So far I like to sum this game up as part wrestling sim and part WWE All-Stars. It takes most of the best elements of All-Stars, the best wrestling game THQ has created this generation, and combines it with simulation wrestling elements. In effect, the developers finally seem to be making a wrestling game rather than a fighting game while also simplifying things for everybody along the way.
Those elements of professional wrestling are immediately noticeable now. After each move, the wrestlers are selling their injuries. There's also a distinct flow at work here that tries to mimic the ebb and flow of a real match. I still think you'll be able to dominate inferior players, but players close to the same skill level should have some great back and forth matches.
The improved flow is possible because the game takes certain things away from you without it being a hindrance or even really noticeable. I was flustered about only having one grapple button for about 20 seconds. But immediately after the starting bell, I did a couple moves and it almost instantly washed all that consternation away. I just did not care if the game was selecting moves for me because the flow of the match was immediately improved.
I feel strongly about these new controls because no strategy was removed by providing less user control, just unnecessary fluff. In short, it's rather brilliant because you actually see a wider variety of moves -- no more accidentally doing the same move over and over as you just smash on your controller -- at a brisk pace (at least until players begin to build up damage), while always being focused on your opponent and trying to stay one step ahead of him in the ring.
This game also seems to be unique because it simplifies the controls yet should still make all types of fans happy. Perhaps that is simply because the analog controls were just so bad in some of the previous Smackdown games, but regardless, what happened happened, and now THQ has found something that does actually work. I didn't miss the lack of certain moves or buttons because the game still retains one smart element from the fighting game genre: balance. You're focusing more on strengths and weaknesses of your wrestlers because there more attributes at work here, and the simplified controls mean you have to understand when to counter, when to grapple, when to punch and when to just mix things up. It comes back to your ability to understand your grappler and read your opponent -- the best part of the gameplay in WWE All-Stars.
Of course, nothing is perfect. The grappling system is solid overall, but the limb-targeting system does suffer from a lack of moves. While using a normal grapple you are cycling through moves and even tiers of moves/signatures as your opponent gets more damaged, it seems like most of the targeting grapples are very similar or just repeat many times in a row. It sort of drove me out of the experience and made me not even want to target specific body parts because I did not want to see a repetitive move once again.
I don't care if I'm staring at nearly naked men, the graphics still make me swoon. It doesn't look like a massive change in screenshots, but the new, more TV-like camera angles, mixed with a minimized HUD and improved lighting really help to drag you much deeper into the experience. Sure, Michael Cole is still awful on commentary, but everything beyond the audio is just working here.
Entrances are even more impressive because of these new elements. I used Alberto Del Rio during my time with the game, and the Mexican aristocrat did not disappoint after coming out in his (generic) Bentley and strutting down to the ring with a big ol' grin on his face. Different camera cuts were going on during the entirety of this sequence, and it all just looked so lifelike. I'm sure the entrances will still get boring eventually, but they are still a great way to sell any WWE fan on the general look of this new game.
About the only negative I can say about the presentation, beyond the shoddy audio, is the use of some overlays. The HUD is actually quite minimized this year, which really makes the game look like a match you would see on TV, but certain garish gameplay elements take you out of the experience. I like the Breaking Point submission system, but I wish there was some way to hide (or at least move) the graphic that comes on screen and shows how you're doing on a submission -- I don't think I really need that info during a button-mashing sequence. I get why the pinning graphic has to show up when you're trying to escape a pin sequence, but even that could be shrunk down or placed somewhere that is not in the middle of your screen. In short, the developers are already quickly flashing a specific button on your screen to tell you when to do certain things at particular moments in a match, so I'd like to see them find a balance with these other gameplay touches as well.
The theme of the year at E3 2011 seems to be "revitalization" when it comes to sports games. I read about the positive changes for WWE '12, but playing is believing in this case. Clearly this is just the first step for the franchise, but even so, everything from the visuals down to the minimized HUD to the new controls just works here.
WWE '12 is no longer running from what it should have been all along: a wrestling simulation.