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WWF Smackdown! (PSOne)
MSRP: $39.99
Number of Players: 1-4 (with Multitap)
Developer: Yukes
Publisher: THQ, Inc.

Rating:
***1/2
out of
*****

Wrestling games have become almost as popular as the real thing. (Or, I guess in this case, the pre-determined thing.) Either way, there's no arguing that the WWF is the king of the pro wrestling federations. Pulling in close to 7.0 in the ratings every week, the WWF and its stars have become household names. The wrestlers are instantly recognizable as both athletes and entertainers, appearing on magazine covers, other TV shows, movies as well as three to four different wrestling shows each week. It's no secret that anything that deals with the WWF usually means big business for those involved.

So it comes as no surprise that THQ, Inc., which previously held the license to the less popular WCW organization, turned to Japanese wrestling game developer Yukes to make sure that their first PlayStation WWF game was a quality title. After such disasters as WCW/NWO Thunder and WCW Nitro, they wanted to make sure that the federation with the larger following got high-class treatment which, in turn, could mean phenomenal sales. Did they succeed? For the most part, yes. Is this the best wrestling game on the market? Not quite. WWF Smackdown! has a lot of stuff going for it, but it's got some weaknesses too.

The graphics, in a word, are phenomenal. All of the wrestlers are recognizable when they appear on-screen. The ring and the accompanying crowd look very good too. Many wrestling games seem to have trouble making the matches look as if they're taking place in an arena, rather than someone's basement. Not WWF Smackdown! The camera, when configured to do so, can switch perspective in a fashion that replicates the typical look of the shows that are seen every week on TV. With the high quality graphics, it's easy to mistake the game for the real thing. (Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but this is definitely the best looking wrestling game available today.) It's hard to believe that the five year old PlayStation is pumping out these kinds of graphics. Things do slow down a wee bit during matches that feature more than two opponents, but not much. The wrestlers' moves are animated to perfection. The collision detection, which has been suspect in other recent wrestling games, is top-notch, making moves appear more lifelike as a result.

The control scheme, while a bit dumbed-down compared to other wrestling titles, makes sense overall. Rather than using an arcane combination of button mashing and d-pad fiddling (like WWF Attitude), Smackdown! merely asks you to remember a rather small set of button press combinations that are more dependant on where wrestlers are positioned than anything else. It's easy to pick up, but it can sometimes get frustrating determining which situational set of controls the game is using. It's nothing major, and getting used to it simply requires a bit of patience.

The game's roster of WWF superstars is fairly up-to-date, including Chris Jericho, The Dudley Boyz, The Hardy Boyz, as well as the old stand-bys like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Chyna and Mankind. Some wrestlers are initially hidden, but can be unlocked in the season mode. (Well, their body parts can. More on that in a moment.) The in-ring entrances -- one of my favorite things to watch in wrestling games just to see how the developers handle them -- are simply wrestlers' Titantron movies with the game's rendering of each wrestler superimposed on top. No pyro or even much beyond a few lighting effects to punctuate the entrance. Disappointing.

In the sound department, there is absolutely no commentary during a match. Being that most wrestling games that bother to include commentary usually do a bad job of it, that might not be much of an omission. However, things sound awfully odd during the game as the wrestlers grapple to a repetitive, hyper-speed music soundtrack. There are no voices at all. Whether this was done to keep the game's framerate steady or simply because access to the talent was limited, it still impacts the game in a negative way. It may be silly, but the wrestler's comments are a big part of the whole package.

The game's create-a-wrestler mode, which has become one of the obligatory wrestling game options since WWF Warzone, is lackluster. There's little to modify other than height and weight of a grappler, the rest of the parts come from already existing wrestlers. So, rather than being able to create someone new, you are relegated to mixing and matching body parts. Want to make a wrestler with Stone Cold's head and Chyna's torso? You can. The problem is that you can't make much more than odd combinations like that. You can choose which moves your wrestler does individually in certain situations, rather than simply picking another wrestler's repertoire in its entirety, which is a nice option.

There's also a season mode, which differs a bit from previous games. You can switch wrestlers during the season, give some wrestlers time off and make things more interesting along the way. Rather than simply ending when you win a belt, the game simply continues allowing the belt to change hands. It makes the game feel more like you're controlling an actual wrestling show than simply playing a game trying to win the belt. The season mode also includes a bit of plotline elements with wrestlers exchanging some dialogue -- which appears as subtitles -- and the usual backstage antics, like getting attacked, etc. The game doesn't go to far with the plot elements and they have little effect on the outcome of matches, but it is interesting and does break up the monotony a bit. The game also includes such modified matches as the Battle Royal, cage matches, hardcore and falls count anywhere matches. You can even have special referee matches, which allow a player to make the count outs as fast or slow as he/she sees fit.

There's a lot included with WWF Smackdown! As a wrestling fan and a videogame fan, I see the foundation of a good series here. If THQ and Yukes can take the good parts of this game (the graphics, the controls, the number of different matches available) and bump up the quality of some others (the sound, the create-a-wrestler), they can make the ultimate wrestling videogame. For now, they simply have a strong title that will satisfy most fans, but will leave others wanting just a bit more.

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