Many of those advancements are entirely mechanical. Grappling and submissions have a bit more depth, and transitions between moves are generally smooth. A welcome addition this year is the limb targeting system, where players can focus on bringing pain to specific areas of their opponent's body. That added layer of strategy is excellent for submission specialists like Daniel Bryan and Alberto Del Rio, two of the many wrestlers on the game's large roster.
Opponent AI is all over the place, with the difference between the best and worst wrestler being miles apart, which isn't far from the reality of how WWE television is booked.
A match in WWE '12 is like a guided tour between moves, where an icon flashes briefly to indicate the split-second window where (if you're lucky) you can stop that guided tour, and move into your own offensive move. You could argue that offsetting the inability to intentionally "lose" like wrestlers do is why these right-trigger reversals are damn near impossible to execute. Some matches, like starting early in the 40-man Royal Rumble, become a test of patience and perfect timing.
As expected, WWE '12
shines in its creation modes. I painstakingly created my wrestler, Zombie Cowboy, complete with his own move set, entrance, and finishing move. Unlike other creation systems in close-combat games, it's hard to come away unsatisfied (save for the lack of a Scorpion Death Drop in the game). Your character gets pulled into the action in WWE Universe mode, which makes its return this year. Zombie Cowboy suddenly found himself paired up with Santino Marella, and in a feud with Internet darling Zack Ryder.
Universe mode kept my passive interest, as it built matches for each show, generating allies and rivalries through each bout. When you jump into the mode and play a few matches, the game will have other wrestlers interfere, and sprinkle in enough extra action to create drama. Match cards continue to generate for each show as long as you continue to play the game.
A glaring lack of significant dialogue in WWE Universe mode forces the player to fill in the blanks, and your options in creating stories are somewhat limited. In a tag team match with Kane and Big Show, I decided (as Big Show) to walk up the ramp as if I were walking out on my partner. The game stubbornly refused to accept my desire to cause a rift between my partnership, as it had plans of its own. Even in its own confines of "show, don't tell" storytelling, my hands were tied, and I kept walking into an invisible wall. Still, players are able to modify match cards, and even select wrestlers they'd like to have interfere in matches. In that sense, players are able to impact feuds to a degree.
Road to WrestleMania acts as the core single player campaign mode. Rather than picking the main character of the story, players follow the fictitious tale of three specific wrestlers, starting with Sheamus and the foundation of a feud wrestling fans would love to see take form on TV: The United Kingdom. The story mode in this game guides players through each week in wrestling, complete with backstage assaults, surprise matches, and title bouts. This "on-rails" story works as an intriguing mode that replicates what you see on TV, and is more of a story mode than past games. Wrestling fans will want to see how Yuke's delivers the framework of a story that would be suited for Monday Night Raw.
Like other WWE products, the production values are top-notch. Transitions between screens and match cards look like they're pulled directly from television. In-game lighting and character models are realistic. The game looks the best it ever has, save for the mostly static, emotionless expressions on wrestlers' faces. Commentary is solid, as Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler wander off topic on occasion, and Cole persists in his realistic, unabashed praise of heels like The Miz.
That's not to say the game is flawless. Voice acting will bottom-out with the most lifeless clips from wrestlers. The impression I get from a majority of promos that wrestlers deliver on the mic is that the sound bytes were recorded in one clean take, and then the audio file was shoved through a preset echo effect to make it sound like it was recorded in an arena. Crowd noise doesn't mix well with these dull promos, encouraging players to mash the "skip" button on nearly every cut-scene they see. Like it or not, "acting" is a huge part of wrestling. WWE '12
tries to avoid that as much as possible.
Additionally, player models still swivel and slide to meet each other. Running strikes sometimes wildly miss instead of even remotely suctioning to hit opponents. Animations don't always match up, and in one online match (rare, considering the currently unstable state of THQ's servers) a wrestler clipped through the ropes from the apron straight to the mat. Tag partners that wander into the ring get in the way when they aren't hopping on and off the apron constantly. Surely, if WWE '12
decides to neglect what wrestling is about, it should carry on as a flawless fighting game. There are enough noticeable bugs, and even glitchy move-sets out there to say the game has issues.
The (rock) bottom line here is that WWE '12
is fun. It's a great combat game, and excellent for those that aren't marks for the innards of wrestling. You know, the "real" stuff. There's no doubt that THQ and Yuke's could make a game for those purposes, where stories are better told and interacted with, and the actual business of pro wrestling is out there for players to toy with. That's not on the cards here, as wrestling stories are told through action, and players have to connect a few dots themselves.
Still, those that don't care about who is "getting pushed" and instead are only in it for the sport's superficial, heavy-handed brand of brawling will not be disappointed.
This review is based on a retail copy of the 360 version of WWE '12 provided by THQ.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.