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WWF Smackdown!
Review By: Joe Rolfe
Developer:   Yukes
Publisher:   THQ
# of Players:   1-4
Genre:   Wrestling
ESRB:   Teen
 

If there was ever one genre on the PlayStation it couldn't match in pure quality compared to the titles of the same genre on the N64, it'd be professional wrestling. While the N64 was blessed with quality games such as WCW vs. nWo: World Tour, WCW Revenge, and the recently-released WrestleMania 2000, the poor PlayStation has been the land mark for crap games such as WWF: In Your House, WCW Nitro, and WCW Thunder. So when the news that THQ, with it's newly-acquired WWF license, would be producing a WWF game for the PlayStation, my heart jumped in excitement that the company who made all those wonderful wrestling games on the N64 could spread some of it's magic on the PlayStation. And after some extensive playing of WWF Smackdown, I'm happy to report that the game, while not perfect, is the best wrestling game on the PlayStation, and one of the best ever.

From the get-go, THQ lets you know your playing a WWF game. The opening cinema a FMV of WWF clips, along with the Smackdown! television show theme music. The main screen's interface is simple and clean, letting you easily navigate throughout the whole game without a problem. Load times are virtually non-existent (compared to some other PSX wrestling games, that is.) Just set up your options, and we're underway.

One of Smackdown!'s strongest selling points is how it faithfully re-creates the WWF on TV. While some other wresting games may think that having the latest theme music and voice-overs "replicates" the shows, THQ went a step further in including the actual gimmicks an in-ring antics that makes the WWF such a pleasure to watch. Practically every form of a wrestling match and it's options is presented here (minus the ever-so-wanted Hell in a Cell and Ladder Matches), and really makes this game a wrestling fan's dream come true. There's the normal One on One, Tag Team, Handicap, Royal Rumble, Cage Match, and King of the Ring modes. But new to the genre are the Special Referee and I Quit matches. In the Special Referee mode, you can assign any character in the game to be a referee. You can pick the computer to be it, or you can control the ref yourself. This really brings the drama of the television show home, as it makes the matches so much more interesting to see what the "ref will do next". Is your arch-nemesis in the ring, and feel like screwing him over? Go ahead! Attack the poor 'fella, if by means of dropping the Rock Bottom on him or making a fast 3 count so your buddy gets the easy win. It's all in the control of your hands, and makes you just sigh in wonder of what THQ can stir up for next-generation console WWF games.

The I Quit Match, on the other hand, is also exceptionally well designed. Instead of pinning your opponent, you need to go grab an ambient microphone somewhere around the ring, and literally shove it into your fallen opponent's face, trying to get them to "give up". It's truly fun, and you can relive classic I Quit Matches such as the Rock/Mankind Royal Rumble '99 fight by just assigning those two men to the match.

But the biggest part of the game, the meat and bones, is the Season mode. Never before has there been so much, well, depth in a wrestling game. You can take one of your favorite WWF Superstars, or one of your creations, and take them through a 'wrestling season'. The Season mode doesn't try to be a Quest-For-The-Belt type of mode, but rather an actual Season (or multiple-seasons, in this game's case), where you guide your wrestler throughout basically his career. You fight at one show a month (either a house show, Smackdown!, Raw is War, or a PPV), and you rack up (or lose) any belts along the way. THQ tried to give us the TV-aspects of the WWF by putting interviews and backstage-attacks, making you force alliances with people, or make even worse enemies with them. While the concept was right, the execution was a tad off. Instead of having actual dialogue between wrestlers, you'll just see a generic box come up that talks in the 3rd person view and says something along the lines of " WrestlerA seems prepared tonight. He is picking a fight with WrestlerB." I wish that the dialogue was from the first person view and that each wrestler had their own personalized phrases, but we can always hope for the next WWF game, can't we?

"Sure sure, that all sounds nice and dandy," you may say, "but how does the game actually play?"

Well, pretty damn good. WWF Smackdown! runs on the Toukon Retsuden 4 (All Japan Pro Wrestling) engine, made by the Japanese wrestling game king, Yukes, and it blows any previous PSX grappler out of the water. The gameplay is nearly perfect; not as hard as the fighting game engine that is Acclaim's Warzone/Attitude/ECW's games, but not as simple as THQ's own WrestleMania 2K. To do a maneuver, all you need to do is press the O button plus a directional button (up, down, left, right), and you can pull off even the hardest moves with ease. This all runs at a very, very fast pace, which makes for quick and fun action without any boring arm-bar-after-arm-bar gameplay that the Attitude engine is known for.

Smackdown! continues the innovation with its' expanding arenas. No, I'm not talking about the shoddy, cardboard-like backrooms for WCW Mayhem, but an actual multiple-path route. Instead of Electronic Art's WCW title and how you can only to the one backroom-only per fight, in Smackdown! you can chose where you want to go, may it be under the Titan Tron, the parking lot, the kitchen, or the hallway corridor. All you need to do is Irish Whip your opponent to the door, and you'll be placed in the room of your choice. This brings even more of the show's wackiness home, and makes the usual Hardcore or Falls Count Anywhere match much more exciting.

On the visual side, Smackdown! performs brilliantly. I'm being honest when I say that this is one of the best looking games on the PlayStation. All the characters are built just from head to toe just like their real life counterparts and each animate beautifully, thanks to the hand-drawn animation that the TR4 engine calls home to. The game runs very smoothly, with the frame rate staying at a constantly fast rate and never takes a hit even with four players on screen. All the arenas (Raw Is War, Smackdown!, and the Pay Per View) are re-created faithfully, and with precise detail. The little things, like tons of camera flashes during the big moves, and the ropes and mat shaking just like they should in real life, only add more to the already fantastic graphics. To be truthful, the game looks like it's running on a low-res Dreamcast; once again, thanks to the TR4 engine.

If there is one part where THQ's wrestling games continue to disappoint, it is the sound department. While it's an improvement over the debacle that-was WrestleMania 2000's audio, there is still a lot to be desired. Commentary? Nope. Individual grunts and groans? Nada. Wrestler taunts and catch phrases? Not here. Smackdown! did so well on trying to bring the television feeling into your living room, that I'm sad to announce the whole sound part missed the boat. In this day and age of sports games (and wrestling games, too), not having the slightest commentary is unacceptable. If the voice of Jim Ross and Jerry 'The King' Lawler had been included, Smackdown! would have been the definitive wrestling experience. While the question if the action is too fast to have accurate play-by-play is a worthy argument, I, and I bet a majority of wrestling fans too, would have settled for a slightly-slower game had the voices of J.R. and The King been included. The audio isn't horrible by any means, as the entrance music has dead-on quality and the smacks and mat sounds are all faithfully portrayed, but one could imagine how much better the game could have been if Smackdown had a little more development time.

But the biggest disappointment in the game must be the Create-A-Wrestler (CAW). If your coming into the game expecting the Greatness that-is WM2K's CAW, you'll surely be let down. While Smackdown! has a decent move and technique editor, the appearance part is laughable. You can only chose outfits from existing WWF wrestlers and a few other outfits that look more akin to a Power Rangers episode than Raw is War. It's a huge letdown after being surprised with the depth and quality that the CAW in WrestleMania 2000 had.

As for any gripes or problems I found in the game, there was nothing that dramatically effected the actual game play, but just a few things that could have made the game truly spectacular. For instance, the wrestlers' entrances feel very rushed. Every wrestler 'walks' out with their Titan Tron video filling the whole screen, and their authentic music blaring in the background. And while the concept is cool, there is actually no walking to the ring, just the wrestler walking in place. Once again, if THQ spent a little more time with the game, I bet they could have cleaned this part up.

Another part is the AI. While it is pretty darn good, it seems a little off in some places. If you raise the difficulty, it doesn't really appear to be that the computer gets smarter, it just seems to get cheaper. And while a seasoned player can most likely overcome the cheap-factor, the average gamer may be taken by surprise of how hard it may be to actually pull of a simple grapple. There is also one weird instance of how the computer will follow you to the turnbuckle if you're standing on it. Need a quick knockdown? Just run to the opposite corner that your opponent is at, climb the turnbuckle, and, sure enough, they'll come lumbering over, in perfect place for a strong dropkick or elbow drop from your wrestler.

So probably the biggest question on most of your minds is if WWF Smackdown! better than WrestleMania2000. In some instances yes, in some ways, no. It's really up to how the gamer prefers his playing and options (look for my article on WM2K vs. Smackdown! soon). Smackdown! isn't perfect, but it's far from a bad game either. There are just a few rough spots that Yukes could have really used some time for, but had to get the game out the door ASAP (or so I assume). But I encourage any WWF fan to run out and pick up this game immediately though, as it's the closest replication of the sports-entertainment phenomenon that is the World Wrestling Federation you'll find on the market today.

Overall: 9.1

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