Professional wrestling and its video games go through highs and lows, and a lot of these can be down to a particular fan's current tastes and opinions - those who saw the days of the Attitude Era when the likes of Stone Cold and The Rock could trash talk to their heart's content often find themselves shaking their heads at the current 'PG Era' dominated by the likes of John Cena. On the same token, wrestling video games also have their fans of the times - one person's WWF No Mercy can be seen as WWE Crush Hour to others.
All of this can come down to changing times - some things for greater benefit, and others which prove to be distasteful drawbacks. WWE '12 is perhaps best representative of both what's right and wrong with both video games and wrestling in general. It has by far the best pure gameplay and grappling system that makes the game be deserving of being talked of in revered tones similar to No Mercy and Here Comes the Pain, but its absolute dearth of online content is a depressing reminder of the pursuit of more and more money at the expense of a fully-rounded wrestling experience. Bodyslamming, powerbombing and submitting opponents hasn't been this fun or different in ages, but one can't help but feel during playing that you are being shortchanged, even compared with the recent past of WWE video gaming.
WWE '12 is in a way the start of a new wrestling game series, with THQ planning to go by numbered titles similar to the Madden series rather than going under the banner Smackdown vs Raw, especially with the brand split being increasingly irrelevant on actual WWE programming. Being a wrestling game, there's not a lot different to the basic match types and goals - you simply beat on your opponent until you are able to either pin them for a three count, make them submit, knock them out or otherwise win a match. All of the special match types that players have come to expect - such as ladder, elimination chamber and extreme rules matches - are all present and accounted for here. What sets WWE '12 apart and makes it the most significant evolution in the series for a very long time, is the actual mechanics of play. Grapple moves can be utilised on both a healthy and stunned opponent, with varying strengths as well as starting positions. A player has four different weak grapples to utilise on their opponent: a hammer lock, waist lock, headlock and hammer lock. Combined with stunned grapples, you can effectively have twenty unique standing grapple moves at your disposal - and this time, you're actually able to use them. Many people felt that counters were too easy and frequent in Smackdown vs Raw 2011, rendering weak grapples useless. This is definitely not the case in WWE '12 - the countering AI has been tweaked a very interesting fashion. Not only does the game feel far more even-handed with its successful and unsuccessful counters, there are also more chances to counter within a move. A right trigger button will flash at different points in some moves, indicating all the different points a player can press a button in the hopes of not having their skulls meet canvas.
On top of the standard grapple types, there is also now a new limb targeting system that can be very useful on several levels. Grappling a groggy opponent, you are able to press a shoulder button in conjunction with a face button to target a body part - head, arms, torso or legs. This will then activate a simple attack that weakens the chosen part. Weakening body parts has different levels of strategy - firstly, it makes that body part more susceptible to submissions on that part, but there are also other effects. Targeting an opponent's arms will make it more difficult for them to escape a submission maneuver, while zeroing in on their legs will make them slow down and stagger as they walk. You can still target body parts with standard moves, but this method makes it a bit easier and gives a bit more variety into the gameplay, and is a gift to those who enjoy submission matches. It's just as well too - the submission system has been reinvented once again. You will now have the option to make your wrestler physically crawl to the ropes to get the referee to break a submission hold, rather than just hoping that your button mashing wins out.
Another simple but much-requested feature in WWE '12 is the ability to interrupt moves. It's now possible to stop an opponent's suplex/ddt/piledriver from devastating an ally with a simple punch or kick, much as you would break up a pin or submission. You're even able to stop someone from executing their finisher as well.
All of these changes linked together allow for a much more fluid, fast-paced and realistic wrestling game. Transitioning from various grapples and running attacks into ground submissions is a real treat and has little if any of the jerky, stilted movements associated with previous entries in the Smackdown vs Raw series. However, there is a bit of a learning curve for those who are used to the controls of past titles. Once you hit your groove, though, matches are more realistic and entertaining than ever before. If you're coming to the series for the first time, it will be much easier to make that initial adjustment and unlock the full potential of your wrestler.
Another new feature in this year's game is Create An Arena Mode. It plays exactly how it sounds - you are able to construct an arena from the ground up, choosing different colours for mats, aprons, ring ropes and even guard rails. You can also include special decals on any part of the ring, and it comes with a full complement of all the past WrestleManias, allowing you to better recreate some classic encounters. At this stage the mode isn't nearly as expansive as create a wrestler, but it will still be hard to find any two created arenas looking very similar.
The Road To WrestleMania has once again undergone a shakeup - instead of playing out separate storylines at your choosing, you play in three different storylines which all have some elements of crossover, and in some cases directly impact on one another. What's really notable is an interesting quirk to end actions - few of them will actually end with a solid pin in the ring. Most of the time you will find that you will have to press an action button to engage in a cinematic which will either see a match won, lost or a storyline simply continue. It's a bit perplexing that you will lose some matches outright without launching into a cinematic, only to find out that you'll lose the actual match anyway once you do engage the action button when prompted. While the storylines are compelling enough, there seems to be too many backstage handicapped sequences to play through, sometimes for multiple weeks in a row. RTWM will also see you unlock new items, such as WWE Legends, arenas and attires as you play through. In a similar way, the revamped WWE Universe Mode allows for unlockables, but these can be far less random and are more related to actions onscreen. When you see the lineup for matches on a TV or PPV broadcast, you will sometimes see a mystery opponent, which more often than not will be a WWE Legend waiting to be unlocked. In some instances, however, a WWE Legend will come out of nowhere after a match and attack your wrestler, complete with unique commentary.
The audio and visual aspects of WWE '12 are mostly solid, but there are some exceptions that to tend to marr the game somewhat and are one factor in preventing it from reaching greatness. Again, the faces of some wrestlers just don't look quite right. For some reason, CM Punk's look is yet to be completely nailed, while others like Undertaker, Randy Orton and WWE game newcomer Daniel Bryan are pulled off masterfully. In addition to this, there are often several freezes during the overlaying arena shots in the Road To WrestleMania Mode. The freezes won't lock the game up, but they are jarring and are something that should have been polished and eliminated prior to release. On the sound front, wrestlers have more grunts than ever before, with some individual recordings too. Voice acting in RTWM, however, is very mixed. Some wrestler readings are very inconsistent, wavering from dull, hard to hear and uninterested to super enthused and hammy. As far as music in the game goes, all of the wrestler themes are recreated to be as up to date as possible and the soft cock rock in menu screens of past games has been replaced with a much more pleasing metal score.
Despite the misgivings with some of WWE '12's visual aspects, the game's engagement with online functionality is what lets it down, holding it back from being a truly great wrestling game all round. If you imported a non-PAL copy of the game then you're out of luck as THQ have implemented the online pass feature, meaning that you won't be able to access online play or DLC. Speaking of DLC, it is perhaps the one area that really harms the game the most. To put it quite simply, players of WWE '12 are really being taken advantage of, and to get the full experience of the game you end up having to pay much more than you would originally. It wouldn't be so bad if the majority of the content was just attires and arenas - those are things that a lot of players would likely be willing to go without. However, it's the staggering number of DLC wrestlers that can make a player feel short-changed, and the game feels less whole because of it. There are no less than 14 wrestlers which are DLC and all but one or two will have to be paid for. It wouldn't be so bad simply not having a completed wrestler available to you, but having so many crucial ones missing from normal play means that your create a wrestler options are limited in frustrating ways. As well as this, a lot of the wrestlers on offer aren't actually new and have been mainstays in wrestling games for some time now. It's a bit insulting for the marketing of WWE '12 to tout how great it is that the likes of The Rock, Shawn Michaels and Batista are going to be made available as DLC as if it was the first time you could ever play as them, when they've all been in WWE games for several years. Perhaps more insulting is the way they've sprinkled moves among certain wrestlers, meaning they'll be available to use for created wrestlers if you engage in DLC. For example, there is a standing ankle lock which bears some resemblance to the kind used by Ken Shamrock, Kurt Angle and Jack Swagger that will actually make wrestlers tap out, but it's only as DLC....on Michael Cole, of all people. Someone like Cole isn't even an actual wrestler and could have quite easily been thrown in the game as a regular unlockable, but to have him as DLC with a move that fans have been waiting to see for a long time is just a slap in the face...or a steel chair to the head, if you will. It's this kind of cash grab on content that fans would have had easily available to them in the past that really abuses the DLC system and really isn't about pleasing fans at all.
In part, WWE '12 deserves to be seen as a truly great wrestling game. The actual mechanics of play are vastly improved and are the closest thing yet to looking like actual wrestling, and by rights should place it as the gaming equivalent of WWE Champion. Its raw grappling power really is that outstanding and really does live up to being seen as an evolution for the series, and its score really has this aspect to thank. However, it devolves with a lack of visual polish at some points and a gobsmackingly large amount of DLC that is truly exploited. It really does take away from the game as a whole as you're left with much more limited creating options than ever before, taking away one of the strengths of the series and replacing it with a hint of that awful, sweaty taste of Mick Foley's sock in your mouth - at least it would, if he too wasn't DLC.