Gamestyle Archive Intro: Chris takes to the ring with a ferocious yell and this review from November 2002.
RRRRRRRRRROOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!! Said the angry Panda, representing himself in court, and lo and behold Vince McMahon’s ass was royaly kicked. The Panda, with his chums the lesser spotted marmoset and the dodo are threatening to stop the previous efforts in the Smackdown series (using the WWF name) because they’re milking their fanbase like Mrs Panda milks her young.
Wrestling is still and always has been popular. The origins are in the competive and physical legends of Greece and Rome, through Europe to America, but only since the inception of the WWE has the ‘sport’ been transformed into a global franchise. I’m aware that wrestling has its fans. In truth, I’m not one of them, so for this review I’ll start by using semiologist Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957) to help. Why is it relevant? you rightly ask- well, his work involved analysing the context of language use, and in the first essay in Mythologies he uses wrestling to begin his case: “Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle… there exists a false wrestling, in which the participants unecessarily go to great lengths to make a show of a fair fight… the public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.” Barthes wrote in 1950’s France, but the concept still seems relevant today, where the various shows of the WWE mix wrestling with soap operatic narrative arcs and plots to gain a captive audience.
That audience laps up the Smackdown series like a baby bearcub laps at his lukewarm porridge, as so here we are on the fourth title. I’ve only played WWE games sparingly in the last few years. In my cupboard I find a dusty copy of Championship Wrestling by Epyx: “The action is fast, fun and very, very realistic” said C&VG. I remember it being slower than a snail on gravel and only concerned with waggling my joystick. The leap forward that Smackdown 4 takes not just from that but the PS wrestling games is monumental. On a presentation level it rivals FIFA for the quality of the facsimile. Start a career mode and play through a season: watch how the camera angles and introductions almost exactly mirror the TV series. The graphics are great on close ups where the wrestlers, or ‘Superstars’ as they want to be known have been acutely digitised. There are some overlapping issues where arms that should go under heads end up going straight through them, and the creation of a decent audience will only be achieved on machines more powerful than the current crop, yet overall there are few gripes to be had. The animation and fluidity of the wrestlers is mostly great although some movement is a bit slow.
The main problem with wrestling games is that if someone is pummelling you into the canvas, there is little you can do about it. The normal difficulty setting should pose few problems for experienced players, so the hard and smackdown settings will push your special moves and your patience. It does feel as though the moves are generated by random button pressing, though this method does create a good number of different moves that you can pull off, and spectacular they are too. Kicks, holds, piledrivers, throws, each more elaborate than the other. There are an enormous variety of gaming modes for you to indulge in, from royal rumble to cage matches through to last man standing, triple threat tag & fatal 4 way. All use the same rules and all offer a significant shift in rules or structure to merit inclusion, although some work better than others.
All the ‘superstars’ are present and correct, from Mr Nanny star ‘Hollywood’ Hulk Hogan, Scotty 2 Hotty, stereotypical Brit William Regal, thwarter of smugglers The Hardy Boyz, a few busty wimmin and of course the king of the camp expression himself, The Rock. If you think that these lycra-clad lads are far too hetrosexual for you, then you can design your own in the create-a-wrestler feature. It’s easy to do and comprensive, but the loading times are unnecessarily long. The music is effective but the selection of tracks is very small, although thankfully one of them is Marilyn Manson’s excellent Beautiful People. The sound effects are atmospheric, the crunch of chair upon skull or of flab on canvas makes your actions more enjoyable.
Even more enjoyable is the appearence of a multitap, as the multiplayer aspect is head and shoulders above the single player mode. Overall, Smackdown 4 is probably the most impressive wrestling game I’ve played. Barthes never played Smackdown, let alone watched it, but I’m sure he’d appreciate the spectacle recreated, although that’s more Baudrillard territory. Anyway, the worst thing about the game is the title, which echoes the somewhat vile attitude of the WWE series itself, or the incredibly annoying way it uses ‘decision’ instead of ‘yes’. Despite this, I enjoyed it, though the longevity will really stem from being a fan or having a bunch of mates around. The package is far more comprehensive than WWE Wrestlemania and is more than enough to satisfy the pseudo-bloodlust of any WWE smackhead.
Gamestyle Score: 8/10