Though developer AKI never did develop a licensed professional wrestling game again after their beloved quartet of WCW/WWF games for the N64, Yukes at least temporarily tried to take up their mantle with the Day of Reckoning series. An extremely similar gameplay engine plus what is arguably still the best create-a-wrestler (CAW) mode around really helped this first entry to overcome a handful of more minor limitations, like a wanting story mode and computer AI that isn't fine-tuned particularly well.
Roster Regrets And Killer CAWs
It should be emphasized that the centerpiece of this game is creating your own roster; the default roster is not the most robust around, smaller by half that even most of the N64 titles. This came out in 2004 and naturally focuses on the top of the card for that era: Evolution, The Rock, The Undertaker, the ill-fated Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero and so on. A few of the limited slots are wasted on flash-in-the-pans like Mark Jindrak and Garrison Cade, however, while some big names like the Dudleys and JBL inexplicably are sidelined. Women also get short shrift here, with just four representatives: Trish Stratus, Victoria, Molly Holly and Stacy Kiebler (the lattermost of whom wasn't really even a wrestler, but was so popular they apparently wanted to hammer her in somewhere).
So if you're looking to just jump right in and not faff about with character creation, at least from the perspective of roster and gameplay modes, this one may not be the best choice. If you DO want to faff about with character creation, however, you'll be pleased to find an amazing level of depth and customization. It's basically the character creator from WWF: No Mercy
on super steroids. You can alter most aspects of the actual character model and bolt gear on pretty much wherever you want to (save a lone "crotch box" apparently thrown in to keep you from attaching weewees to your rasslers). There's also an equally impressive move list. You can even customize your ring entrance by choosing your own sequence of animations and pyro effects, down to picking the camera angle for every bit of it. And of course, enough moves and animations just happened to get included to accurately recreate popular wrestlers who were not on the WWE roster at the time, like Stone Cold, Sting and Brock Lesnar. A Great Gameplay Tradition (A Few Issues Aside)
The other strength is the AKI-like gameplay engine. It isn't perfect, but it actually improves in a couple of areas. Special moves have been simplified to pushing A+B rather than rotating the control stick weirdly while grappling, and there's also button-prompt reminders when you're on the defensive or trying to recover. There's also now a little "voodoo doll" indicator by each wrestler's name to show how damaged each of their body parts is, gradually darkening from yellow to red. There are some downsides, though. Recovering from any kind of stun, pin or submission requires obnoxiously mashing the A button, which will eventually do a number on both your thumb and controller. And while I like the new counter system in principle, which incorporates an element of skill by having you push the R trigger for strikes or the L trigger for grapples rather than just a generic "block" button you can turtle behind, the computer AI just counters entirely too much and the counter-counter-counter-counter chain fests happen way too often. That kind of thing is exciting once in a while, ten times in every match it's just obnoxious. Hell with your crotch boxes, THQ
On the subject of the AI, that's another kinda-iffy area. It's a little too good at countering, but a little too bad at everything else. For some reason, while the computer's tag partner will always jump in to break up pins and submissions, yours never bothers to at all. And don't even bother trying a Tables, Ladders and Chairs match unless it's all human players, as the computer will immediately throw four ladders into the ring and spend the whole time swinging them wildly, continually mowing down friend and foe alike. Aside from countering constantly, the AI just doesn't rassle tremendously well and you'll soon be destroying it with ease. It isn't awful, but some more polish definitely was wanted in this area. The Story Of A Jabronie
As the game leans toward CAW creation rather than the existing roster, it also leans more toward multiplayer than single player. The main feature for those going it solo is Story Mode, which was actually on the more substantial side for the time, though now feels a little too linear and simple. It also doesn't let you take existing wrestlers through it; instead, it's used as a means to build up your CAWs, telling their journey from flippy indie nobody to WWE champion. It's a good premise, though it would have been nice to have one story mode for the CAWs and another for existing superstars.
Anyway, you whip up a CAW then take them through a linear story progression of about 30 matches or so, starting as a raw rookie in WWE developmental and gradually working up to Sunday Night Heat, then choosing whether you want to be on RAW or Smackdown. Along the way you interact with both management (Vince, Paul Heyman) and the other superstars in cutscenes that develop the story between matches. There's a tiny bit of surface-level carny lingo (like "dark matches"), but everything is kept in kayfabe and the business is definitely protected, brotherjackdude. It isn't really any kind of peek at the inner workings of the rassle business unfortunately, but it's still not a bad little rags-to-riches tale and a creative way to pump up your CAW's stats (you get bonus points to add depending on how well you performed in each match).
Aside from not being able to bring in existing superstars, the one big issue with story mode is that it's entirely linear and the same every time. The game's marketing made a big deal about there being separate branches for RAW and Smackdown once you get halfway through it, but that isn't quite true. It's exactly the same storyline for both, down to even recycling most of the same scenarios and dialogue, just with different foes. On the RAW branch, sheisty GM Eric Bischoff sets you up with top heel faction Evolution, who eventually turn on you leading to an ultimate Iron Man match at Wrestlemania against Triple H for the belt. On the Smackdown branch, sheisty GM Kurt Angle sets you up with top heel faction The Ministry, who eventually turn on you leading to an ultimate Iron Man match at Wrestlemania against Undertaker for the belt. Modes of Rassle
Aside from story mode, it's pretty much just exhibition matches on offer, which is the main reason I say the game leans toward multiplayer. There's a good range of them, with all the expected exotic PPV variants like Hell In A Cell and Royal Rumble. The women also get the Bra and Panties match, which I'm sure will trigger some millenials. Unlike the N64 games, however, there's nothing to unlock by playing any of these and no real purpose for a solo player other than practice or just fooling around. Aesthetics: 'Mirin?
One final strength to note here is the character models, which for 2004 roundly look very good. You've got the usual signs of the times like weird flappy mouths that are stiffly animated, but otherwise the level of detail is pretty impressive and it really does help you get immersed in those CAWs. There's also a nice range of motion-captured animations, particularly the "sell" animations for getting hit by big moves. Booker T in terrible peril
Same can't be said for the music, though you have to expect that coming in. Every licensed title for any major sport from 2000 onward always seems to use the same mix of awful whiny post-grunge / corporate alt-rock and crappy "thug life" rap, and this one is no exception. To give credit where credit is due, however, the game does always start off with the Public Enemy/Anthrax hit "Bring the Noise", at least one small victory for good taste. I would submit this song
actually has the worst lyrics ever written, however, and I'm not even exaggerating for effect here, I really believe that. Find me a worse example than "CAN'T STOP TASTE! CAN'T STOP WASTE! CAN'T STOP FACE! CAN'T STOP TRAFFIC! CAN'T STOP CLASSIC!" Calling For The Finisher
So you've got the fundamentally fun AKI gameplay engine, with just a handful of tweaks you'd like to see made to the controls and AI. And while the roster is a little "meh", you've also got one of the best CAW modes ever made. So it's definitely better for multiplayer and just fooling around with character creation, though solo players should get at least one decent run of a few hours or so out of the story mode.