Wrestling. Hulks of men, single-handedly responsible for making Spandex a profitable business, engaging in no-holds barred grappling action in a squared-ring for an audience that shrieks with every suplex, punch and kick. Violence - like sex - sells, but the continued success of the World Wrestling Federation (since changed to World Wrestling Entertainment) cannot be attributed to the simulated violence alone; no, wrestling is soap-opera for men. It is full of larger-than-life characters, each having their friends and enemies, plots and sub-plots, and the line between the 'good' guys and the 'bad' guys clearly drawn. During the mid-to-late 90's, however, the WWF became a more serious affair with many of the 'old-school' stars retiring and the new kids taking over. At the same time the purists may say that with the loss of the personalities from decades past wrestling became less slapstick, with (arguably) bigger stars and a more serious undertone. This shift in attitudes and approach is also reflected in videogames, with two very different big-hitters in the marketplace: THQ, with their WWE Raw and Smackdown! titles (concentrating on the stars of today and realism), and Akklaim's Legends of Wrestling series, focusing on the more light-hearted era of the phenomenal marketing brand. And with THQ's next offering not due for a while, Akklaim have attempted to powerslam the opposition onto the mat with Showdown: Legends of Wrestling, the third entry in the Legends of Wrestling series. But is it any good?
Along with the new moniker, Showdown introduces new wrestlers (now boasting over 70 stars); new game modes (Iron man, first blood, table and 'Classic' matches, plus the old favourites including cage, 8 man "Survivor Series" elimination matches and 3-way dances); new graphics and a new grapple system - so this is more than a simple update of Legends II. Arguably most anticipated by fans are the additions to the roster. In selecting the new stars, Akklaim wisely listened to feedback and brought in the talent fans wanted to see. The new inductees include Jake 'The Snake' Roberts, Andy Kaufman, The Ultimate Warrior and Randy 'Macho Man' Savage (of which the latter two spawned euphoric posts on message boards all over the internet), and all 70+ wrestling stars are available from the start. In fact, Showdown offers no unlockable content. Considering the unlockables crammed into Legends II (including some very forthright interviews which provided insight into the way the WWF was conducted), this is a real shame.
'Violence - like sex - sells'
Jumping straight into the action, after picking a game mode and wrestler, loyal fans of the series will notice new things after only a few minute's play, the most obvious being in the presentation and graphics department. Many will recall the stylised (and heavily criticised) look of earlier games, comprising of almost cartoon-like character models, plastic-looking skin and finished off with a disturbing just-been-buffed look. Well, you can banish those memories, because Showdown looks great compared to its predecessors. The character models are larger and more realistic than before, no longer looking like rejects from a 60's cartoon. The increased detail is also complemented with little touches that - whilst not affecting gameplay - add a layer of polish. The tassels on armbands and boots will swing and flop around, for example, as will long hair. Wrestlers will also bleed, and look more and more unkempt as the bout progresses. The TV style presentation works well, with a camera that zooms in, out and around the ring, and authentic entrances and a ring announcer add to the atmosphere. The same level of detail isn't lavished on your surroundings though, which all look fairly generic despite being based on the actual arenas, and lack any real character.
The fighting system is also new. All wrestlers have the usual assortment of punches, kicks, rope and turnbuckle manoeuvres, but the meat of any wrestling game is in the power moves, generally initiated from the grapple. And here Akklaim have created a system that is easy to get to grips with and which allows for sixteen different grapple attacks (which can be initiated from either in front-of or behind your opponent), all which can be performed without breaking a sweat. Simplicity here is the key, and newcomers will find it painless to pick-up and play, and those familiar with earlier titles will appreciate the refinements, including the new ability to chain certain moves into a pin or submission hold. It is also now possible to counter a counter, although it will take some skill to master the timing required. Whilst maybe not as deep as the Raw/Smackdown! games, the new grapple system is focussed on ease-of-use, relying more upon the position you and your opponent are in, rather than requiring confusing multiple button combinations. It is a fairly robust system, but it can feel clunky; there is a perceptible sense of lag in response times which can make the difference between a successful move and failure. Overall though, it is certainly a step in the right direction, and a marked improvement over Legends.
Unfortunately the updates do not extend to the sounds in the ring; you will notice that the various punches and slams are missing something; although competent, there is a distinct lack of good, hearty, bone-crunching noises, and some moves don't even have a sound effect at all. Out of the ring though, things improve. As with most sports titles these days, some form of in-game commentary is required, and here Akklaim scored something of a coup, enlisting Bobby 'The Brain' Heenan, Jerry 'The King' Lawler and Tony Schiavone to sit behind the microphones. The commentary is fairly dynamic and follows the action well - you may even learn something from some of Bobby Heenan's witterings. Also, Brett Hart voices he tutorials to help you understand the game.