It's fitting that WWE '13 takes us back to the Attitude Era, because the series reminds us of one of that era's most famous sons. No, it isn't the effortless suaveness of The Rock or Steve Austin's reckless disdain for authority that inspires thoughts of THQ's longstanding wrestling series. Rather, it's beginning to remind us of D-Generation-X's weasely lapdog, X-Pac.
There's a term in wrestling circles known as 'X-Pac heat' - the phenomena of a grappler receiving a hostile welcome from the crowd not because they're dastardly or said something vaguely anti-American but because their act is so stale it bores the fans rigid. Well, THQ's WWE series has serious X-Pac heat with us. This is simply the latest in a long line of fussy, infuriating WWE games, with controls that are convoluted yet bereft of tactical depth. That promises you total control over your favourite WWE Superstar, yet yanks it from your grasp when you need it the most.
The problems WWE '13 has are the same ones that have plagued the series since its Smackdown beginnings on PS2. Fundamentally, it's not a series you 'play' in the strictest sense. It's more a performance art with both players taking it turns to go on the offense, the receiver being forced to sit there and absorb it until they successfully time a reversal, achieved by fumbling blindly at the RT button. This continues until someone gains enough momentum to hit a finisher and hopefully claim victory. It is, much like the show it mimics, more about the pageantry than the pugilism.
That's not to say that the developers at Yukes don't mix it up. On the contrary, they're always tinkering with the formula - but always in small, insignificant ways, as if re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic. Sometimes it has analogue grapples, other times it doesn't. Sometimes you apply pressure on a submission hold by cranking back on the stick, other years you have to mash the buttons. Talk about reinventing the wheel.
WWE 13's control system is a more refined version of that seen in WWE '12. The main difference is that the time windows for reversals are slightly more forgiving, with little indicators telling you if you're tapping the trigger too late or too early. So it's a more sophisticated type of fumbling then, but fumbling is still the verb you're looking for. If only there were some kind of 'tell' in the grappler's body language to indicate when you should attempt a reversal, the whole process would feel a lot more intuitive and a lot less frustrating.
The main difference between WWE '12/13's system and that of its Smackdown vs Raw predecessors is the abolition of the 'strong grapple' button, with the strength of the move performed now dependent on the physical condition of your opponent. This is supposed to help the matches escalate as they do in real life, with bouts naturally segueing from armbars and wristlocks to power moves as the match nears its climax.
The concept is noble, but in our opinion it's a misstep that serves only to drive a further wedge between the player and the action. If your opponent makes a huge error in the opening moments of a match, why make it difficult for the player to capitalise on it and go in for the kill?
WWE '13 does address this to a certain extent by allowing you to play around with the parameters of the game engine in the main menu. A series of sliders allows you to customise the damage values of each type of move to a ridiculous degree, so matches flow however you fancy - from short, sharp squash matches to lengthy technical clinics. It's a useful addition to the series - and curiously, one that does more to give you a sense of control over proceedings than anything that ever happens inside the squared circle.
It's not all doom and gloom. One thing the WWE series has nailed since shedding its Smackdown skin is the pinning mechanic. As in WWE '12, you escape a pin by holding down the A button and releasing when the marker arrives in the green 'escape' area - the size of which is dependent on how beaten up your grappler is.
In certain situations you can now turn the tables by aiming for a second, smaller 'reversal' area, but the pay-off is that these are harder to perform and it's easy to get caught out if you get greedy. It's a brilliant mechanic that captures the WWE's unpredictable flavour to a tee - even if you're getting chewed up like a dog toy, a well-timed small package can catch out a complacent opponent unawares and allow you to pull an unlikely win out of the fire. It's perfect as it is. Let's hope this is one deckchair Yukes decide to leave in place.