When it comes crashing down...
I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but WWF wrestling games moved from being brutish, uncontrollable sprite-fests to souped up, polygon-powered party games. Acclaim made a handsome buck off the backs of WWF Warzone and WWF Attitude, before THQ crept in to steal their thunder with the Smackdown series. WWF Smackdown was one of the best-looking PSX games at its release, and new gameplay initiatives helped THQ control the massive interest in WWF games quite authoritatively, so that when WWF Smackdown 2!: Know Your Role showed up in November of last year it had no trouble cleaning up. The fact that it was a brilliant game was somewhat irrelevant. Now that it is finally time for the PlayStation 2's first WWF wrestling game - over a year after the console's launch - WWF Smackdown: Just Bring It! can be assured of selling on the strength of its predecessors without much trouble. But does it deserve to do so? Is it as worthy of The Best Wrestling Game accolade as the games from whence it is spawned? Well, yes and no. Visually, Just Bring It is a peculiar blend of utter garbage and exceptional presentation. Developer Yuke seems to have taken the original PSX graphics engine - the game is noticeably similar to its predecessors in look and feel - and incorporated some excellent new animation, with virtually any move you could care to name (and a whole bunch of others) performed realistically and spectacularly, all backed up by some surprisingly good CPU camera manipulation. This is in addition to some intricately modelled and detailed wrestlers (of which there are well over 50 in the game), with each one easily distinguishable and coming complete with the obligatory entrance scenes. Unlike previous wrestling games where weedy models stuttered towards the ring to the accompaniment of canned laughter and a tinny rendition of their theme tune, Smackdown does a good job of building up to the event and getting the adrenaline pumping. Whether you choose to watch it or not, it's actually there this time.
Crashing down, right?
That said, all this pleasure is unfortunately offset against a shedload of pain. While there are a few characters which look pretty good, there are some serious issues. For example, if you're going to feature characters with long hair, at least code support for their locks into the damned game. Painting a black patch onto their head is a bad enough start, but having a trickle of pixels run over their shoulders and down their back is no excuse for a ponytail or streaky hair. Another problem is that the textures often seem glitchy, with a number of them acting like the piece of the jigsaw that will go in, but only if you force it. Facial animations and in particular mouth movements are just plain wrong, and wrestlers don't so much wear their clothing as have it tattooed to their flesh. Beyond that, the crowd is flat and motionless, and this has an adverse effect on the game as a whole. One of the big things about wrestling is the atmosphere created by the crowd. When one wrestler throws another through the announcers' table, it's cool because you can see the rampant Americans in the background screaming for more. It's blood curdling, but hey, it's authentic, and it would be nice if it could make its way into a next generation wrestling game. It wouldn't be so bad if you were limited to fighting around the ring, with no direct contact with the crowd, but sometimes you fight in - or should I say on - the crowd. It looks messy. Some of the signs the fans in the 'crowd' hold up are horrific, too. The PS2's lack of anti-aliasing does one of the most important things about any WWF event no favours here.
The presentation is also marred by some pathetic commentary, which you will want to turn off within the first few minutes. Your announcers are Michael Cole and Tazz, and their lines are atrocious. The other problem is that wrestling commentary requires a lot of emphasis, and this doesn't work when you just piece words together. Sentences can rise and fall in volume to produce complicated messages like: "Stone Cold Steve Austin [pause] is fighting [pause] Hunter Hurst Helmsley [pause] in this [pause] Singles Match". And so on. By contrast, the game features every character's theme tune and the sound effects for big-hitting moves and general carnage are fine. With such a mixed bag in terms of visuals, sound and general presentation, WWF Smackdown: Just Bring It! is one of those games that has to sell itself almost entirely in the gameplay department. We're not quite sure why Yuke's had difficulty realizing the WWF world to a further degree, but we're prepared to set it aside if the game is great to play. Fortunately, it is. Good news comes in several shapes and guises here. For the most part, it succeeds because it's a finely tuned version of the system seen in Smackdown 2. The main locks and moves are bound to buttons and the D-pad is used to move your character around the ring. Amongst those weapons at your immediate disposal are reversals for dealing with tricky opponents, grapples and simple attack moves. Other buttons are used for more specific things, like beating your opponent over the head with a steel chair.
If you hit the pin button quickly there is a reasonable chance of achieving a quick victory and, unlike in other wrestling games, it's tough getting your opponent to stand up on the spot trying to de-blur his eyes while having vicious finishing moves performed on him. The typical response to a move is to act weakened, but it takes a lot of effort to truly beat the crap out of somebody and be rewarded with a sitting duck. This is a good thing generally speaking, but frustrating because it means finishers (submission and pin-holds) are harder to execute, and special moves in general require split-second timing where they did not before. Specific competition in the game comes from several major modes, including Story Mode, which is much more accessible and rewarding this time, comprised of smaller (occasionally quite repetitive) story-driven segments which take a smaller amount of time to finish, but with less of the meat. There are also the usual single and multiplayer matches - hardcore, submission, table, TLC, cage, battle royal, I Quit, street fight, Royal Rumble and tag/six man matches. That's a hell of a lot of variety, and it takes a while to get through them all. Multiplayer is where Just Bring It! really excels though, and it's tremendous fun getting your friends round and smacking them down. Ultimately, either this game will appeal to your sense of rowdiness, or it will just pass you by. I'm not sure it's the finest wrestling game that there is, but it is an excellent example. There is an absolutely jaw-dropping overabundance of things to do, and the multiplayer modes are unmatched for sheer In Your Face-ness. WWF Smackdown: Just Bring It! is not without its flaws, with the overall picture perhaps tainted by some rudimentary flaws in the presentation, but it's a good update to a great series, and if you're a fan of that series it makes no sense to let this slip through your fingers.