You can't polish a turd...
Much like the WWE product, wrestling games are at a bit of a crossroads. While shows like Raw and SmackDown! struggle, attempting to adapt to the loss of perennial top card performers such as The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin, the WWE seems to find it difficult to adapt their games to current platforms. In reality wrestling has never really adjusted to this generation of consoles, instead lying stagnant in the face of technology changes. As gamers lay on the cusp of the next generation of consoles, asking developers to show them something new, the Day of Reckoning franchise seems destined to be stuck in the year 2000 forever.
But being stuck in 2000 isn't all bad. The wrestling classic and benchmark for all wrestling games beyond that point, No Mercy, was released in December of that year. In addition 2000 was undoubtedly one of the best years in history for the WWE franchise as a whole. This was the time when the WWE's two biggest draws of all time (RE: The Rock and Stone Cold) were in their prime. The ratings were high, the writing was fresh; in short the WWE wasn't the stale promotion it seems to be today. All of these factors beg the question: are wrestling games more fun to play when you are interested in the WWE product as a whole? Does my enthusiasm for wrestling in general affect the extent to which I enjoy playing the games themselves?
Because when I look back over the years, the most fun I ever had playing wrestling games coincided with the boom period in the late 1980s (with the WrestleMania arcade game) and in 2000-2001 (with the afore mentioned No Mercy game). Is this a common feeling for all wrestling fans? Gamers undoubtedly want to play games using the characters they identify with (or are fans of) in a context which is interesting to them. Does the gaming experience suffer if previous fans of, say, Hulk Hogan or the Rock are suddenly asked to play as John Cena and Batista as the top tier characters? Perhaps the fun of wrestling games is the attempt to recreate the feeling of watching the show. If the player doesn't care about the television representation of wrestling surely he/she will find it even more difficult to have fun recreating this in the gaming derivative.
Imagine Nintendo turned around and said the next Mario game will not feature Mario, or any of the toadstool kingdom family. Would the game still be fun? Nintendo, unlike the WWE, is perhaps extremely lucky that characters such as Mario, Link, Samus, etc. (unlike Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair), will never grow old. Because quite often the relationship between the characters and gamers is just as important as the game itself -- not only for sales, but also with regards to the amount of fun players will have with the game itself. The problem seems to be that, as much as he would like to, Vince McMahon (owner of the WWE) cannot freeze time. Unfortunately for him wrestlers age, characters get stale, and it is up to his company to create new stars that fans want to watch and play as. The games have to be a representation of this television program, and if the characters and the show aren't interesting, neither are the games.
This however is only part of the problem. If the characters and the storyline of the game have attempted to evolve with the television show, the game mechanics certainly haven't. As always we have a grapple button, each direction gives you a different move, and holding the grapple button down allows you to employ power moves. Add this to the usual punch, reversal, and run buttons and voila: you have the same wrestling game you've been playing for the past five years. How lovely.
The create-a-wrestler mode in Day of Reckoning 2 is another great disappointment, actually deteriorating in quality in comparison to previous games. The control you have over each wrestler's appearance is not only limited, but completely non-user friendly. As a result my GameCube pad has taken quite the beating over the past few weeks.
This wouldn't be so bad if the create-a-wrestler mode wasn't so integral to the single player game itself. In fact, the only way you can play through Day of Reckoning 2's story mode is if you actually use this create mode. That's right, your main reason for purchasing this game (to play as your favourite wrestling character) has been totally eliminated since you can only play through one-player mode with a created wrestler. The only way you can play as, say, Triple H, is through an exhibition match. My dream of making Scotty 2 Hotty the undisputed heavyweight champion has been shattered by THQ's shoddy decision making process.
It's a shame, and a real wasted opportunity because for all its faults, Day of Reckoning 2 does take a few steps in the right direction. Predictably the graphics look awesome, perhaps even surpassing the recent Wrestlemania 21 title on the Xbox. The detail is breathtaking, and the entrances have all been faithfully reproduced.
And although weakly implemented, THQ has actually made a small attempt to vary certain aspects of the game mechanic by adding a slight minigame with regards to how wrestlers apply submission holds. Each player can choose a direction on the analogue stick just as the hold is applied, if the player on defence chooses the same as the attacking player, then the hold is broken. It's a welcome addition, but it really has a minimal impact on gameplay.
On the whole, everything about this game points to it being a lazily executed cash cow, which is pretty much what you would expect from the license. It's easy to tell that THQ's priority lies with the Raw vs. Smackdown franchise (a Sony exclusive), whilst Day of Reckoning comes off as a feeble side project. The presentation is weaker, the roster is smaller, and the additions are hardly worth mentioning. All in all Day of Reckoning 2 is an all-round bad egg when compared to its PS2 counterpart.
So maybe in five or so years, when the cyclical wrestling business hopefully hits another of its boom periods, we'll get another wrestling game worth playing. But I wouldn't hold my breath. THQ, it seems, ran out of ideas almost five years ago and has been peddling the same game ever since. The first next-gen console has already landed, and it's about time someone realised it. Yes it's important that the television product inspires us enough to want to purchase and play a game, but that does not give the developers and publishers the excuse to make the exact same game over and over. As the old saying goes, you can't polish a turd... and this game is without doubt a turd.
9 January 2006