Bah gawd almighty! It’s the next instalment of the SmackDown series, King!
In 2002, Yuke’s and THQ faced a serious challenge. Critical response to their 2001 wrestling title, WWF SmackDown Just Bring It, was muted at best: in many people’s views, the best iteration of the series, No Mercy, rated 9/10, 9.5, and 89 from IGN, Game Informer, and Metacritic respectively – JBI received 7.8, 8, and 76 respectively from those same publications – a disappointing drop in form for Yuke’s. Instead of bursting into a collective ball of tears, they put their chin up, went back to the drawing board, and came out with the aptly-titled Shut Your Mouth, a title aimed at critics and a game aimed at loyal fans who had been waiting for the halcyon days of No Mercy and the PS1 SmackDown! Series to return. It featured slick, fast-paced action, and a stacked season mode with tons of replay value. THQ were back on form. Now, in 2003, they were faced with the difficult second album – Here Comes the Pain had to build on the foundation started by Shut Your Mouth, while also improving wherever they could. It’s rare for sequels to be better than the original, but, my word, did Yuke’s achieve it in spades.
Being the first SmackDown! game of the series not to be named after one of The Rock’s catchphrases, Here Comes the Pain also feels fresh and new in terms of its direction and design. The graphical quality has been upped immensely from the previous game – where SYM looked somewhat blocky and malnourished, HCTP is sharp as a tack, with very glossy visuals that use impressive high-polygon models. I don’t just mean impressive for the time, too: it’s nice playing a game where Booker T looks exactly what he’s meant to look like, and not like a horse. The wrestlers are also animated perfectly, making the in-ring action look super smooth, in a way that the previous PS2 games didn’t really achieve: they looked a bit Uncanny Valley, but HCTP looks superb and true to life.
As far as the PS2-era games go, Here Comes the Pain also probably has the smoothest gameplay. The set-up is simple yet elegant: X is for strikes, O is for grapples, but a light, quick tap will result in an Irish whip, Square handles the grabbing of and interaction with items (getting in and out of the ring, for example), and Triangle runs. The right stick taunts and requests interference, the left stick moves you, and L1 executes a finisher – holding L2 with it results in stealing your opponent’s move. Simple, and yet deep and well-executed to the point where it’s perfect for multi-player. This game is also a far cry from the 2K series’ more simulation-style pace; this game is faster yet never sacrifices that depth of gameplay or moves available in the name of fun. As such, you could have it both ways: let the AI fight it out, and you could still have fun watching an excellent computer controlled match; or, if you want to hit the Job Squad circa 2003 (Rodney Mack, Rico, Stevie Richards et al) with all your finishers in a wanton display of gleeful destruction, you can do that too.
However, the absolute crown jewel in HCTP‘s collection is the stellar season mode. Yuke’s have tried and failed on numerous occasions to replicate the success and brilliance of this game’s season, but they have never ever come close. Here, you get to control a superstar of your choice, be it original or created – be warned, as CAWs will have abysmal stats to begin with, and you’ll find yourself having to grind out victories against Lance Storm on Heat. You’ll pick your guy, then you can work through a WWE calendar year, where you’ll earn title shots and get involved with storylines, which have been partially lifted from WWE programming – for instance, the “faction” story occurring after SummerSlam uses scenes inspired by angles from DX’s 2000 run, especially with the DX express.
The ability to go after the titles you want and get involved with storylines makes for an especially engrossing experience, but the most intriguing part of the season is the backstage interactions. This was featured in Shut Your Mouth, where you could walk around a low-res version of New York City, but it’s streamlined here in that the walking sections – which were just padding – are scrapped in favour of a simple menu, allowing you to get to the assorted backstage confrontations a lot quicker, and there’s a plethora – you can start fights, punk out rivals, form alliances, or even just share a funny moment with someone. This all wraps Season Mode into a fantastic package that becomes addictive – it can be played over and over, and it’s not hard to find yourself playing through a whole season in one sitting.
The depth of the roster still stands up today; even though it has basically become a time capsule for Ruthless Aggression WWE, this is still a stacked roster with many recognisable and loved favourites like Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerrero, Edge, Chris Benoit, Rhyno, the list goes on. The selection of legends is adequate, with names like Legion of Doom and George The Animal Steele showing up: solid hands, but players might feel that Yuke’s missed a trick by leaving out the more ‘obvious’ legends. This is actually no fault of theirs, as they intended to include the likes of Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior, but for different reasons such as Hogan leaving the company and Warrior threatening to sue, they had to be cut. Going over the game files indicates that Al Snow and Jeff Hardy were also intended for play at some stage of development, but they were cut from an already bursting roster. Of course, if you are a bit mad and you feel like the wrestlers on tap aren’t enough, the create a wrestler section is well-stocked, but modern players will be disappointed at the lack of support the game has for created wrestlers today: you’ll find formulas online, but only for American Dragon, 2003 CM Punk, and people of that nature, so good luck if you want to play as a good Dolph Ziggler. However, the creation element is bolstered with excellent create an animation and entrance components, so the game really allows you to get creative.
The game has really no noticeable shortfalls, but if you want to be anally retentive: things that this game gets wrong include surprising the player at the start of a match, and that the programming in the “parking lot” arena can be a little bugged. Let me explain: when you decide what match you want, the entrances play, then you go right to a loading screen. This loading screen can end at any time, then you go right to the match, meaning that you could (and will) be bum-rushed by the AI running at you, scoring a cheap hit before you’re aware of your surroundings. As for the parking lot, 50% of the time, the AI will try to get on the motorcycle which is placed between you two. When they’re on the motorcycle, the parking lot is, essentially, unplayable, as it is nigh-on impossible to knock them off the bike, which they can grab you from as they ride about. The only way to deal with this is leaving to an adjoining area as soon as you can. A glitch that works in your favour here, however: there’s a tall truck to the right of the screen. Whip the AI opponent into it and they will always climb up and stupidly walk off it instead of climbing down, causing massive fall damage that can make backstage brawls (Hardcore Title bouts especially) a breeze. These two things slightly dampen what is otherwise a near-perfect game.
The art of predetermined man combat doesn’t get much better than Here Comes the Pain. It’s sharp, fast-paced, and just so much fun to play. In the latest iterations of the WWE series, it feels like I get bored after six months, but I’ve been playing HCTP after all this time, which really speaks to its status as one of the premier wrestling game in the world today.