WWE '13 Review
After playing WWE '13 at an event in New York last month, I came away thinking that this entry might be the most accessible one yet, as few people in their 20s or older can forget the "Attitude Era" that the WWE went through in the late 90s - or the characters it created, like The Rock, Steve Austin, or Mankind. Even people who haven't watched more than five minutes of WWE know who at least some of these guys are, so it's possible that WWE '13 might be the easiest of the series to get into, right?
Well, it turns out that this isn't really true, but that just means that publisher THQ and developer Yuke's are still catering almost entirely to the WWE fanbase, and it's difficult to fault them for that. Basically, the developers haven't yet found a way to bring accessibility to wrestling games while keeping their fan service at the highest level - it might not even be possible to do so - but it's important to keep this in mind during this review. WWE '13 might resurrect the years where the WWE influenced mainstream pop culture the most, but the game's goals, presentation, and depth are still a love letter to wrestling's true fans.
The new single player mode, Attitude Era, tracks multiple storylines throughout the mid-to-late 1990s, when the WWE was in a huge ratings war with the WCW. The days of having good guys who inspired kids and battled classic villain wrestlers were over, and the lines started to blur between the standard face and heel storylines we saw in the previous two decades of wrestling. Throw in innovations like matches that were clearly more damaging to the wrestlers along with wrestlers that centered their moves and wrestling style around their persona - not vice-versa - and one thing that becomes clear in WWE '13 is that the Attitude Era revolutionized sports entertainment. That doesn't always come through in the gameplay, however; most matches in Attitude Era mode have only one condition required to move along, but you only get the full story if you complete all optional objectives. And even then, completing those optional objectives allows stories to unfold that, frankly, probably won't make much sense unless you saw them unfold on TV back in the day.
So sure, I remember that amazing Hell in a Cell match between the Undertaker and Mankind with its 16-foot falls into a table or the destruction of the cage itself, and recreating some of that is really fun because I remember seeing that stuff in the past. But I'm really hazy on most of the rest, so many of the storylines that I don't recall just seem really silly when yanked out of their PPV or broadcast TV context. I should point out that I haven't been a fan of the WWE itself for many years now, but I do appreciate the games for several reasons. Unfortunately, the games so far haven't been able to make gamers into WWE fans entirely on their own - WWE '13 included - and that's a shame.
Still, the game is just piled chock full of options for creating superstars, divas, moves, outfits, arenas, ring entrances, storylines, and more, and this year THQ has cleaned up a lot of silly, small issues and limitations that really cramped the style of gamers looking to configure and play with nearly every part of the game. These creation features make the WWE game franchise one of the best on current-gen consoles for user created content, and this year, there are more options, more arenas, more storylines, and lots of small fixes to keep you playing around. You can use created wrestlers online without uploading them to the service first, you can now edit and re-upload anything you've downloaded, and online play has been smoothed out with better servers and a bit less lag than before. There are plenty of other things, but I couldn't possibly list them all in this review; suffice it to say that Attitude Era mode and its additions to the arena and superstar selection are the focus of adding content in this game, while other elements have gotten a welcome round of polish over last year.
WWE Universe is an interesting mode that has players step out of the pre-scripted moments of the base game and start building their own whole wrestling ecosystem with the base WWE superstars, arenas, shows, and more as the basis. You can start inserting your own creations and have the game just continue on entirely on its own while choosing to insert yourself as a player at any time in any event or match. WWE Universe has been improved significantly this year, with the ability to erase a whole week's worth of programming and recreate it entirely, put together pay-per-view events on Sundays, and tweak what kinds of events happen in your Universe - so you can flip a master switch to entirely disable the creation or dissolution of alliances, the occurrence of injuries, and the like. Even better, if you're like me and you played with the WWE Universe mode enough to make something really screwed up and stupid, you can do a "factory reset" and bring everything back to defaults.
The Attitude Era mode includes tons of video from the era along with in-match audio commentary yanked directly from the archives, but the caveat is that the commentary often sounds mismatched, with wildly varying audio quality and a huge disparity in the tone and nature of it all, even from one phrase to the next. It also kind of sucks that the deal that WWE made with the Worldwide Wildlife Federation in 2002 meant that all mentions of the "WWF" name had to be scrubbed retroactively, because the archive footage has a lot of rough, unpolished censorship of that particular name in it. It's not a big deal, but it kind of cramps the style a bit. Anyway, that's a small thing relative to everything else; the bigger thing is that the commentary has been hodgepodged from two decades' worth of on-air talk along with new in-studio stuff, and even then, there are lots of functional mistakes in the commentary (saying the wrestler that's eating a move is the one delivering it, or talking about how long a match has gone on when it just started). Admittedly, with over dozens and dozens of superstars on the roster and so many things to do both in and out of the ring, it's almost a given that mistakes will get made. Just, I was hoping for fewer by this point in the series.
Visually, the game is simply not improving much from year to year, either. THQ and Yuke's clearly gave up on trying to push out intense, high-quality detail for their superstars, and instead went with delivering a larger wealth of modes and more characters on-screen, but it still seems like a developer with a better eye for technology should be able to eke out a bit more from the Xbox 360 and PS3. In some cases, the superstars haven't gotten a visual upgrade since the last console generation, and others seem to have actually devolved a bit. If you're looking for visual fidelity and life-like superstars, the simple fact is that WWE '13 isn't really trying to deliver in this area right now. We'll see what happens when the next console generation launches, but for now, the developers are obviously going for a huge roster along with a wealth of creation and gameplay modes for their strengths.
All of this may seem like I'm nitpicking, but there are a lot of things like this that wrestling fans may be able to deal with that general gamers aren't really going to tolerate. For example, there's the way your wrestler can wind up stuck in silly wrestling-inspired animations that are hard to accept if all you're doing is trying to have a fair game - like why would my guy keep running towards the ropes after being Irish Whipped towards them? I know, there's a sports-entertainment-reason why, but I don't know if gamers that didn't grow up on pro wrestling will accept this as a good video-game-reason. The little I know about good control design says that you should take control away from the player as little as possible, but the main yearly series of WWE games do this all the time. Things like this alienate players who aren't fans, and it was one of the reasons why I really enjoyed last year's WWE All Stars - it was completely ridiculous, sure, but it also boiled down the action and drama of wrestling into something that centered around fun first, authenticity second. I think it's fair to say that WWE '13 is the other way around.
Still, the franchise is most definitely at its most complete here in '13, with a massive roster, a focus on a golden age of wrestling, and lots of visual and functional tweaks to rein in the franchise's ambition and instead start making the many modes and options a little more polished. WWE fans who have bought every past iteration of this game should seriously consider this one, especially if you were around and watching during the Attitude Era. If you're only merely curious about pro wrestling in video game form, though, it's getting tougher for me to recommend the conventional yearly WWE games.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a retail Xbox 360 copy provided by the publisher.