The other day, I made up a joke about the WWE. I'm pretty sure it's not original - after all, it's just too dang good - but here it is regardless.
Q: Why did the truck driver run over John Cena?
A: Because he didn't see him.
If you get that, you'll probably know what I'm about to say next: Cena's a divisive figure amongst WWE fans, and I find his divisiveness sort of fascinating. On the surface, right, Cena's the ultimate good guy - the ultimate American good guy, anyway. With a military bearing, a huge torso, crew-cut hair and slightly old-world manners, he goes into battle wearing denim jeans and a T-shirt that I think looks a little too much like the Starbucks logo. He's the WWE guy they put in ads about the dangers of drinking and driving, and in WWE movies where he gets to inspire plucky orphan kids onwards to great and lasting triumphs. He's the closest the current roster has to Superman figure.
And, like Superman, a lot of people really hate him. They think he's boring and bland, even though they'll all acknowledge he's super hard working and seems like a genuinely nice guy. As with Superman, that's the crux of the problem, really: being genuinely nice means that kids and the elderly love you, but the middle part of the demographic sandwich - the part with the lung capacity to really belt out "CENA SUCKS" - often thinks, well, that Cena sucks.
Cena's a reminder of how broad the WWE audience now is, in other words - even if that audience is also possibly spread a little bit thinner. If you were at Summer Slam in LA over the weekend, you'd have seen just as many adults wandering around as kids, in fact - and a lot of the adults had brought their own kids with them. The magic marker signs are getting a lot more sophisticated, there are young parents wandering around looking for baby changing facilities, and at one point I even heard someone yell out a heckle with a semi-colon in it. (It was after CM Punk had dissed fancy pants Damien Sandow, incidentally, so it was at least grammatically appropriate.) No doubting it: the WWE is growing up.
"You can even play as Cena in his hilariously stupid hip-hop incarnation, from when he was really leaning on that PhD in thuganomics."
As are the games, actually. WWE 13 doesn't just offer a decent layer of technical refinement and polish (although what we still really need is a full engine overhaul that will probably only arrive with the next generation); it also sees McMahon and Co in a rather nostalgic mood, looking to past glories as much as those of the present. CM Punk may be on the cover, and the roster might include plenty of recent favourites - you can even play as Cena in his hilariously stupid hip-hop incarnation, from when he was really leaning on that PhD in thuganomics - but the story content takes you back to the late 1990s and the all-conquering Attitude Era.
If you don't have your own PhD in thuganomics, let me help you out here. Stone Cold, Shawn Michaels, the introduction of that new, rather scribbly logo: the Attitude Era marked the period towards the end of the last century when WWE had to reinvent itself again, becoming edgier, nastier, and a little wittier than it had been in the glory days of the 1980s. That's because in 1995, WCW, a rival firm that had bought many of the WWE's greatest old stars, launched a new show, Monday Nitro, that went up against Monday Night Raw each week, and a ratings war kicked off.
After a year, WCW pulled ahead, and the old guard, as the ring announcers might say, found itself in a whole mess of trouble. With the franchise's very survival in question, the WWE did what any seasoned wrestler would do in a similar situation: it went utterly mental, upping the sense of physical danger each fight offered, throwing in antic, increasingly crazy match scenarios, and allowing a new breed of star to turn each broadcast into a kind of punkish, hillbilly circus of horrors. If you want a vision of the future, as George Orwell once said, imagine a gigantic bald man with a dodgy knee driving a Zamboni up a plywood ramp - forever.
Ah, Attitude: it's a great narrative, and it's also the foundation for WWE 13's central campaign, which takes place over a two-year period covering everything between the formation of D-Generation X and WrestleMania XV. The content's broken up into over 65 matches that play out across six different chapters, each of which sees you playing as a specific star or group of stars, and the whole thing's interlaced with 20 short documentaries setting the scene, while every event kicks off with a graph showing WWE's ratings at that point compared to the ratings for WCW.
So even though you won't be able to create your own wrestler and take him or her through the storyline this time around - Wheezy Donlan will have to thrive in the freeform stuff instead - you'll still be able to play as a decent selection of famous faces from the past, and dropping into a quick match between Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels shows just how entertaining the new concept is. The art team has recreated the Attitude events right down to the old metal barricades and the late-1990s on-screen graphics, while every fight now provides you with a basic objective - this is generally along the lines of, y'know, win - and some optional historical objectives that encourage you to recreate what really happened, even if that's going to be kind of tricky for you. One match might ask you to win by submission, for example, while another might want you to finish the fight in under a minute. Do that, and you'll get a special cut-scene that recreates the real ending of the brawl, whether it's a bunch of guys getting the drop on Steve Austin, or Vince turning up and titting around in a suit for a few minutes. Oh, Vince!
The historical campaign isn't the only new stuff, of course. Compared to last year's rather ropy instalment, this seems to be a far more capable wrestling game, with much smoother animation-blending, less plasticky skin textures and character models, and refinements to the controls that make it considerably easier to pull off a reversal. Mid-air finishers have been implemented, meaning that you're extremely vulnerable when you're jumping around, while a new skeletal system means that you can now really tell the difference between the bigger wrestlers and the smaller guys, too. Put Rey Mysterio in against the Big Show, for example, and the Big Show towers over the little fellow. There's a weight system in place, too, meaning that if Rey goes to lift the Big Show, the engine dynamically swaps out that move for something a touch more realistic. Sorry, Rey. 619 and all that.
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There are new "Spectacular Moments" that see you throwing your rivals through the crowd barricades, or taking out the announcer's table, or even causing the entire stage to collapse, and the Create an Arena mode, introduced last year, has now been expanded to allow you to build your own stage as well as customising the ring, letting you mess around with everything from the displays to the ramps, fixtures, and even the size of the venue, taking things from local arenas to mega-stadiums.
The crowd's a lot more convincing than they used to be (you can choose between a modern day audience and an Attitude audience), and, most importantly, the game's roster is the largest yet put together, bringing together 80 stars covering the Attitude days and the contemporary line-up. Pick a name and, lawsuits, unhappy accident, or Kurt Angle notwithstanding, there's a good chance they're in, while DLC offering the likes of AJ and Damien Sandow will push the total of playable characters to over 100. (The Miz is available from the off, incidentally, so I'm happy.)
With new hardware, we'll hopefully get an entirely new engine, and then the series will really be able to refine the ways that it does things. Until then, this is a smart means to keep everyone truckin'. Just watch out for Cena, okay? That guy comes out of nowhere.