Saturday morning has two redeeming features. Lie-ins and World Wresting Federation Entertainment. If you subscribe to the former, you probably haven't spotted the latter's transition from pantomime to full-blown soap opera, but WWE has been about storylines, wrestler relations and out-of-the-ring 'politics' for quite some time.
However, it's only with Shut Your Mouth, the fourth iteration of the popular SmackDown! Series for Sony consoles, that videogames have started to imitate this side of WWE. And somehow, developer Yuke's has managed to recreate the WWE approach without sacrificing any of the previous titles' playability. Indeed, ignoring the vaunted story ('season') mode, Shut Your Mouth is still the best wrestling game on any format to date, and Eurogamer was lucky enough to go hands on with the latest preview version of the game early this October.
Laying the SmackDown
The first thing that will strike fans of the PS2's first wrestler, Just Bring It, is that the game is absolutely immense by comparison. The title screen offers only season, exhibition and create-a-wrestler modes, but this is a deceptively condensed listing. Exhibition mode, for example, reveals just about every variation on two-to-six blokes-or-birds in-a-ring imaginable. You can throw in ladders, bells, chairs, belts, cages, even tables, and you can pick from any of the more than 50 real-life SmackDown wrestlers that currently ply their trade in World Wrestling Entertainment.
However it's the season mode where most of Yuke's efforts have been applied. This begins with the initial draft, as Vince McMahon picks his SmackDown fighters for the coming season. Your chosen character has a full card of fights ahead of him (or her), and you'll have to take part in single matches, tag team battles, round-the-world Pay-Per-View specials (ala the forthcoming WWE Rebellion event, which is showing on Sky Digital and various cable networks on October 26th) and even spontaneous 'hardcore' matches.
Instead of simply fighting through a ladder of matches though, it's the story which propels the game forward, and your relationships with the other wrestlers and moneymen. You'll find yourself on the receiving end of challenges, which may then be interrupted as one of your enemies comes along to spoil the party behind the ref's back, and it's your choices with regards to these challenges, your decision to observe matches, interfere and nurture alliances that affects your standing in the WWE, and with the crowd.
You'll lose quite a bit at first, but that's to be expected, and you'll fight the same characters repeatedly, learning subtleties and flaws in their technique and eventually building up enough points to demand a title shot from the boss.
And, in a nice touch, your progress in the season mode unlocks more characteristics, outfits and other extras to deck your own custom wrestler out with. This year's create-a-wrestler mode is as detailed as you can possibly imagine, with options to change height, girth, skin tone, clothing, signature moves, title music, ringside behaviour and even age (to visible effect). You can then plough your creation back into the season mode to amusing effect.
Gameplay is still largely the same, but the controls have been improved. You can now access reversal moves very easily to stop your opponent really crunching your bones, and 'SmackDown!' finishing moves are much simpler. Otherwise, it's a case of building up your SmackDown meter by pummelling the bloke, and punching, kicking, grappling, throwing and pinning using the various face buttons.
Something that enriches the gameplay no end is the much improved collision detection. Although inevitably the odd hand disappears into a back and the odd leg appears through someone's thigh, it's a much rarer occurrence than in Just Bring It and its predecessors, and given that this isn't even final code we're talking about, there's a still a chance to iron this out further.
And something that enriches the experience surrounding the gameplay is the lengths Yuke's have gone to provide an entire SmackDown 'show', rather than just a ring in a low-res auditorium. Fights are one thing, but we also have extensive backstage environments (no stranger to bickering and full-blown fights), television interviews and plenty more. Visually the game is at about the same level as Just Bring It, but the character models exhibit greatly enhanced facial detail and a new particle system which allows for sweat, blood and water spillage.
1... 2... 3!
WWE SmackDown! Just Bring It was a very competent wrestling game. Shut Your Mouth is almost evolutionary by comparison, and deserves far greater acclaim from what we've seen. Non-fans will gaze at it in disbelief, but the unashamed cheesiness of the game and the myriad improvements give it a unique charm amongst me-too fighters. Watch out for our full review of Shut Your Mouth closer to the game's November 15th release date.