On the table in-front of me are two relics of my not-too-distant youth, both of them mugs. The one to the left is for the Junior Foxes, the youth wing of my football club, Leicester City. To the right, half-full of lukewarm coffee (decaff – caffeine makes me shake like Big Show near a salad), a larger mug is adorned with the heroes of my childhood; The Rock gurns at Kane, Stone Cold Steve Austin stares at the viewer whilst Mick Foley... well, no-one really knows what Mick Foley does. These are the heroes of my childhood and the memories of my early adulthood.
As such, wrestling games have always held a special allure, the opportunity to see who would really win a brawl between Triple H and John Cena, as opposed to hypothetical arguments (scripts? Get out of here!). With WWE '12, Yukes have tried to re-invent a genre arguably perfected 10 years ago by the Nintendo 64's WWF No Mercy, but which has recently stagnated due to some sub-standard entries in the Smackdown vs Raw series. In some ways they've managed it; in others, it's more of a shuffle and a trip, caught on the ropes by some bizarre decisions.
If WWE '12 could be described in one word, it would be 'but.' For fear of repetition, there is so much to love and admire about this game but it is always, always ruined by a niggle, a fault, or a weird design choice. Take the wrestling itself; chunky and varied, if not as fluid as it ought to be, it features a roster of moves and individual finishers, making the majority of the game an enjoyable slug-fest, with each fighter trying to gain momentum in the contest. That is, until you try to utilise the countering system, at which point the fight becomes outrageously unfair. It appears that every move you make is countered by your opponent, no matter what you attempt; it is almost as if every wrestler has been gifted with foresight. This would be fine if the same could be said for your avatar. Instead, countering is assigned to an inaccurate context-sensitive prod of the right trigger, which more often than not results in your character getting battered around the ring. It is so unfair that it becomes entirely infuriating; it nearly resulted in the disc finding itself on the street below.
On a side note, Yukes appear to have been aware of this discrepancy and included an option to turn off damage from the counter. This just serves insult to injury, however, as a) it doesn't decrease the frequency of the counters, and b) it does not remove damage from the following attack, meaning that it does little to stop the real hurt of the counter. By this, I mean that the arm-twist out of the hold won't hurt you, but the automatic retaliation move (a body slam, for example) most definitely will cause damage. As such, there is little point in this option; if Yukes were aware of the problems with the counter-system it should have been redeveloped or removed, rather than insulting the gamer with this plastic olive branch.
Continuing this theme, the implementation of context-sensitive actions and quick-time events is a strange one, ruining any semblance of the fluidity, build up or instinct that is vital to the 'sport.' Most of the context-sensitive actions, utilised with the left bumper, seem off; once an opponent is knocked down, you will be desperately hammering the button to move a table, or place a ladder, all to absolutely no avail. By the time it finally reacts you're suddenly vulnerable, straddled across a table with Christian perched on the corner licking his lips. That is, if it chooses to work at all; I've had 4-man Hell in a Cell with mates where not one of us has managed to climb the cell due to this awful system. Equally frustratingly, in the Royal Rumble, to force an opponent out of the ring you have to indulge in a QTE by the ropes, rather than just kicking them out as all logic would suggest. These QTEs are over-long and inaccurate, resulting in a trivial, uninteresting and pointless exercise in patience.
Talking of trivial, uninteresting and pointless, the career mode - Road to Wrestlemania - is a missed opportunity. Unlike an option to take any wrestler off the expansive roster and guide them through the career mode, players are limited to a set-path involving charisma-vacuum Seamus, Triple H, and a player-created character. While this is presumably to allow for character-progression, the result is a hackneyed succession of matches stipulated by overly long speeches and situations which you really, really struggle to care about. It would be optimistic to expect War and Peace but c'mon, at least appear to put some thought into it Yukes.
Thankfully, things get a lot better when a friend joins the party. The sheer wealth of gameplay options, matches and the like are outstanding, whilst niggles such as the counter become defunct when against a human opponent. Suddenly, the game becomes the accessible joy that it always threatened to be; complicated or simple, depending on the skill of the player, matches are a tug-of-war of luck and brilliance. The roster is excellent, including the usual suspects and some unlockable surprises (I'm not going to spoil them). Online is fun and lag-free, but falls foul of the context-sensitive problems mentioned earlier. If, however, you don't fancy using a real character, then you're in for a treat; the customisation mode in WWE '12 is nearly flawless. Not only is it 'create-a-wrestler', the standard staple, but it also features the opportunity to create your own shows and seasons. Once you get your head around it, it's great fun to make shows, fights, seasons and contests of your own (scripts included). As such, there is great value to be had here, if you're willing to put the effort in.
Graphically, the in-game engine is solid enough, but the overall presentation is where WWE '12 really excels. Great pains have been taken to make the game feel like the real thing; when watching one of the many individual introductions, you could almost be watching the show. I say almost, because whilst many of the character models are excellent (in particular cover-star Randy Orton), others are grotesque; Edge looks like he's suffering an exorcism, whilst Mark Henry is a monstrous configuration of limbs and glitch (admittedly, he's not a looker anyway). Crowds are good, with plenty of movement and character, but the damage engine needs work, and hardly seems to have progressed since the original PlayStation days. The commentary, although authentic, typically falls into repetition, especially for individual moves. Luckily, the soundtrack is an awesome mix of high-octane rock tracks, really getting the player in the mood for a fight.
'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times' wrote Charles Dickens, probably not envisioning it being used in the context of a console wrestling game. It is, however, the perfect way to summarise the experience of WWE '12. At its heart it is a slick, sharp, aggressive wrestler of great intent and purpose. For the most part, it is very enjoyable fighter, and I would recommend it for fans. However, it comes at a cost. It is undoubtedly infuriating and often unfair, with a poor career mode and some incredibly ill-thought out features; in-fact, some of the design decisions are mind-bogglingly stupid, ruining what would otherwise be an outstanding experience. Sometimes I love it, but more often than not I want to smash it apart into little tiny bits. There is potential here, but it is a long way from the finished article, and is definitely a missed opportunity. Sometimes, a developer just needs to stand back and think about what they are doing for a few minutes. I highly recommend that Yukes do exactly that next year.