Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation (WWF) franchise continues to be the money-making phenomenon of 2000-2001. Like it or not, names like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin are now part of the nation's lexicon, and it's hard to go a night without seeing some sort of WWF-related event on television. This sort of rampant popularity has spilled over into the videogame industry, which thanks to astute developers like Yukes and Aki, allows couch potatoes to pull on tights and get down and dirty with the WWF superstars. One of the more anticipated wrestling titles was THQ's WWF No Mercy, the follow up to the wildly popular WWF Wrestlemania 2000. Though not quite revolutionary, WWF No Mercy definitely delivers what wrestling fans have been begging for since the last release: more wrestling goodness.

A passing glance would reveal No Mercy to be no different from Wrestlemania 2000 — which in turn was not that far removed from WCW/NWO Revenge and WCW World Tour. However, after delving deeper into this sequel, it becomes clear that as with the aforementioned titles, Aki packs in just enough tweaks and augmentations to improve on the predecessors. The most obvious of the changes is in the entire look of the game. Where as Wrestlemania 2000 was bright and cheery, No Mercy takes on a darker, almost sinister appearance. Everything on screen, from the arenas to the wrestlers themselves, is rendered with an abundance of dark hues, and most areas of the game are usually cast in shadow to some degree. This is a nice departure from the norm and succeeds in giving making the game a little edgier than other releases.

The 3-D engine, which has been improved upon with every release, has received similar treatment this time around. The character models still consist of the familiar blocky, hulking frames from previous releases, but are now more varied to cover all available wrestlers. It helps that Aki included a huge assortment of facial textures to go with said wrestlers — it gives the game some added authenticity. It certainly shows when you see Kane towering over The Kat — or The Rock for that matter — and they all look the part. Admittedly, some of the textures simply do not look like their real-life alter egos, but that has always been the case with facial textures, especially on such aged technology like the Nintendo 64. And an area of note is in the enhanced wrestler animations. All of the wrestlers sport the familiar gyrations and mannerisms of their real-life alter egos. Stone Cold Steve Austin walks to the ring with that characteristic hitch to his step, and Nick Foley is as gimpy as ever.

Due in no small part to the success of WWF Smackdown! on the PlayStation, No Mercy got a serious boost in both its create-a-player and career modes. There are now 65 wrestlers to choose from, but you wouldnt be a wrestling fan if you didnt want to place yourself in the game. Aki seems to know this and has provided one of the best create-a-player modes Ive seen in the wrestling genre. It provides that wonderful balance of diverse customization options without going overboard. It even goes so far as to allow the previewing of wrestling moves so you can see them in action before taking your wrestler into the ring. This is a truly welcome feature, but even more so when you see how many diverse wrestling moves — many unconventional — have been packed into this cart.

The career mode, or Championship Mode, is much deeper and engaging this time around. After selecting a wrestler and title belt to wrestle for, the game progresses beyond that of a simple tournament. Aki went to great pains to duplicate all the random events and shenanigans that happen on the weekly wrestling shows. Each belt has a unique storyline in which wrestlers — the title holder is usually the first to come out and declare you unworthy can interfere with or challenge you to matches with little in the way of warning. But it's the backstage confrontations, allegiances and betrayals that can dictate your fate the rest of the game. This particular part of the game deserves high praise as it mimics the real WWF with astounding accuracy. I began the game innocently enough, trying to earn a shot at the heavyweight title only to find myself embroiled in a feud with Vince McMahon. He did everything in his power to try to have me annihilated, whether it was a string of back-to-back Triple Threat matches or Guest Referee matches — in which his cohorts were the guest referees. It got so bad that at one point I had to request the aid of the Acolyte Protection Agency (APA) — paid for with the money I had accrued up to that point.

Going through the Championship Mode offers players the chance to amass money with every victory in addition to improving their placement on the totem pole. Players can then take this money into the Smackdown Mall and purchase almost anything they would need to help them in the ring. This can be anything from new tights to a powerful new wrestling move or submission hold. You can think of it as a sort of extended create-a-player feature, but one in which you have to earn the really good stuff. In addition to the Championship Mode, No Mercy comes with a Survival Mode. This mode is definitely for the hardcore as it entails taking on up to a hundred wrestlers consecutively and eliminating them by throwing them out the ring, pins or submissions. Its essentially a longer variation on the Royal Rumble, but it does make for an interesting diversion.

Wrestlemania 2000 was often scoffed at for its lack of backstage stage arenas, but Aki has stepped up to the challenge in a big way providing as many as 10 backstage areas (11 if you count the entry ramp) for matches and confrontations to take place. And when it comes to wrestling matches, No Mercy is overflowing with options that are sure to keep fans busy. Pay-Per-View, Iron Man Matches, Handicap Matches, Triple Threat Matches, Cage Matches as well as the ever-popular Tables, Ladders and Chairs (TLC) Match are included for fans to do all sort of damage in.

For all the good things in the game, there is a downside. The game engine has been tweaked to keep it keep up with the times, but it is clearly showing its age. When there are four combatants on the screen at once, the action slows down considerably. It doesnt necessarily detract from the gameplay, but it is very noticeable. Wrestler intros were always a problem on the Nintendo 64 thanks to its lack of a CD-ROM, but I would have thought that Aki would have tried to remedy this in some way after seeing the full-motion video (FMV) sequences WWF Smackdown! owners have been treated to.

I find it hard to believe that at a time when a developer found a way to cram two CDs worth of information onto a 64-megabyte cart that Aki couldnt find a way to fit a few seconds of FMV into No Mercy. Instead Aki hopes that choppy frames of horribly pixelated, digitized images will suffice. Obviously they do not and are certainly an eyesore. I'm also disappointed by the unbelievably short wrestler entrances. After a brief acknowledgement to the audience and characteristic routine, wrestlers take a few steps and that is it. It's all over before you know it. Sure, not all of us are going to watch a wrestler walk all the way to the ring every time, but having that option is an important one to any wrestling fan.

The computer AI is another area of contention, as it can detract from No Mercys authenticity. During tag team matches, for instance, it was common for opponents to experience temporary brain freeze and just stand over me as I pinned his or her tag team partner for the win. The ladder matches were the best examples of how bad things could get. Even though the object of the game was to get on the ladder and grab the belt, briefcase or whatever was hanging from the arena ceiling, the computer seemed completely oblivious to it. I could spend an entire match being the only wrestler to even attempt to climb the ladder. Of course, the computer would finally get on the ladder, but that was only after beating me into total submission. Things did improve when you turned up the difficulty a few notches thus making the computer "more aggressive," but it is disappointing to see the game is dumbed down to such a degree by default.

Regardless of the stupidity of computer-controlled opponents, the matches in No Mercy last far too long. The reason for this has to do with the ease with which moves and holds could be blocked or countered. As any veteran of Aki wrestling games would know, it usually takes four punches, kicks or combination of the two, to floor an opponent. But with the easy blocking and reversing incorporated into the game, it didnt always get that far. What would usually wind up happening is that after a couple of punches, the computer would duck or reverse the third attack leaving me at its mercy. Some of the venues played a part in this as well. The Triple Threat Match, for example, quickly descends into a two-on-one match with the computer spending all of its time beating you into submission. Some balance in this area would have gone a long way to ensuring my prolonged enjoyment.

Though not perfect, No Mercy is easily the best wrestling title on the market today. It has the solid gameplay and is rife with features to keep wrestling fans very happy. There are still some issues with the aged game engine and the computer AI, but that is all overshadowed by its excellent career and create-a-player modes. In Wrestlemania 2000, THQ had the best wrestling game ever made and it's no coincidence that its sequel follows suit.

Editor's Note: There were a lot of wildly reported bugs with WWF No Mercy, but since I didn't indulge in the create-a-player mode as deeply as most fans might, I can't say that I ran into any. Rating: 8.5 out of 10

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