'What is art?' is one of those questions for the ages that no two persons will agree on, but almost everyone will undoubtedly have an opinion. While it is simply impossible to explore the infinite depth of the question to any great extent in the confines of a 1000 word game review (about a Rasslin' videogame no less), I think most can agree that art has plenty to do with self-expression. So a much more manageable question to explore would be 'do videogames allow players to express themselves?' and 'does that expression qualify as art?' (Sorry, that was two questions).
Videogames unquestionably allow players to express themselves. God-style creation/simulation games like Civilization and Sim City allow players to be urban architects and model cities in their own vision while fighting games like Street Fighter II and Soul Calibur give players the ability to hone their own unique fighting styles and attack combinations.
When it comes to self-expression in videogames, no development has come as far as the advent of the Create-A-Player feature. Most prominent in sports titles and role-playing games today, the Create-A-Player feature allows players to mold an entirely new identity, then graft and control that identity into the game world. It's the ultimate form of fantasy role-playing for the less-physically gifted who would to dunk like Michael Jordan or a would-be adventurer who dreams of slaying a dragon in a far off mystical land. The ability to customize and control the experience is one of most unique attributes of videogames that separates it from most other mediums.
The Create-A-Player feature has also unsuspectingly made its greatest evolutions in the genre of professional wrestling games. Amidst the myriad of hulking physiques, ego-maniacal trash talking and outrageous costumes, the customizable mode finds itself in a strange, but ironically appropriate and thriving territory. And of those wrestling games, the clear leader of the Create-A-Player or Wrestler (in the case of this review) pack is THQ's third entry to their popular Smackdown series, WWF Smackdown: Just Bring It for the PlayStation 2.
Long-time followers of the series will feel instantly familiar with Just Bring It. The in-ring gameplay is nearly identical to the previous Smackdown titles and while there may be a couple of mechanical tweaks here and few extra options there, for the most part, its the same wrestling engine. The trademark fast-paced action formula—favoring timing and positioning rather than rapid-fire button presses—which the series rode to success the world over is back intact and there aren't any new surprises.
The area of the game that has received most of the face lifting and surprisingly ends up being the real meat and potatoes of the game is the Create-A-Wrestler mode. For players who wish to mold their own grappling persona, Just Bring It offers a mind numbing and exhausting array of choices and options. Not only can players apply multiple layers of different shirts, jackets, jewelry, accessories, and masks to their wrestler from a near endless list of choices, but they can also adjust the physical features right down to the color on finger and toenails! Virtually every imaginable (and many unimaginable) physical appearance change is possible in Just Bring It.
Hundreds upon hundreds of wrestling moves can also be assigned and reassigned to all kinds of situations and positions and to top things off, Just Bring It also adds a unique a Create-A-Taunt mode that allows players to script and choreograph their own trademark mannerisms that can be used during matches and victory celebrations. Recent wrestling games offered heaps of options, but Just Bring It is simply the mother load.
So its rather disappointing that while Just Bring It has an unmatched Create-A-Wrestler mode, it falters tremendously on the part of offering an interesting game world for players to interact with. The deplorably buggy Season mode from part 2 has been dropped, but in its place is a vapid Story mode that is so unengaging, you have to wonder that the heck were the developers were thinking when they cooked up a concept that's barely half baked.
The developers thought it would be cute if players made their selections by wandering around the sports arena in an odd first-person mode and having conversations with the various characters of the game littered through out the locations. Choices made during those conversations determine the direction of the story.
There are two major problems with this setup. First, finding and locating a person and not necessarily knowing what kind of scenario (title shot, tag-team belts, hardcore, etc.) is an exercise in frustration. This aggravating trial and error process was further compounded by an overly aggressive timer that would forces players to race around the arena like some kind of rat in a Pavolian experiment or face the consequence of being thrown into a default storyline.
The other problem is that no one scenario is really that complex or deep. Most belts are won within two to three matches and afterwards, a player is expected to simple defend the title over and over and over and over again to unlock new arenas, modes and customizations for the Create-A-Wrestler feature. The worst part of this is if a player wants to enter a new scenario, it isnt possible until a player has lost the belt to another opponent. Huh? This kind of silliness forced me to intentionally throw matches just to lose the belt so I could experience the rest of the game. Again, it was rather frustrating and it also seriously hurt the flow of the game.
So like I mentioned earlier, the real attraction behind Just Bring It is its Create-A-Wrestler feature. I was unquestionably sucked into for hours on end. In fact, I spent more time crafting my grappling alter ego than actually competing in matches. I was only interested in the gameplay so far as to see my Frankensteins creation in action. Beating the game was never really a concern. Just Bring It was so unbalanced in this regard and made me focus so much on the Create-A-Wrestler mode, which in turn had me ponder alternate thoughts on self-expression in videogames and whether that expression in the form of a wrestling puppet qualifies as art.
I believe that my creation does qualify as art because it is a form of self-expression. It may not be a statement worthy of a manifesto, but it does say something about me. The quality of art created in Just Bring It may not be worthy of display in a SoHo gallery or at the MOMA, but I would liken the creative joy that comes from creating a videogame wrestler similar to the gratification what many folks experience when molding their own pencil holder or vase at their local arts and craft store. No one would mistake that pencil holder for a masterpiece ready for auction at Sothebys, yet no one would hesitate to call the handcraft a piece of art either. Why is it so easy to coin some objects art and not others? Whats the difference between a vase and my digital wrestler? Does the substance (ceramics) make the art or is it the self-expression?
To its credit, Just Bring It challenged my sense of creativity and made me ponder these questions about self-expression and art. Its only unfortunate that the game was unable to provide a decent environment for my creation to frolic. The gameplay was the bottleneck to what could have been an enlightening merger of creativity as well as gameplay. As it stands, Just Bring It is like quality paint with no canvas.
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