The SmackDown series remained the dominant force in pro wrestling gaming for over a decade. While challengers like TNA and Lucha Libre tried, only one thing could dethrone SD: the game makers themselves. This year publisher THQ dumped the brand to replace it with WWE 12. However, even with the new name and image, things aren't quite as different as some might hope, but we aren't that bothered by it.
The most welcome and obvious update was to the in-ring action, which is where SmackDown had gotten the most stale. The new game gave the devs a chance to alter things, though the control scheme is more like a positive regression. The grapple stick is gone, replaced by a single face button command just like striking. It's something many WWE diehards had been missing and it works so much better.
The core combat is on the upswing overall, as a new physics and graphics engine are noticeably better than last year. The general speed of the game and pace of the matches have been improved too, as the recovery time from damage has been greatly decreased. SD's pacing feels pretty slow by comparison, with WWE 12 matches feeling more competitive than ever.
The wrestling has subtler improvements too. The momentum meter only increases now, no more frustratingly losing your progress to a Signature or getting so low in a momentum hole there's no coming back. The contact between the wrestlers is realer too, with the new physics engine getting rid of many of the more robotic transitions. As far as the core combat goes, it's some of the best in series history, though if you liked the arcadiness of WWE All-Stars, the extra dose of reality might not be as welcoming.
For wrestling traditionalists, the idea of leaving it all in the ring is important, but WWE fans and former SmackDown devotees know sports entertainment is much more than that. What's outside it matters just as much, and WWE 12's feature set can't be beat (it just isn't very new).
Over many years SmackDown built up a huge amount of features. One of our favorites was the single player campaign Road to WrestleMania. It's back and this year's is the best yet with a cohesive story that spans three separate superstars, Sheamus, Triple H and for the first time ever a created superstar. Each story flows into the next and covers a much bigger timeframe than Royal Rumble to Mania. Road is a better than ever, as is the standard season mode WWE Universe, which is more cohesive and customizable than before.
The improvement in solo play extends to the very personal experience of content creation, as all the creator modes from SD are back too. Create-a-Superstar, Create-a-Finisher and Create-a-Story return and are incrementally improved from last year. There's also the long-awaited Create-an-Arena which allows you to customize where you perform about as much as you can change things in the other modes. And the online contact community where you can share it all is still there too.
However, while we appreciate the return and refinement of all these previous features, they do make WWE 12 feel less fresh and more like a slight upgrade. It would have been foolish to throw out all the great tools built over the years for SmackDown, but THQ had a real chance to change things up in WWE 12, and the alterations to the actual wrestling isn't enough to earn its new name.
Even if it doesn't revolutionize wrestling games, WWE 12 is the best wrassler around and mixes things up enough to not feel stale. It owes much to SmackDown, but everything it borrows is still great, just slightly used. If you wanted a completely new wrestling experience, wait for the next challenger to WWE to give it a shot (and probably fail). In the meantime, THQ will just keep delivering the same dependably great package.