Written By: Mark Armstrong
Series: SmackDown! (It would become SmackDown vs. Raw and WWE in future)
Released: October 27 2003 (US) and November 7 2003 (UK)
I’ve definitely been looking forward to writing this retro game review …
Ask any longtime wrestling fan what the best videogame of the genre to date is, and there’s an excellent chance that they will say WWE SmackDown! Here Comes The Pain. And with good reason: the fifth game of the annual SmackDown! series was not only the best to date, but it offered a fantastic mix of in-depth grappling, massive names, a plethora of matches and options, tremendously entertaining backstage areas and an exciting, unpredictable Season mode, all of which combined to form a truly exceptional wrestling game. Its most immediate predecessor, SmackDown! Shut Your Mouth, had been another strong entry, but HCTP built upon everything that SYM did well and improved it, as well as fixing some of the weaker areas in SYM and adding new content along the way.
For starters, the roster size had increased, with series debuts for Goldberg, Rey Mysterio, Scott Steiner, John Cena, Batista, Shelton Benjamin, Charlie Haas, Victoria, Eric Bischoff and others joining the wealth of big names already present such as Steve Austin, The Rock, Triple H, Shawn Michaels and loads more. Even more importantly, though, this was the first WWE game to officially include Legends, inspired by the Legends Of Wrestling series of games by Acclaim. There were 11 in total, and the retro crew consisted of a vintage Undertaker, Roddy Piper, Ted DiBiase, Sgt Slaughter, Jimmy Snuka, Hillbilly Jim, The Legion Of Doom, Iron Sheik, Nicholai Volkoff and George “The Animal” Steele. Granted, the Legends didn’t have their entrance themes nor their proper entrances (the old-school WrestleMania mini-rings were used for their intros, which was a bit cool to be fair), and some may argue that the choice of Legends was a bit questionable, but many of the absolutely massive names were still competing on some level, and as it was the first time out for Legends, it wasn’t a bad line-up at all. The roster could have been even better, since Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior were removed for different reasons, and the character models for several then-current WWE wrestlers hadn’t been completed in time. Nevertheless, even as it was the roster was fantastic, and one of the best all-round line-ups ever assembled in a WWE game, at least at that point in time.
The match options were also improved. “Special” (gimmick) matches were now Main Events, and there were three new stipulation bouts. The best was definitely the Elimination Chamber, introduced at the previous year’s Survivor Series, which was perfectly recreated in the game, from the hard-hitting SFX of moves interacting with steel and chains to the option of ramming opponents into and through the glass pods to the ability to climb pods and the chain-link walls for aerial attacks. It was one gigantic gem, and could literally provide hours of fun. The Bra & Panties match was less dramatic but would have satisfied fans who enjoyed these Diva-centric bouts (this was well before WWE went PG and many years before the Women’s Revolution in WWE). Lastly, the First Blood match was another welcome addition to the game, and as the name implies, this was the first game in the series whereby the wrestlers (of the male gender, anyway) could be, to quote Jim Ross, busted wide open.
Nevertheless, the biggest change from a match standpoint concerned the actual in-ring action. An enhanced wrestling engine meant that matches were ever-so-slightly slower and now had a greater focus on actual wrestling mechanics. There were now sixteen front-move options, compared to four in previous games, and were defined by signature moves, power/cruiser moves, submissions and strong attacks. There was also a new Submission bar, which was very difficult but made for some very dramatic moments as a tap-out seemed a certainty, only to be avoided at the last second. And the HUDs now had a mini-skeleton to represent body damage, so if your adversary remained blue then they were relatively fresh and healthy, but should they reach red, they are essentially one big move away from losing (and if their heads were red, they were likely to begin losing blood). Add to that how all this was incorporated whilst keeping the control scheme basic and easy to learn, and you have by far the best grappling mechanics and gameplay ever seen in the series, perhaps second only to that of WWF No Mercy in the history of wrestling games, if not the best ever period.
But perhaps the most fondly-remembered element of HCTP was its Season mode. Building upon the well-received Season in SYM, the mode now featured more branching storyline options than ever before, some of which were written by the actual WWE creative team, with others being a homage to classic plot devices used in the past. You had loads of options which could take you down various paths, and there was a lot of flexibility in regards to how storylines would pan out, especially dependent on whether you won or lost crucial matches. You could use any male performers in the mode, and could challenge for up to eight different titles (this was the first game to include the World Heavyweight and United States Championships). Add to that the ability to confront your General Manager with title shot requests or similar demands, the chance to sneak attack wrestlers between matches (although you could no longer randomly roam the backstage universe, sadly), the chance to build up your attributes (particularly useful if you were playing as a created wrestler) and the use of cool presentation techniques such as old-school talking head comments to promote the Royal Rumble match, and the end result is a tremendous single-player experience which, despite some storylines occasionally repeating, would never, ever get old. Some say that the mode, or a version of it, has never been topped since. It did lack voiceovers, but in a way this was a good thing as future games which did have voiceovers would ultimately provide far fewer story options. Interestingly enough, some reviewers complained at the time that the mode became too repetitive after the first year, but take it from me: if you wanted a single-player mode to really provide the thrills and spills of actual WWE television, you would be lucky to find a better option than the Season in Here Comes The Pain. Truly fantastic.
Amazingly, the list of improvements didn’t end there. As implied above, wrestlers now have attributes and points for different areas such as Stamina and Strength, meaning that for the first time you could accurately see who were the best and worst characters to use in the game (previously, The Rock was the best wrestler to use because, well, he was The Rock). The game was also very up-to-date, as Evolution was an influence in the game, and Kane already had his unmasked attire. Shopzone replaced the traditional unlockable system and provided dozens of hidden items to purchase, such as alternate attires, loading screens and arenas. Speaking of which, there were now 20 venues to choose from, although the “B” versions of Raw and SmackDown! were no different from the originals, making their inclusion rather pointless. Create A Wrestler was more in-depth than ever before, there were now two referees to represent the brand extension, and whilst there were fewer backstage areas than in previous games, they all had stand-out features and were all very entertaining to fight in (one room had a breakaway wall, whilst you could somehow hang off the edge of a helicopter in the middle of Time’s Square). Wrestlers would pose during menus, even if the lighting would fade upon them after a few seconds. The SFX were better and more authentic than ever, as were the rowdy, chanting crowd (who were now completely 3D rather than a mix of 2D and 3D models). And this was the first game not to be focused on The Rock, as Brock Lesnar’s tagline (well, Tazz’s tagline for Brock) Here Comes The Pain formed the title, Lesnar was the strongest wrestler in the game (his F5 looked devastating), and there were two alternate covers for the UK and US regions, both of which made Lesnar look like the beast that he was and is.
There were some downsides to the game. As stated, there were fewer backstage areas, and commentary and ring announcements were also absent, a weird omission since they would return the following year, never to be dropped again. Several theme musics were incorrect or outdated, such as Rob Van Dam and Kane. There were no new create modes, although there had been talk of bringing back Create A PPV and Create A Championship (both of which would appear the following year). Theatre was gone, with a secret rap video by John Cena after the Credits being the only video footage on the game besides entrance clips. Certain entrances didn’t last very long at all (rising star Randy Orton’s entrance lasted mere seconds, and his character model hadn’t been updated in line with his Evolution membership). And as stated, Season would become familiar once you entered year two, as amazing as the first year of the mode was. Nevertheless, if ever the positives of a wrestling game outweighed the negatives, it was in this particular title.
It’s hard to believe that, at the time, some considered Raw 2 on Xbox to be as good as HCTP, if not better. Having played Raw 2, I can tell you that there is no comparison; it would be like comparing Brock Lesnar circa 2003 to his replacement once Brock shockingly quit WWE in 2004, John Bradshaw Layfield. In fact, WrestleMania XIX on Gamecube was better than Raw 2, but even this game was blown away by the sheer volume of options and entertainment provided by HCTP.
Whenever a new WWE 2K game is released, it is compared to Here Comes The Pain. That in itself illustrates how damn good this game was. It wasn’t absolutely perfect, but it was very, very close. To me, only WWF No Mercy and WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw 2006 are in the same league as HCTP, and within this all-time top three of WWF/WWE wrestling games, you really could put any of the games in any order. Here Comes The Pain is amongst the elite of wrestling games, creating a bar that no WWE title in the last decade has been able to reach (hopefully it will be surpassed in the future, although I’m not getting my hopes up), and if you don’t believe me, get playing it on your PlayStation 2 and you’ll soon find yourself realising why Here Comes The Pain is one of the greatest wrestling games, if not the greatest wrestling game, ever made.
Overall Rating: 9.5/10 – Classic