Change is inevitable. In the world of professional wrestling, change can come in the blink of an eye. One match. One move. One speech. The simplest things can change the fortunes of many in an instant. Over the past year, the WWE has undergone a sort of revolution, a shift in tone that has allowed two distinct ideas - sports entertainment and wrestling - to co-exist better than they have in the past. The show and the sport are finding equal footing, and it’s largely due to the efforts of one man, CM Punk.
Within WWE’s revolution, CM Punk is its visionary. Almost one year ago, Punk sat down on a stage in front of millions around the world and did something remarkable for a form of entertainment that is as orchestrated as it is raw and real - he spoke his mind. His electric speech struck a nerve with passionate fans who love the art of wrestling more than the theater that surrounds it, but don’t always feel listened to. Punk proclaimed himself the ‘Voice of the Voiceless’, vowing to change things for the better - or quit. Since that fateful day, things have been different. Talented performers who couldn’t catch a break started to appear on television more. Storylines started to become more interesting, using talent in smarter ways. The line between wrestling’s intertwined notions of reality and fiction began to blur. Many found themselves, for the first time in a long time, more captivated than captive.
Mirroring those changes, THQ drastically changed its approach to wrestling video games. Discarding the notion of ‘Smackdown vs. RAW’, the publisher rebranded and revamped its core wrestling simulation product into something entirely different - WWE ’12. The simple motivating factor? The product had grown stale. The changes introduced in WWE ’12 would be significant, but they wouldn’t address everything. This wasn’t by accident. THQ knew that the development time for one game couldn’t contain all of the alterations it wanted to make. The publisher and its development team had committed to a multi-year plan. This year more of that vision will be revealed in WWE ’13.
Continuing its focus on refining and evolving its products, the development team has kept what worked and throw out what didn’t, going so far as to discard the entirety of the ambitious, yet flawed, single-player design from WWE ’12. Much as Punk’s vision for the WWE looked to wrestling’s past to empower its sports entertainment future, THQ looked to the past for its future - it is bringing the Attitude Era back to video games, bigger and louder than ever.
The foundation of WWE ’13 is firmly rooted in its predecessor. The game’s mechanics, visuals and controls are fundamentally the same as they were last year. Matches still have a heavy emphasis on momentum, forcing players to escalate the quality of their grapple-based moves, from standard to stunned, as they wear down their opponent. ‘Breaking Point’ submissions, limb-targeting systems and time-based pinning are all back, with many subtle tweaks, including continuous refinements to animation and move fluidity, along the way. In many respects, WWE ’12 found a great balance between showcasing the technical elements of wrestling while preserving the engaging, accessible element necessary for video game fans. If it’s not broken, it doesn’t need fixing... Just a ton of adjusting.
That said, THQ’s additions to WWE ’13 are still numerous and significant. The biggest of these deals with context-sensitive power moves that enable players to recreate some of the most memorable and spectacular moments in WWE history. These actions, which range from literally breaking the ring with super heavyweights to bulldozing a rival through the ring barrier to catching a finisher in mid-air, can only be enabled by certain wrestlers in specific locations and instances. Much like the appearance of a ‘Finisher’ icon, an ‘OMG!!’ logo will appear above a character’s head when they are capable of executing these devastating maneuvers, which can quickly change the tide of a match - or even end it. The developers are also in the process of creating specialized visual and audio methods of presenting these moments, ensuring they feel as significant in the game as they do on television.
Anyone who has watched wrestling for any period of time understands that different broadcasts require matches of different lengths. The amount of time superstars might have to compete on an average two-to-three hour Monday Night RAW, for example, differs greatly from what would be possible on a three or four hour Pay Per View. In the past, wrestling games didn’t take this concept into account. WWE ’13 does.
Alongside selecting arenas, characters and the number of finishing moves available at the start of a match (a new option, which can range from 0 to Infinite), players will be able to adjust a setting called ‘Match Experience’. Three settings - “Quick”, “Normal” and “Epic” - will affect the overall pacing of a fight, independent of AI difficulty. Factors such as momentum, damage, enemy aggressiveness and even kick out and reversal rates will be affected. The difference can be staggering. Quick matches feel lightning quick compared to epic ones, where superstars seem to have limitless stamina - and health. Best of all, this concept will make its way into the single player campaign as well.
Match Experience modes and Spectacular Moments are some of the flashier ideas that will accompany a still-in-development overhaul of the overall audio experience, which will attempt to better capture the atmosphere of a live event, including the reactions of WWE’s own announcers to some of the stunning developments that happen on television each and every week.
All of this is in addition to the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of subtle tweaks the game’s designers make day in and day out. WWE ’13 is currently still in an "Alpha" state, meaning the team has another six or so weeks to tune and tweak features before it goes into an aggressive three-month campaign to eliminate bugs. That means more moves are being added. Better weight detection is being implemented, so the smaller Rey Mysterio can’t body slam the 500 pound Big Show. In fact, super heavyweights like Mark Henry or Show now have different frames to better capture their enormous size. Pinning is now not only influenced by damage, but the power of the move that was previously executed. Non-tagged partners can now be controlled. Replays are being adjusted to be more relevant.
THQ’s ambitions don’t stop there. Not satisfied to continually perfect its core game mechanics, the developers took another hard look at its approach to single player campaign design, the focus of much criticism for WWE ’12. The team decided to do something rather bold, particularly given the ambitious, original storyline it crafted for existing and created stars last year. Rather than continuously iterate on the same concept in hopes of finding a sweet spot, the team threw everything out, and started from scratch. In doing so, the designers were free to consider any idea. Given the changes going on in the modern day WWE, it seemed only fitting that THQ turned to one period of time for inspiration. The wrestling revolution that forever changed the perception of sports entertainment. The Attitude Era.
The Attitude Era symbolizes all that can be rebellious, shocking and brazen about wrestling. In many ways it embodies the best of the industry, and was responsible for some of the greatest personalities and storylines of all time. During the late '90s, the WWE lived on the edge, and sometimes crossed the lines of decency, to beat its competition. The result was a period of unprecedented success.
As much as the modern era of the WWE is forging its own path, it owes much to the stars that emerged some 15 years ago. The Attitude Era created a new world for the WWE. It rewrote the rules. It’s unlikely the company, or the sport, will ever see such radical thinking again. Born mostly out of necessity, those in charge seemed to literally do anything and everything that came to mind, at first in hopes that something would work, and eventually to keep that momentum going.
The ‘Road to Wrestlemania’ experience for WWE ’12 attempted to tell an original storyline focusing primarily on three wrestlers - Sheamus, Triple H and a created wrestler of the player’s choosing. In an effort to dictate the overall narrative, many matches ended through scripted cutscenes that took control away from the player. Whether because of the limited character selection, or the fact that the storyline removed match control from the player, many were averse to the entire concept. It turns out THQ has been listening. ‘Road to Wrestlemania’ is dead. That's where Attitude Era Mode comes in.
Despite the fact that the Attitude Era is a well-documented part of history, THQ’s goal here is not to reinvent the past, to change things just for the sake of doing so. This single-player mode is an abridged recreation of a memorable time in sports entertainment, allowing players to journey through various storylines as eight of the most popular superstars of that time, including “Stone Cold” Steve Austin.
The chapter-based saga moves through WWE’s struggle and eventual triumph during the so-called “Monday Night Wars,” which saw the company on the brink of defeat at the hands of a powerful rival, WCW. Told from the perspective of the WWE during that period, matches and in-game cutscenes are supplemented by superb video packages assembled by WWE’s own editors. These short vignettes put matches, feuds and larger industry developments into perspective, not only keeping the overall story going, but giving a bit of a history lesson in the process.
THQ isn’t simply relying on the allure of legendary stars to boost its Attitude endeavors. It has learned from previous ‘Road to Wrestlemania’ efforts. Seeing this new mode in action proves that. First off, the vast majority of matches are just that - matches. While there is certainly a desire to stay true to history, and tell the stories the way they played out on television, the developers of WWE ’13 are mindful that wrestling fans want a fun game first and foremost. Therefore each match is broken down into a series of main or side objectives, which are clearly labeled when on-screen, can be easily accessed, and will disappear from a list when they are completed.
In general, main objectives are simple (pin your opponent, grab the title), allowing players to advance the storyline simply by winning matches. However optional side objectives are more meticulous by nature, setting more specific victory conditions - asking players to put an opponent through a table, for example. Those looking to get the most out of WWE ’13 will want to pay attention to all the game asks of them. A wealth of bonus material can be unlocked by completing all side tasks, and there can be several per match. The developers have even included a few ‘hidden’ objectives, opening up further rewards if players decide to pursue a more comprehensive strategy for beating the mode.
There’s an emphasis here on the core game experience, without the clutter and complication that can arise by trying to dictate the conclusion of a match, robbing players of the feeling of victory or control. Backstage sequences were particularly guilty of this, placing players in odd environments that the game’s mechanics poorly supported. There’s some good news on this front: they have mostly been removed, with the exception of a few matches that take place outside the ring.
WWE ’13 is such a massive product that describing gameplay changes and a radically overhauled single player concept just scratches the surface. THQ has yet to fully reveal the Attitude Era mode, which has substantial depth. Universe Mode hasn’t surfaced. Create-a-Superstar has its upgrades. New matches, rings and moves are on the way. And all of this is to say nothing about the roster, which contains stars from the past and present, including a formidable array of wrestlers from the late ‘90s. THQ’s revolution may have started last year, but if WWE ’13 is any indication, the publisher is continuing to radically reinvent the way it approaches its sports entertainment video games. Wrestling fans couldn’t ask for more.