Toughing it out.
WWE '12 is an uncomplicated title that deserves an uncomplicated review. THQ has knocked out the "Smackdown vs. RAW" bit for a simpler name, in a fitting sign that it has returned the series to its core gameplay. Apart from several tweaks and additions, WWE '12 doesn't revolutionize the series in any significant way, but instead focuses on tightening the combat, updating the graphics a touch, and making everything leaner and meaner. Though it sometimes takes the franchise back too much in the process, WWE '12 is a suitably strong title for any video game wrestling fan.
When it comes to annual sports and fighting franchises, controls are usually changed for the sake of having a talking point. Here, the intention is not as trivial, improving both the fluidity and maneuvability of the combat system. Initiating and transitioning between front and back grappling holds can be done with ease. The same goes for lifting an opponent laying flat on the mat into a front or back lock. If you have a finisher ready, after building enough energy and hopefully nailing a signature, you can perform a wake-up taunt where the opponent picks himself off the mat all dazed and confused.
Wrestlers still have access to the standard array of grappling maneuvers and basic strikes, with gut kicks now preset since they're essentially ubiquitous in addition to a four-hit strike combination. With some luck and the right timing, you can also land a strong strike that will usually knock an opponent right to the floor. Strong grapples require a little more luck as they require an opponent to be groggy, though having a solid grasp on irish whips, running grapples, and downed attacks is enough to swing any match in your favor.
In a bit of nostalgia, breaking point submissions return to the days of mashing buttons as furiously as possible. But if you attempt a submission without targeting the enemy's appropriate limbs, it won't hold for long. Most attacks already target a specific body part, revealed by viewing the attack in the moveset editor, but for further precision, you can activate the limb targeting system when the opponent is groggy, held in a grapple, or down on the mat. A body display, which will be familiar to veterans of the WWE series, will pop up showing the health of the opponent's limbs (head, body, arms, and legs). Any limb highlighted red means that the opponent has been severely weakened and is now more prone to groggy grapples and breaking point submissions if that limb is targeted.
Having limb health appear only when it's necessary is in an effort to make the screen HUD-less. The limb health display isn't even necessary either, since wrestlers will hold any damaged limb during combat. Beyond an indicator for reversals and a word that appears for a finisher or signature move, most of which can be turned off, the action can be shown with minimal interruption.
Overall, combat has been made more difficult mainly due to the reliance on the reversal system to fight off the relentless AI opponents. Getting players to learn how to reverse a move is a noble venture, and it encourages an online space where any competitive WWE veteran will not only thrive, but also face tougher opponents.
The trouble is that the combat has now become too narrowly focused on reversals to the point of frustration. Once an opponent starts wailing on you, the onslaught usually won't stop until you've successfully reversed an attack, which can be irritating when you swear you hit the right button at the right time. Since each opponent uses different moves with different timing, nailing a reversal boils down to a guessing game (an educated one, but a guessing game nonetheless). Even on the easiest difficulty setting with the easiest balance control options, the game will have its fair share of seemingly unfair moments. In fact, it would have been better if there was a mode or at least a detailed description dedicated to learning reversals more easily if they're going to be this important.
This year's Road to Wrestlemania follows a straightforward approach that seamlessly transitions between three linear stories based on a wrestler archetype: the Villian story featuring Shaemus, the Outsider story featuring Triple H, and the Hero story featuring a created wrestler of your choice named Jacob Cass. Each story runs through more than 20 weeks, where each week challenges you to beat an opponent or multiple opponents with varying conditions. It's nothing veterans of the series haven't seen before.
Unfortunately, that's the problem—there are no additional RPG elements, no options to start the Outsider or Hero story first as each story needs to be done in sequence, and no substantial improvement made to the Road to Wrestlemania modes from previous titles. Also, most objectives have you weaken or defeat an opponent... only for you to lose. It happens often in these games and in WWE (in real-life?), but here it happens about half of the time. Sometimes you'll face a series of five opponents in an elimination chamber match, restarting at checkpoints multiple times, and finally conquer your foes... only to get bamboozled at the end. By the fifteenth match, there's little reason to feel personally invested in the mode at all; instead of playing the story, you'll feel like it's the other way around.
I must also alert you that when you choose a created character to stand in for Jacob Cass in the Hero story, the character's name, scale values, and entire moveset is altered to fit the role. I tell you this now because this wan't made clear to me, which meant I had to spend four hours duplicating the character over to an empty slot and fixing everything from scratch. Thinking it over, there's little reason why the developers decided to have your created character roleplay as Jacob Cass and not, well, the created character. With all the voiced nicknames that can be made, it's hardly impossible to imagine using the created character's nickname instead of Jacob Cass or just to refer to the creater character in the third person. Players will understand—they have for years.
Beyond that, the number of minor improvements are commendable. The character modeling has been made even more realistic, the roster has been updated with plenty of new additions, and the loading times have been slightly reduced. Several scenes have been added to the story mode, allowing for more possibilities, and a new create an Arena mode has joined the other creation options with the limited ability to alter the colors of a ring and some of the objects surrounding it. The WWE Universe has also been updated with new scenarios and will allow you to interrupt and change pretty much everything you want.
Otherwise, every other mode, particularly the online multiplayer ranked matches and shareable created content, remains intact. This includes the character stat customizer and all unlockables code, both available for a dollar in the online store. If you need an Online Axxess code or want to get in on the Fan Axxess DLC program, they're available as well.
The largest misstep of WWE '12 has nothing to do with the game itself, but with the fact that it's been released near the tail end of the holiday rush. This hardly makes it a disappointing game in any way, just not as interesting or exciting compared to the incredible string of extraordinary titles circling around it. That said, WWE '12 is a decent offering that gets the job done without much fuss and deserves to be in any WWE fan's collection.
Review based on X360 version. Copy provided by publisher.