Looking Back on… WWE Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain (Sony Playstation 2)

WWE Smackdown! Here Comes The Pain.
Console: PS2
Genre: Sports (Wrestling)
Developer: Yuke’s
Publisher: THQ (At this point we’re reaching the end of the YHCOR reviews; about two years after this point, I’d be writing regularly for IPGames, and I only had about two more reviews in me for YHCOR before the entire process basically became something I couldn’t commit time to anymore. If I’d had the sort of easy-to-use tools we have now for posting to the site it might’ve been different, but at the time I was working with writing everything in Word, putting it together in Dreamweaver, passing it to my webmaster, and waiting for him to upload it, so it wasn’t the most intuitive thing in the world. These days I’m just too busy to keep focused on it, sadly, but assuming I don’t die by forty I’ll be back to it eventually.)

Ah, wrestling games. If anyone on this earth is familiar with wrestling games, you can damn well believe it’s me. From the glory days of WWF Wrestlemania on the NES (“Glory days,” he says. That game was the Hershey squirts.) to WWF Royal Rumble on the Genesis (Terrible game but man I loved it.) to WCW Versus the World on the PS1 (A lot of people thought that game was terrible, but it was basically a precursor to the AKI games we all loved to death, and for what it was, it was pretty fun.) to Fire Pro Wrestling D (Which was my go-to wrestling game until Fire Pro Wrestling Returns came out on PS2, which I will never stop playing.) and some version of Touken Retsuden on the Dreamcast (Sporadically; I could never get into the Touken Retsuden games, sadly.) to Def Jam Vendetta on PS2 (Vendetta was closer to an actual wrestling game, but Fight for New York was a better overall experience) to Ultimate MUSCLE on Gamecube (Man AKI made a lot of wrestling games even in their death throes.) to… you get the point, if there’s a wrestling game, I’ve probably played it, or some variant of it. I love ’em. (Loved, these days. WWE games tend to be the shits anymore for a number of reasons, and once you get a Fire Pro game in English you don’t need much else. Though man I wish THQ had paid off that rumor of releasing a downloadable version of No Mercy with an updated roster.)

But the problem with being a wrestling fan as well as a fan of many, MANY wrestling games is that, sooner or later, you start wishing for “the perfect game”. You want a game that has features from several different games, and you begin to judge games based on your perfect game. (For reference, mine would feature the gameplay of either Fire Pro or No Mercy, the character creation options of Here Comes the Pain, the story mode from either Here Comes the Pain or Smackdown vs Raw 2006, a multiplayer season mode like the one in WWE Raw 2, the custom entrance options of WWE Raw 2, and custom soundtracks for entrances… like Raw 2. Basically I want Raw 2 with No Mercy gameplay. If someone can make that happen it’d be great.) Of course, barring that, you compare the game you’re presently playing to what you felt the last “great” game was, IE the IWC’s fixation with comparing every wrestling game released in the past three years to No Mercy for the N64. (A game that, I might add, had a bug that randomly deleted everything on the in-game memory at a moment’s notice.) (Yeah, everyone seems to forget that part, they just say “NO MERCY WAS THE BEST” and forget the save-deleting bug part. To be fair though, it was the best game otherwise for a long time.)

Me, I just play the damn things.

Enter Smackdown: HCTP. The fifth entry in the Smackdown series, HCTP is arguably the most in-depth of the games to date, with some incredible moves forward in the systems as well as presentation, and it is arguably the best SD game to date. (This is more or less considered canon at this point; it’s widely known as the best Smackdown game ever, more or less, and those who do dispute it often admit that they understand the mindset. It’s considered one of the three best wrestling games overall, alongside No Mercy and FPWR, depending on your preferred play style.)

It’s kind of a shame that I just didn’t like it as much as I wanted to.

Okay, no story to speak of, so skip that. (There was something of a Season mode to it, but it was a far cry from the next game, which would feature a plotline that either ended with you as World Champ or boning Trish Stratus, which, as fictional accolades go, could go either way.) Graphically, the game is quite acceptable. The actual wrestler models are very close to perfect, and you can pretty much identify your favorite grapplers from the get go, though new entrants like John Cena might not be as noticeable as, say, Stone Cold. (OH BOY THAT SURE CHANGED QUICKLY DIDN’T IT?) Created wrestlers also look quite decent, for the most part. Also, the fans look a great deal better than in previous incarnations, and the backgrounds in general are superior to anything produced yet. (These days, not so much, but for a long while they basically coasted on the background animations created here, more or less.) It should be noted, however, that clipping is something of a considerable problem for this game, as it has been for almost the entire series as a whole, and you won’t have to look very hard to see it, sadly. (Yeah, that’s never really stopped.) Also, the created wrestlers have a tendency to come out, well, kind of ugly at times, though I blame this on the texture modeling in general. (Yeah, that’s also never really stopped.) On the plus side, however, the animations are extremely fluid, and the wrestlers move really well, so I’m pretty happy overall.

Musically… well… the game kind of bites. (Yeah, that’s also also never really stopped.) Most of your favorite wrestlers have their expected theme songs, and some licensed tracks made it to the game (IE Chris Benoit). But a lot of tracks did not, for some reason I can’t fathom (I mean, they have Victoria and Lita’s theme songs contracted, so why use generic variations? (Victora, because it was a TATU song and they probably didn’t pay to use it in the video games. Lita, I have no idea, because she comes out to her Boy Hits Car theme song even now, and it’s appeared in the games for years at this point. Even a year later it was in, in fact.) And the Dudley Boys theme is the ORIGINAL theme, not one of the three re-made themes they had, one of which is a fucking WWE produced theme (I think I meant “We’re Comin’ Down,” which was I believe their last theme in WWE, though yes, their first theme would’ve also been fine. “Bombshell” would’ve been the best choice, of course, because it’s fucking awesome, but for whatever reason this was during the period where WWE licensed songs for a couple years, then dropped them, instead of just buying the songs outright or producing them in-house.)). Also, classic wrestlers do not have any theme music at all, which boggles my mind to no end (what, no bagpipes for Roddy Piper? No funeral bells for the Undertaker? And why not have “Money” for the Million Dollar Man? That was an awesome song! //end rant). (That was especially fucking stupid, and fortunately hasn’t happened since. Also, yes, “Money” is one of the best theme songs ever.) The actual in-game music is pretty generic, but it gets the job done, I suppose.

The sound effects… well, no wrestler voices, the commentary was removed altogether, (I believe it came back for the next game, but we mostly didn’t miss it.) but the fans now chant appropriate things at certain wrestlers (the first time I heard the fans chant “Shave your back” at Albert I had to pause the game, I was laughing so hard), (Haha oh God. I explained this one during a prior piece, but yes, Tensai/Jason Albert used to have a thing where he was so hairy fans would chant “Shave your back,” at him, and they fucking incorporated it into the video games. You really don’t see shit like that anymore.) and the sound of a steel chair smacking a wrestler in the face sounds about as good as I could expect, so bully. Also, there is no ring announcer, either, so no Finkel or Garcia to announce your wrestler when he/she comes to the ring. (Is that right? That sounds weird, but it is possible given the technical limitations of the time period and people relearning the mechanics because they’d just moved to PS2 a year and change ago. I don’t own the game anymore and buying it again is cost-prohibitive so I can’t confirm.) So, all in all, the fans’ chanting is nice, but honestly, I’m not terribly impressed.

Control-wise, however, this game does not disappoint. Everything is fairly simple to execute, and requires, at most, one direction and two buttons, so it’s easy to pick up. The grappling system has been renovated; you now have four front grapple set-up positions (power, submission, quick, and signature), each of which contains four moves you can perform. There are also two distinct finishers per character, each done by pressing one button (unless they both happen from the same position, in which case, you press a direction and the button), for added simplicity. The motions are easy to perform to initiate the grapples themselves, and everything controls smoothly throughout. (This, aside from a weird period where the games used the Right Stick to perform moves, is more or less how they’ve played through the entirety of the franchise, because it works. Each year afterward new, and shitty, mechanics have been added that just fuck up the systems, sadly.) Using weapons, driving vehicles, (Yes, driving vehicles. This was during a period where vehicles got involved in the storylines, so you could drive forklifts and shit. It was wild.) and manipulating the environments are also a snap, as is navigating the menus, so the control, in my opinion, is damn sweet. Also of note, the counter button has now been switched to TWO counter buttons: one for strikes, and one for grapples. This requires a little more timing than before, and a little anticipation, but if you can get used to it, it’s easier to counter moves in this game than in any game prior. (This has kind of become more twitch-oriented and focuses a lot more on proper timing since the games have gone online, which isn’t really to the benefit of the series, honestly.) Also, the submissions now require button mashing to stay locked on, which, while fair (because it keeps the move locked on longer, and can force a submission more realistically), is quite annoying in design. (Also more or less the same as ever.) Still, thumbs up.

As far as extras go, well, there’s a fucking plethora. You are offered a bazillion match types to choose from, including single, tag, hell in the cell, cage, ladder, TLC, table, and so on. (This almost constantly changes anymore, and the most recent game stripped out a shitload of options, sadly.) New to the game are the Elimination Chamber (two men start, four are locked in cages, and every minute someone else is let out until everyone is killing everyone else) and Bra and Panties matches (women ripping each other’s clothes off), which are novel additions, overall. (That’s right: men get the Elimination Chamber, women get their clothes ripped off. These days they just don’t get anything, of course, so… things aren’t improving much. Still, though, assuming #GiveDivasAChance accomplishes something other than letting Cameron and Summer Rae tank the entire fucking division, that should change come next year, at least.) The Season mode is also much improved, and includes truly split rosters, each with their own title belts and wrestlers, and some interesting story developments overall. (That was a fairly notable part of the Season mode for a while, actually, all the way until I stopped playing. The most recent game doesn’t do that, obviously, since Raw and Smackdown don’t feature split rosters anymore, and now Smackdown is just treated like a B-Show to Raw, which is kind of how WCW treated Thunder before they went under. Just saying.) The create a character mode is as robust as always, and offers a lot of room to play around with your chosen avatar. And the environments offer a ton of interactivity… from driving vehicles to flinging yourself off of the top of some building in Times Square to grabbing onto a helicopter and diving onto your opponent, the game has a ton to offer. (I am in no way whatsoever kidding about any of that.) And finally, the new body damage system (where moves used on a body part weaken that body part) is incredibly cool, though it’s hard as hell to work over anything but the head and body, so arm and leg submissions are substantially more useless in the end. (This remains much the same in the modern games, though I’ve since learned that, from a psychology perspective, it’s easier to just build your wrestler with moves that always target the point your finishers attack if you want to win easily, so that’s less of a problem anymore.)

On the whole, the game is a dramatic improvement from SD: Shut Your Mouth. (Which was, itself, a massive improvement from Just Bring It. The franchise continued to improve until… 2006 I believe? At which point it tanked out a bit.) But is it a great game? No, not really. First off, the game is severely misogynistic. (Not that this is a surprise.) You can only play as men in Season mode, and the Women’s Title, despite existing on the roster itself, is never really defended at all. (Some of the earlier games offered specific women’s title paths and such, but for the most part that’s always been an issue, honestly.) Add to this that you can only boost your character’s stats in Season Mode, and there is absolutely no fucking reason to create female characters except as valets. (By which I mean, custom female characters could never become more powerful than when they started, because you didn’t have the option to improve stats unless you played the Season mode. The most recent game lets you set your stats however you want, and keeps them separate for the story mode, but has no custom female character options soooo it’s not exactly right.) Also, the Bra and Panties match? You can only play in it as the original women provided with the game. No created females can play. (Not that, were I a woman, I’d want my avatar to be in that match, but still.) And, despite the advertisement on TV, no, men cannot participate (not that I see a point… half of them walk around in the equivalent of a fucking speedo anyway, so whatever). (I didn’t even remember the ads for this game, so God bless Youtube for archiving everything stupid you could ever need. The ad, which is here, is even stupider than I could’ve imagined, by the by. On the other hand, I kind of wish Brock had been that good of a talker all the time.) So, this match was a basic fucking waste of time.

And there are other questionable developments, as well. There’s an incredibly small amount of tag-team intros in the create a team option, as compared to previous games, which leads me to question why you would remove perfectly acceptable intros and do nothing to replace them. (Yeah that’s a common problem as well.) And why can you only have three members to a faction? (These days you can have five, which is better at least.) Watch TV guys, Evolution has four, count ’em, FOUR members. DX had something like seven at one point, (Hmmm… HHH, Stephanie sort-of, Road Dogg, Billy Gunn, X-Pac, and Tori makes six. Even the Wikipedia entry can only highlight five or six members at any one point in time, so I’m a little off there. You could use the Dungeon of Doom and probably make that work though.) and Team Angle had five (for reference, Angle, Hass, Benjamin, Heyman, and Big Show). (I believe the Heyman/Show thing wasn’t actually part of Team Angle, actually, so that was more of a general alliance rather than a full faction.) Also, if you want to have every character fight on even footing, good luck. Created characters can only receive stat boosts by playing in Season Mode, and there’s no option to tone down the starting wrestlers to a more acceptable level, so Brock Lesnar would stomp the holy hell out of any character that hasn’t taken on two years of Season with a winning record. (Oh God yes, this was fucking super dumb.) And why is the Hardcore Title on Raw? I mean, besides the fact that the Women’s title is basically a fucking trophy, of course. The Hardcore Title doesn’t even fucking exist anymore, guys. (I believe this was not too long after the title was abolished, hence the issue.) And, last, but not least, the storyline developments in Season mode are mostly arbitrary… you win the tag titles, spend a month in a program built around them, and then the game forgets you have them for six months. You form a faction, make friends in it, and then the game pairs you up with some random jackass three months later when you have three perfectly acceptable possibilities for buddies from the Faction angle and the Tag Title ownership. I’m surprised the game remembered I was dating Torrie Wilson (don’t ask). (The first one is because, in storyline terms, the game literally doesn’t care that you hold the Tag Titles since it isn’t a salient plot point. The second one still baffles me, since it’d be easier to just pair me with someone I’m on good terms with if the partner doesn’t matter for plot purposes. The third part… I honestly don’t remember if that mattered.)

So, overall, is SD: HCTP good? Hell yeah. A large amount of match types, a huge selection of wrestlers, a create a character mode for new faces, and a fair amount of depth make the game a solid investment. But is it great? (History says yes, though I believe I liked Smackdown vs Raw a little better.) Well, it’s heavily unbalanced in wrestler stats, pretends women don’t exist, hasn’t fixed storyline issues or creation problems, and requires a lot of work to develop a solid character and unlock all the game has to offer. So honestly, I like it, but if you’re fine with JBI, (I meant Shut Your Mouth, not Just Bring It, which was a garbage pile.) I can’t honestly recommend this as a must have title. It’s a good game, but so was JBI, and that, at least, kept all the characters on even footing, which made it more fun to play with friends. Just a thought. (I honestly can’t remember too much about Shut Your Mouth, frankly, mostly because it came out over a decade ago at this point, and it didn’t stick with me too much.)

THE GOOD:
1. Shitload of depth.
2. The Elimination Chamber is a wicked-awesome match type, and everything else that was already there is solid. (To play, anyway; to watch is a different story altogether.)
3. Character creation system is solid, overall, and offers a ton of moves to work with.
4. Grappling system changes are a dramatic improvement.
5. Story mode is more in-depth and robust than before.

THE BAD:
1. Lack of attention to female players. (Which never really stopped.)
2. The positional damage system has issues.
3. Characters are unbalanced when compared to one another. (Which will almost certainly never stop.)
4. Commentary and ring announcers were removed entirely.
5. Season mode forgets it’s (GODDAMMIT.) own plot halfway through each season. (Which I’m mostly sure never really stopped.)

THE UGLY:
1. A synth instrumental version of TATU’s “All the Things She Said” greets Victoria upon her entrance. Blech. (Yeah that was double plus ungood.)
2. Absolutely no fucking point to the Bra and Panties match at all. (TITS.)
3. There isn’t one single fucking acceptable ponytail in the create a wrestler section. Not one. (This is entirely my own personal hangup, but fuck you, it’s my review.)
4. Throwing yourself off of the top of the Times Square area, which is three stories high, to perform a Shooting Star Press… and missing. (To be fair, it was a long-ass climb, so that happened a lot.)
5. Some of the characters I’ve created bear a resemblance to the inside of the toilet bowl after a night of Taco Bell and drinking.

GRAPHICS: 8
MUSIC: 7
SOUNDS: 6
CONTROL: 9
EXTRAS: 9
IMPRESSION: 7

OVERALL: 7.75 (I still feel like SvR might’ve been a better overall experience due to the issues I’ve mentioned here, but HCTP is a fine enough “best Smackdown game” to pick, one supposes. I’d still rather play Fire Pro though.)

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