actually pretty simple. The animation in the game is all hand-tooled, not motion-captured. THQ tells me that the folks at Yuke's do an awful lot of studying videotapes and photographs to get things as close to accurate as possible. No, it's not perfect, but considering what they were working with, they've done an amazing job.
The moves are pretty deep, and the game plays very similar to EA's Def Jam Vendetta. I have no gripes about this, because it works and works well. One difference is some "controller cues" that pop-up to let the player know to waggle the stick to get out of a groggy state, or L and R buttons that let you know what to press to counter. (Yes, you absolutely CAN turn them off, but they are on by default.) A light press of the A button does a light grapple, holding it initiates a strong grapple. Likewise for the B button and your striking moves. Each wrestler has their standard finishers, and there are even a few thrown in that the wrestlers no longer use for various reasons. For example, the Hurricane can still use the "Vertebreaker" maneuver, although the move was banned from use in the WWE for safety reasons.
There is a locational damage model in the game, and not only can a wrestler be busted open (according to THQ, WrestleMania XIX will be the first current-generation WWE wrestling game released featuring blood), but as you wear down a body part, the wrestler will eventually begin to favor that injury, such as limping on an injured leg. Put on a finisher that restricts the use of that limb, and victory is assured.
One thing that's already starting to bug me is the tendency for things in the ring, like the ropes or a fallen wrestler, to "flicker" somewhat annoyingly. This is something I had noticed in earlier builds, and was assured would be fixed. I'm assuming this problem was pushed down the priority list as the ship date was approaching, and was considered not to be significant enough to warrant fixing. Still, it puts a blemish on an otherwise fine game. Less annoying but still noticeable is the tendency for some of the video packages to stutter during wrestler entrances, Kurt Angle's being the most obvious. Finally, I've noticed that the entrance ramp for the WrestleMania XIX set isn't quite accurate. The arena is pretty authentic, and is a pretty good model of Safeco Field, but the entrance ramp doesn't have a bend in it going to the ring as it did at the actual show, to accomodate the wrestlers coming in from center field. It's so small that most people wouldn't even notice, but I was at WrestleMania XIX, and it's something I remember quite clearly. I do have to mention that they included the part of the huge ad banner that was visible behind the video screens, as well as the parts of the park that are exposed to the outside. It would have been nice to hear a train going through the downtown Seattle area during matches, but that's a ridiculous expectation.
Long a problem in WWE games is the licensing of music. The WWE contracts a fair portion of wrestler's entrance themes, some borrowed from popular songs or up-and-coming artists, but THQ has to purchase the rights to each song individually in order to use it in the game. They've done a fine job, but sometimes there isn't time to get every song locked down. As such some SuperStars will have an instrumental version of their theme (notably Victoria's theme, licensed from T.A.T.U.), while others will have a previous theme song (such as The Dudley's theme). It's not a big deal, and it's better than we've had to deal with in the past, but it would be nice if THQ and WWE were able to include licensing that music as part of the deal for the games, relieving THQ of a needless burden.
Overall, I'm very impressed with WrestleMania XIX, as much as I have every other time I've been fortunate enough to play the game. THQ has taken large strides in bringing the series back from the brink, and the game should satisfy Cube owners looking to get their WWE wrestling fix. Look for a detailed review (and I mean DETAILED) as the game approaches its release date.
Updated Impressions from E3
WrestleMania XIX has come a long way since the preview build I saw back at the end of March. In just about a month and a half, they have six characters playable, the RAW set is in, Hell in a Cell is available, and you can try a bit of the single player “out of the ring” career mode. For some reason, The Undertaker isn’t playable this time around (he was in the March build), but Rey Mysterio is there, along with Hulk Hogan, Rob Van Dam, Kurt Angle, The Big Show, and the current WWE Champion, Brock Lesnar.
The character models are outstanding, featuring incredibly detailed textures. The tattoos on both Mysterio and Lesnar are very vivid and realistic. They seem to have taken a great deal of care making sure that each character looks and moves just right. Hogan comes out to “Voodoo Child”, sporting a red and yellow feathered boa, playing the air guitar and tearing off his shirt… all just as you would expect. The camera work has been vastly improved, and is much less likely to get caught under the ring, though it’s not yet perfected.
The sound still has a bit of work to go, while the sounds in the ring are good enough, the crowd noise is largely random and things like the “You Suck” chant to Kurt Angle’s entrance music was a bit out of sync. The entrance music is all as authentic as possible, and the music during the match is not at all distracting and out of place, which is somewhat of a rarity.
The game plays much like Def Jam Vendetta and No Mercy, which is what AKI wrestling fans have told THQ that they wanted. THQ is paying a great deal of attention to how the game’s controls handle, going as far as to ask me how I felt about waggling the analog stick to get out of a dizzy condition… a subject of debate within THQ. “How would YOU do that if you were designing this game?” I offered a few suggestions including simply mashing the controller buttons, or spinning the C-Stick instead, making it less likely that you would take your right hand off the controller to waggle the analog stick faster. Hammering the face buttons is apparently an option they are looking into as well, so that feedback will be going back to Yuke’s in order to experiment.
Fans should really be rejoicing at this point, because the game is making huge strides and is already better than WMX8 in every possible way. Create-A-Wrestler isn’t available to play, but will definitely be in the game. Oh, and I did get confirmation today that while the WrestleMania XIX roster was set as of March 30th… GOLDBERG will definitely be in the game, guaranteed. THQ is getting this game right, and is making sure that they will give you exactly what you’ve been begging for. And it's coming Q3 of this year.
You can read Rick's impressions from after the WrestleMania XIX event below.
It’s a pretty rare thing in this industry when a company will not only admit when they’ve failed, but they then turn around and do everything possible to make good on prior broken promises. At THQ’s WrestleMania XIX event this past Sunday, the company did just that. In their initial presentation, THQ made it very clear that they are listening to fans and journalists alike. They want to make sure you judge this game based on what the game delivers this time, and to not let the travesty that was WrestleMania X8 weigh unfairly on this product.
To that end, THQ is turning the series around 180 degrees, aiming to deliver in five key areas. First and foremost, they want the game to be fun. They want people to be able to pick up the game and have a blast with it. This was something severely lacking in WrestleMania X8, but if this early look at the game is any indication, even the THQ staff really enjoys playing the game.
Second, they’ve developed a new gameplay system that gives you depth without the stifling complexity you’d see in other games. You initiate a grapple with the A button, tapping it for a weak grapple and holding it down for a strong grapple, at which point you can unleash a move or your opponent can counter. The buttons usually have this dual context, even outside of grapples, where they do one thing when tapped, or another when held. Best of all, it gives you a great variety of moves without having to initiate a ridiculous series of button presses to do one move. It’s not the No Mercy grapple engine, but it actually feels a lot faster and easier, and with a similar variety of moves from any given position.
Third, THQ wants to make sure that the AI is more “organic”, and can learn from the player. For example, if the player is primarily using a couple of moves, the computer will learn to expect those moves and counter them. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see this during my brief time with the game, as this pre-alpha demo was limited to just Rey Mysterio and The Undertaker.
Next, they want to make sure that the presentation of the game is in line with what fans expect when they see a WWE broadcast. You know what to expect when you see RAW or SmackDown! on TV, or a Pay-Per-View event, and THQ is going to ensure that feeling is translated into the product. We were able to catch glimpses of this progress through the use of some very dynamic camera angles that happen not only during an instant replay, but also as some other moves are made, the camera would pan out and turn around. There was a definite “wow” factor to that effect, which is the last thing THQ is set on delivering. WrestleMania X8 didn’t convey any sense of excitement, but even in this build, we were quite impressed with the level of refinement.
The game has been in development since last May, with people from both Yuke’s and former AKI employees completely rebuilding the engine from scratch, and it’s pretty clear right from the get-go that they know what they want to do this time around. Even with only two characters to play with, you could see a lot of what they’ve put into the game. The animation is very fluid, more so than even the very good SmackDown: Shut Your Mouth for PlayStation 2. Fans of wrestling know that The Undertaker and Rey Mysterio have completely different ways of moving around the ring, and each one moves just as you would expect in the game. Rey is quick and agile, and even when standing still, he sort of crouches and weaves, ready for anything. Taker moves more slowly and more deliberately, and you can almost feel the power behind his punches. It wouldn’t matter how accurately the wrestlers moved if you couldn’t recognize who was pulling them off, but the wrestlers I saw were incredibly well detailed. A lot of work has gone into getting them to look just right; the animation is a combination of motion capture and hand animation. THQ told me that they use a lot of photographs to get the details just right.
The two wrestlers were different heights, and they wrestlers seemed to be aware of that height difference, something we haven’t seen much of in other games. When standing toe-to-toe, Rey Mysterio would look up at The Undertaker, which was pretty interesting. Height and speed aren’t the only differences, as the wrestlers will all have different stats that determine how they will work in a match. Power, stamina, etc. will all play a part. As I played the game, you could see this system in effect, as you needed to be very skilled with Mysterio in order to get the better of Taker. Rey didn’t have as much power or stamina as Taker, and he needed to use that speed to stay out of Taker’s grasp. These stats are augmented somewhat with a “momentum meter” above the wrestler’s name, which changes from the default green to red, as the player starts doing well giving them a small bump to their stats. As a player’s momentum drops, the meter will fade from green to blue, giving them a small loss in stats as well. Gaining the edge in the match and keeping it is going to be an important part of the strategy in WrestleMania XIX.
Fans of wrestling “psychology” will love the new location damage feature. You can target a specific part of your opponent’s body, weakening an arm or leg (or even head) to the point where the victim will start to “sell” that injury during the match, favoring the damaged area. Weakening a specific limb will also give you an advantage when your wrestler’s moveset targets a limb. Of course, WrestleMania XIX will be the first wrestling game in this generation to feature blood. The screen flashes red briefly to alert you to the fact that a wrestler has been busted open, and then the juice will start to flow.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a wrestling game without the trademark finishing moves, and the game looks to deliver them in a somewhat new way. With every punch, successful grapple, and reversal you land, your adrenaline meter fills. When completely full, one “special” bar (out of three) will light up. Pressing A and B at the same time will initiate your special “mode” which lasts for a limited amount of time, around 10 seconds or so, and will put a fascinating glow around the wrestler’s name. The wrestler will give a signal, such as The Undertaker dragging his thumb across his throat, signaling the demise of his opponent. Hitting the A and B buttons again when in the proper placement for the move will use that wrestler’s finisher, but if you run out of time before you pull off the move, you’ve wasted a special bar.
Speaking of the finishers, they look fantastic. Each is incredibly realistic and has that distinctive look you’ve come to expect. The Undertaker hoists his opponent up for the “Last Ride”, even tugging them by the trunks, just like on TV. There are few moves quite as spectacular as Mysterio’s “619”, as he slingshots himself through the ropes horizontally, whipping around and kicking the victim in the head. The wrestlers have multiple finishers as well; Undertaker also sports both the “Tombstone Piledriver” and the “Choke Slam”, and Mysterio has the “Top Rope Hurricanrana” and “Sit Out Face Slam”.
The story mode has had people talking, where Vince McMahon fires you, and you have to gain your revenge. You will battle McMahon flunkies in a variety of locations, using the environments to your advantage. You’ll be able to climb all over objects to try and gain the upper hand. As you progress, you’ll earn cash which can be spent in the WWE ShopZone, unlocking more costumes, wrestlers, features and more.
The arenas weren’t all in place yet, but we did get to see brief glimpses of the “RAW” set, and it looked very accurate. As for the WrestleMania set, the WWE had several hard and roaming cameras in place to get the arena from every angle, but THQ won’t just rely on that footage. They’ll actually be getting a lot of information from tapes of events and shows, so they can review them over and over again to make sure they get it right. After seeing the WrestleMania event live, the arena looked spectacular, and seeing that translated into the game should be very impressive.
Overall, the game was surprisingly polished for an early build, feeling fresh and new, and I am enthusiastic about the new direction in which THQ is taking the title. If the rest of the game is as refined as this brief glimpse, fans should have no problem dismissing the failed WrestleMania X8 in favor of this new entry to the series.