THQ's last WrestleMania game was an embarrassment to both gamers and THQ. Can starting entirely from scratch lead to redemption for GameCube wrestling?
The Road to WrestleMania has been an interesting one for THQ. After the disastrous reception WrestleMania X8 received, THQ took the franchise back to the drawing board, determined to right the wrongs and release a GameCube wrestling title they could be proud of. By and large, THQ has succeeded with WrestleMania XIX.
The core of any great game must always be solid gameplay. With the high-water mark for wrestling games being the N64’s WWF No Mercy by AKI, it made sense when THQ announced that they had brought former AKI employees in to work on the newest one with Yukes. The result is a game that plays very similarly to EA's Def Jam Vendetta, also made by AKI. Essentially, the game will allow you to do weak punches and grapples with a simple tap of the corresponding button, and stronger punches and grapples when you hold down the same button. There are a wide variety of grapples, including many "context-sensitive" grapples and moves that only happen when you're close enough to, say, the turnbuckles.
Much of the cheapness of the previous title has been eliminated through the use of counters, reducing the ability for button mashers to make too much headway on a skilled opponent. Timing is critical, and while there are icons that will come up on screen to assist newer players, experienced players can turn them off from the options menu. The gameplay refinements don't stop there, as location damage can have you weaken an opponent's limbs or head, and each wrestler has unique power, speed, and strength attributes that will affect how he will handle certain challenges. It's unlikely that Rey Mysterio will be body-slamming The Big Show. There are 45 initially selectable wrestlers in the game, from Triple H, The Rock, and Stone Cold Steve Austin, to John Cena, Brock Lesnar, and Kurt Angle. The game's roster was set as of the end of March 2003, so the game does not emphasize the roster split between Raw and SmackDown. That's not to say that certain updated looks for wrestlers have not been added, such as Christian's shorter hair.
Rather than the standard "chase the belts" mode that you tend to see in other wrestling games, THQ has gone in a different direction, creating a single-player game called simply "Revenge". Your chosen wrestler has been thrown out of the company by Mr. McMahon, and is looking for revenge. Stephanie McMahon, looking to get her own revenge on her father, offers you cash rewards for accomplishing missions, such as destroying the construction site for WrestleMania XIX. The money you earn can be spent in the ShopZone, where you can puchase weapons and parts in the Create-A-Wrestler mode. As you progress through Revenge, you will encounter Boss characters, which become playable once unlocked and purchased in the ShopZone. If there's a drawback to Revenge, it's that the missions lack any sort of logic or grounding in reality, so the mode has an almost slapdash feel to it. It certainly feels strange in a wrestling game to be fighting security guards, but it's a means to an ends.
One of the best parts of a wrestling game is creating your own wrestlers, and Yukes are the masters at the Create-A-SuperStar option. In fact, the mode is almost too deep in WrestleMania XIX, as you are able to thoroughly customize just about every aspect of your created grappler, right down to whether the crowd reacts to him as a heel or a babyface. Even the entrances are customizable: music, stage taunts, walk animations, ring taunts, pyrotechnics… it's all in there. Expect to spend a serious amount of time playing the Revenge mode, because some of the best unlockable moves and entrance animations are locked away until you purchase them.
Those not familiar with the way Def Jam Vendetta plays will want to spend some time in the Tutorial Mode, hosted by Al Snow. Here, you'll learn how to pull off a wide variety of moves, and with as many moves as there are in the game, you'll certainly want to know how to accomplish them all. Snow's banter will become fairly grating as you progress, frequently repeating the same phrases over and over, so have the remote control handy to turn the volume down. The skills you'll pick up in the Tutorial mode are going to become critical as you play against your less able friends.
For standard gameplay modes, you'll find Single, Tag Team, Triple Threat, Fatal Four Way, Handicap, and Royal Rumble matches (as well as the Revenge stages as you unlock them). The match types include Hardcore, Ladder, Table, TLC (Tables, Ladders, and Chairs), Cage, Hell in a Cell, and Ironman (only available in Singles mode). THQ listened a great deal to the fans, so many requested features managed to make the cut. For example, many moves can be performed through a table, making the TLC matches a blast.
For those of you that want to go after the title, the King of the Ring mode will set up a tournament bracket where you can compete for either of the Championship belts, or the Tag Team belts if you prefer. The brackets are created randomly, and while you can manually adjust the brackets as you see fit, the initial brackets will often be incredibly unrealistic, throwing the ladies into the mix. Worse yet, if you choose to not play out the match, you'll frequently find that the ladies end up beating the guys, and it's not uncommon to see one of the WWE Divas getting a World Title shot. Even more disappointing is the fact that the champions don't come to the ring wearing the belt, making the "chase" fairly pointless. The belt is simply displayed on screen at the end of the tournament.
Long a sore spot of WWE wrestling games is the situation with wrestlers who used licensed music for their entrances. While THQ made an admirable attempt at securing as much of the music as they were able, several SuperStars enter to either instrumental versions of their music, older entrance themes, or completely different songs. It's unfortunate that we have yet to see a wrestling game that is up to date with the entrance music, but legalities will likely keep us from ever reaching that goal.
Finally, there are still some lingering gameplay balance issues, perhaps stemming from the new attribute system assigned to the characters. In a match where the player is John Cena with the computer playing as The Rock, no matter how many times Cena would land his finishing move (called the F-U) on The Rock, the latter would never stay down for the pin. This lack of balance was also evident to a lesser degree in other matches as well. It seems that some tweaking could have fixed these problems to some degree. While it does tend to be somewhat realistic, in terms of game mechanics, a skilled player should always feel like they should be able to beat a computer controlled character. None of this matters in multi-player, however, where the only balance issues are whether or not your friend can manage to avoid spilling his drink on the carpet while playing.
THQ has taken great strides with WrestleMania XIX, and it's much improved over their last foray into GameCube wrestling. However, there is still a fair amount of work to be done to really please the die-hard WWE fans. This newest title is fun to play, which is the incredibly important, but in the wrestling world, presentation is 50% of the product, and the presentation in XIX still needs work. Wrestling fans are sure to have fun with the new game engine and plentiful game modes, and it should do well to tide them over until we hopefully see a WrestleMania XX game for GameCube.