Thursday, 6 June 2019

GAME REVIEW: WWE Smackdown! Here Comes The Pain

WWE Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain - Game Cover
October/November 2003 

I can't deny it. WWE Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain for the PlayStation 2 is the most fun I've ever had playing a game.

I say that as someone who approaches these game reviews more as a wrestling fan than as a gamer, but that still doesn't take away from the fact that Here Comes the Pain (HCTP) is an incredibly enjoyable outing from Yuke's and THQ that this fan, in particular, found he could get lost in for hours and hours and never get bored.

Indeed, most of the time when I do these pro wrestling video game reviews, I tend to play the game for just long enough to get familiar with it, write up my thoughts, and never play it again.

With HTCP, that simply hasn't been the case.

I originally intended to write this review like six months ago, but I've been so engrossed in playing it that I've never actually found the time to just sit down and write about it.






Until now.

With that said, let's dive into WWE SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain, released in North America in October 2003 and here in Europe in November of that year.

First impressions

WWE Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain - Start Screen
This is the first pro wrestling game to feature Vince McMahon's sports entertainment empire branded as a WWE game. The last PlayStation 2 outing, WWF Smackdown! Shut Your Mouth was released when the company was still known as the World Wrestling Federation.

Here, we find them in the wake of a crushing defeat in the law courts at the hands of the panda people at a time when they were still known as World Wrestling Entertainment, and not just WWE.

It's ironic, I suppose, that in the early days of their rebranding, the company emphasised the entertainment aspect of their product despite featuring some of the best pound-for-pound wrestlers and some of the best technical pro wrestling matches in their entire history.

I was thinking of this as the impressive intro video played featuring stars like Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio Jr. and Brock Lesnar, stars who would later prove to be as much fun to play as in the game as they are/were fun to watch on the screen. The video mixes the black and white motif that would play a big part in the season mode of this game (more of which later) with some impressive visuals that really gets you excited for what's ahead.

Roster

WWE Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain - Tag team match
Along with the aforementioned Superstars, HCTP is notable for being the first WWE game appearance of headliners John Cena, Bill Goldberg, and Batista, as well as Shelton Benjamin and Chavo Guerrero Jr. Sable makes her debut in a Smackdown game here, though she had previously appeared in WWF Attitude.

It's also worth mentioning that The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin make their final appearances as regular characters. After this, the two would only appear as legends and unlockable characters.

Elsewhere, there's a huge selection of wrestlers to choose from main eventers like Triple H, American Bad Ass Undertaker and Scott Steiner (making his only Smackdown series appearance) to undercarders like Ultimo Dragon (his only WWE game appearance), The World's Greatest Tag Team, Sean O Haire and many more.

If you're so inclined, you can also play as legends such as George The Animal Steele and Hillbilly Jim, though others (Ted Dibiase, Jimmy Snuka, The Road Warriors and Sgt. Slaughter) have to be unlocked using cash you acquire via playing the season mode.

Create a Wrestler (CAW)

WWE Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain - Create a Wrestler
For the most part, the CAW mode seems relatively unchanged from the one we saw in Shut Your Mouth, though with some minor tweaks that make it even easier to really create an impressive looking character.

Once again, I dove into creating 'The Ragin' Angel CJ Scholes' and though he doesn't look *too* different from the version I created in Shut Your Mouth, I'm sure you'll notice a marked improvement.

As with other versions, there are some treats in store in the CAW mode, though they're not quite as easy to find as in previous versions.

Look far enough, however, and you'll find attire for a whole host of past stars like X-Pac, The Acolytes, Owen Hart, Bad Ass Billy Gunn, The Hurricane and even Jushin 'Thunder' Lyger. Interestingly, you'll also find the attire for 'Slapnuts' era Jeff Jarrett, even though he was out running TNA wrestling around this time.

A lot of the generic designs are pretty cool too, though again you have to really dig down to find the very good ones.

Season mode

WWE Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain - Stephanie McMahon
Having created your own wrestler, you can take them (or any Superstar on the game roster) through season mode, which is so far the best one to be featured in a wrestling game up to this point.

You choose whether you want to be on Smackdown or Raw, and can even juggle the rosters about. So, for example, you might decide that you want to be on Smackdown but also want the opportunity to mix it up with Raw Superstar Bill Goldberg, so you bring him across and then head on into the game.

Things start after Wrestlemania with a really cool black and white video in which your character is seen pacing about an empty ring in an empty arena, talking about how their passion for pro wrestling keeps them coming back to fight, night after night. It really adds a sense of drama to things and sets the scene nicely for what's to come.

After this, you find yourself on your chosen show with either Stephanie McMahon (Smackdown) or Eric Bischoff (Raw) welcoming you to your show.

From there, you go off throughout a full year of game-play, competing on both your brand's TV show and monthly PPVs, getting involved in multiple storylines along the way.

At one point, you get to hire a manager. The game doesn't let you pick who it is but selects one for you. In my case, it was Sable. Despite the opportunity to make some crude jokes about your female manager's 'pie' the two of you take your professional relationship into a personal one, though after that particular storyline, she's neither seen nor heard from again until right at the very end, when she pops up to congratulate you after competing at Wrestlemania.

That's the one bad point about this whole thing. Though season mode is a lot of fun, there's no consistency between storylines and certain things don't make much sense.

Despite having Sable as a manager/girlfriend, you later find yourself in a storyline where you get to build your own stable, known in the game as a faction. Your number two guy in said stable not only becomes the group's mouthpiece but also decides that the group should have a manager and brings in somebody else, in this case, 2019 Hall of Famer, Torrie Wilson.

That's all well and good, but what happened to Sable?

Evolution Express

WWE Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain - Evolution Express
I will say, however, that the 'faction war' storyline is just about my favourite in the whole game. The group is basically you, your number two and your manager, with a younger rookie asking to join the fold. You can then pick a name for your storyline from a pre-selected list which includes actual pro wrestling names like D-Generation-X, the nWo, The New Age Outlaws and Evolution, along with a group of made-up names which, quite frankly, aren't as good.

I picked Evolution, then watched on as my group arrived at the arena in a huge bus known as the Evolution Express.

For unknown reasons, Vince McMahon decides that he doesn't like your new group and sics a bunch of his top stars on you. In the latest version I played, McMahon rounded up Undertaker, Guerrero, Angle and Lita and declared them to be The Corporation. This evil group not only face you in matches and not only gang-attack you afterwards but also carry out the heinous act of blowing up the Evolution Express!

Sure, that meant my own group's bus had blown up but man, it looked so cool that I couldn't help but enjoy it.

WWE Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain - Faction Action
Every now and again, you won't have any storylines going on, so you can go into the General Manager's office and either ask for a title shot or ask to be transferred to the opposite brand. Brand transfers won't work if you have any titles.

This makes sense but is still frustrating. At one point, all I had was the Cruiserweight title and I had to go out and purposefully lose a match so that I could jump to Raw.

With regards to titles, I'd like future versions of the game to either drop this or at least create a scenario where you can forfeit your title in order to brand hop.

I'd also like to see the titles that you hold feature in current storylines to create a better sense of realism.

In the Evolution storyline, for example, I was the world champion and also held the tag titles with Lesnar. Yet whenever I teamed with Lesnar as part of the storyline, we never defended the titles, nor did I ever put the world title on the line when I battled The Corporation's main man, The Undertaker at No Mercy.

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter, but it would make the game more realistic if you were a champion in a storyline with The Undertaker and you put the title on the line.

Still, that's a small complaint and, despite that, there's actually a lot to like about Here Comes the Pain's lengthy season mode.

In particular, I like that whenever you reach a PPV, you get another black and white video that emulates the kind of cool pre-match video packages you see on real PPVs.

Unlockables

As you go through season mode and win more matches, you not only gain points which can be used to improve your stats, but you get Smackdown dollars which can be used to buy a bunch of cool, unlockable stuff.

As I mentioned earlier, characters like The Million Dollar Man and The Legion of Doom can be purchased, as can old-school, Dead Man Undertaker. You can also unlock some cool, alternative attire and other goodies which don't necessarily make a huge difference to the game but look pretty good all the same.

Gameplay

WWE Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain - Stone Cold Steve Austin
As I've already said, playing HCTP is the most fun I've ever had playing a video game, and the in-ring action is a big part of the reason why.

The controls are more or less the same as they have been throughout the Smackdown series with a few minor tweaks. One tweak is that there are now different ways to block and reverse moves. One should button reverses grapples and the other reverses strike.

Though I get the logic behind this, the novice gamer in me often forgot which button did which and would simply end up mashing both, hoping for the best.

Meanwhile, the grapple system has been upgraded so that you can grab your opponent in a multitude of different ways depending on which direction you press along with the O button. Once you've got hold of him, you can then choose from a number of different moves, again depending on which buttons you press.

It does add a greater depth and variety to the game, and once you figure out which combo pulls off which move you can make your matches look pretty impressive.

Not that they don't already. The gameplay is so smooth and the moves all so well designed that it's like watching a quality PPV match, albeit one that you have some control over. In fact, there were times when I'd be getting my ass kicked but be so impressed with how good it looked that I didn't even care.

I also like the added realism that comes when you pit wrestlers of different sizes against one another. If you're a smaller wrestler, then you can't pick up bigger guys like 'Taker, Big Show or Brock, and will hurt your back trying to do so. Though that's a little frustrating when you forget and try to powerbomb Big Show, it does make the game much more realistic compared to other games where you'll have Rey Mysterio hitting all kinds of power moves on a super heavyweight.

That feature isn't necessarily perfect. For example, my CAW wrestler can't pick up Undertaker from a grapple, but if I knock him on his ass first, then I can pick him up from the mat and drill him with some rolling belly-to-bellies.

Still, it's a nice touch and one I greatly appreciate.

Sound and music

The most notable thing here is that there's no commentary whatsoever. On the whole, that's a good thing.

Not all games feature commentary that is quite as terrible as the job Michael Cole and Tazz did on WWF Smackdown: Just Bring It, but it's rare to find a game that really gets the commentary stuff spot on, so it's often best just to leave it out altogether.

Instead of soundbites from Cole and Tazz (or King and Lawler), we instead get a decent soundtrack playing over the matches and all the usual selection of wrestler entrance themes.

Much of the custom themes for your CAWs are the same as in Shut Your Mouth, meaning I once again got to pick that Slipknot-like track for my own Ragin' Angel character.

Other notable points

WWE Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain - Backstage Chaos
By now, I've told you most of the things I love about HCTP, as well as the few, relatively minor criticisms I have about the game.

Still, I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention some of the other notable features that distinguish this game from others in the series.

First of all, there's the addition of the Elimination Chamber match which, though mostly fun to play, can get a little cluttered up when you have all six men in the ring at the same time. This is the main reasons why I don't like playing Royal Rumbles and other multi-man matches in games like this. It just gets too hard -for this amateur gamer at least- to keep track of things.

I should also mention the backstage brawls which are a fun little diversion to the main season mode.

At each show, you can use a menu to navigate through certain backstage areas. Most of the time, this only allows you to pop into the GM's office to request a title shot or show transfer, but every now and again you can walk into the locker room or parking lot and talk to various wrestlers. Sometimes all that happens is that you exchange words. Other times, you end up challenging the other wrestler to a fight.

These fights typically end up taking place in the backstage area, where along with the usual assortment of weapons that you'd expect to find in a game like this, you can also run each other with motorbikes and forklift trucks.

It is, like almost everything in this game, an awful lot of fun.

Last Impressions

I don't know enough about games to say that this is the best wrestling game ever, but I will say that it's the best wrestling game I've ever played up to this point. It's so good that I find it completely engrossing and, even though I've finally written this review, I'm not quite ready to finish playing it yet.

I'll be posting this, switching the PS2 back on and looking for revenge against The Undertaker for blowing up my damn Evolution Express.


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