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.
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.
Fleshing-out the package is the now-obligatory Create-A-Legend (CAL) mode. All the usual options are present, and in a nice touch Akklaim have added more names that you can select to feature in commentary. There is scope for you to create the wrestler of your dreams, or attempt to create a real wrestler not included within the roster, although strangely you cannot alter your fighters' attributes. Overall you'll find the CAL mode is competent, nothing more.
On paper, then, all seems well. Here we have an easy to play wrestling title, which can be played as a button-masher by the casuals, or provide some more strategy for the hardcore. Matches can be fairly to-and-fro affairs, and against a human opponent you can have engaging bouts. However, there are problems, starting with the game modes. Whilst being a nice idea, the 'Classic Match' fights (which pit you in a perilous situation from which you have to win) are too brief and samey to excite, but at least act as an alternative to the woeful storyline mode, which comprises of sixteen matches split between the 70's, 80's and 90's. What passes as a story is read out to you between bouts, but the less said about it the better - it really is that bad. The net effect of this is that the wrestlers' personalities - such a big feature of WWF - are inconsequential, and there is no connection between each bout. Not only are these modes disappointing, they won't take you long to work through either; the 'Showdown Challenge' can be completed in maybe two or three hours, with the 'Classic Match' mode only lasting maybe another hour or so. And with no rewards for completing these modes, the only incentives for playing through again with a different character would be see some slightly different moves and wrestler attire.
And there are further niggles, too. Extended play shows that some of the animations are untidy, there are clipping and collision detection issues (wrestlers will pass through the ropes and each other), and on a purely superficial level none of the finishing moves have a look befitting that of an ultimate power move. There is also a motion-blur effect that kicks-in too frequently and is distracting. Ultimately you just do not feel that your console is being pushed at all by the game. And then there are the bugs; wrestlers will occasionally warp halfway across the screen for no apparent reason, react to a punch that was never thrown, or get stuck in a spot on the ground. In general the AI is competent (though prone to fall for a cheap trick that can grant victory within moments of starting a match), but nothing more - meaning Showdown is a game best played with friends, of which up to four can play. It is not without merit, though; it is a more arcade-like experience, and is more accessible than many other wrestling games, which in turn isn't a bad place for new fans to start.
In the end, with a graphical overhaul, new grapple system and additional game modes, Akklaim certainly is trying to move the series in the right direction, and the addition of the 'Classic Match' mode shows that they are at least trying to introduce new ideas to keep things fresh. Showdown is a promising game, hidden behind a lacklustre and occasionally unrefined exterior. Fans of the series will enjoy the new content and newcomers will find the game easy enough to play, but there is that nagging feeling that if Akklaim had spent a little extra time ironing out the bugs, beefing up the storyline mode and adding some incentives for replaying the game, that Showdown would have been easy to recommend. As it stands it is a mildly entertaining but unremarkable addition to the world of console wrestling games, and your decision to buy will more than likely come down to whether or not the thought of wrestling as The Ultimate Warrior floats your boat.