IGN Review of WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007
Videogames based on the world of professional wrestling, like the event itself, have always had their share of big pops and blown spots. For every No Mercy or Here Comes the Pain, there's a Rumble Roses or Legends of Wrestling waiting backstage. Luckily for THQ, its annual WWE SmackDown series has typically been on the upside of things -- adding enough yearly improvements to keep fans happy with what Vince and company bring to the table. But like most great wrestlers who stick with the same gimmick for far too long, WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2007 is starting to feel a little too familiar for its own good.
Now don't misunderstand, SmackDown 2007 is still an impressive combination of wrestling, storytelling, and customization. Like every year before it, it offers a number of new gameplay and feature additions and continues its reign as one of the better looking combat games around. The issue here is that after eight straight years of Yuke's modus operandi, the presentational formula hasn't evolved enough to feel as fresh as it used to. But we'll have more on that a little later. First, let's talk about what SmackDown does right -- and that includes a lot.
Let's begin with the control scheme, which is the first and most obvious difference between this year's title and those that came before it. Wrestler control has been moved to the right analog stick instead of the face buttons and, though there is a definite learning curve (which can take as long as a week to get used to), the new system is definitely more responsive and fun to use than the old method. Another benefit of the new system is that it makes flowing from one move into another easier because the analog stick emulates realistic movements more naturally (though not on the same level as something like Fight Night or NHL 2K7). It's hard to go back to older SmackDowns after using the analog configuration.
Tying into the analog grappling system is another one of SmackDown vs. Raw's more appealing new features, the "Ultimate Control Moves." Initiated by a press of the R3 button, ultimate control adds much-needed player influence on the action at hand. Though it can't be used for every move in your arsenal, the UCMs do allow you to control the speed and frequency of certain powerslams, DDTs, powerbombs, and suplexes. The only downside to these maneuvers, is that they aren't always balanced properly -- sapping your stamina dry after you perform three or four "groin on the ring" pushes, while allowing you to pull off three or four repeating powerbombs with similar (or perhaps even less) stamina repercussions. It's a neat idea sure, but not without its problems.
Perhaps the most entertaining (and addictive) new feature for SVR '07, is the inclusion of environmental hot spots and the option to fight in the crowd. To THQ's credit, these mini-sequences really capture the feeling of the WWE's more brutal match-ups (the hardcore matches of the late '90s in particular spring to mind) and are definitely fun to play. Not only do these environmental interactions allow users to throw opponents into speakers and strangle them with cords, but it also allows them to smash heads into staircases, grab a fan's sign to build heat, or send an opponent flying through the Spanish announcer's table. Fun stuff.
Another admirable fix to SmackDown this year is the more realistic Season Mode. Featuring more than 40 original storylines with beginnings, endings, and the occasional branching path, the fully-voiced season has familiar and not-so familiar narratives that should please most WWE fanatics. Examples of just some of the stories you'll see includes a pack of small wrestlers banding together to take out their larger competition; one of SmackDown's biggest names betrays his brand right before the Survivor Series; and your character is transformed into a hot young woman while feuding with Edge thanks to a magic wand. Character-specific storylines and events based on your superstar's overall standing are also included. Just don't expect it all to play out like it has in season's past -- now there is no true calendar year; players just endlessly transition from feud to feud.
Of course, the most improved feature this year is the General Manager Mode. Building on the same foundation that powered last year's game, the new GM option offers a number of new goodies -- including the ability to hire writers for better storylines, the option to send superstars to Heat and Velocity for improved popularity, and full access to the "Power 25" rankings from WWE.com. As an added bonus, users can even hop in and wrestle any of the matches on their schedule at any time. Simulation nuts will likely go crazy over this.
Believe it or not, there are plenty of other little fixes and bonuses that THQ has thrown in for good measure. An all-new endless reversal system, additional player creation parts and options (200 trimmings in all, with a "stylize" option to emphasize personal touches), and the highly-anticipated "Money in the Bank" match are but a few of the tidbits worth mentioning. Combine that with refined ladder matches, slightly improved online options over last year, and the always offline support (strangely, Xbox supports only four users, while the PS2 supports up to six), and the requisite increase in moves, and you can see why SmackDown is strong force in the ring yet again.
So with all the positives listed above, where does the valid criticism for WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2007 start to creep in? Well, the most obvious place is with the animations. Despite having a number of new moves and ringwalks (primarily mo-capped by Doug Basham for all you trivia hounds out there), the vast majority of SmackDown's moveset feels just as familiar now as it did eight years ago. Despite the eventual move from keyframe to motion capture, a strong portion of the maneuvers here still feel like they're two generations old -- requiring users to wait until most of them have finished playing out before they can react. The "selling" animations are the biggest culprit, however, as it's not uncommon to catch an opponent sleeping for three or four moves in a row because, though their character isn't really hurt, their reaction animation is so lengthy they can't avoid their opponent's next move.
SmackDown further gives off the impression that it's an older game thanks to an outdated roster and structure. The ECW brand, for example, hasn't been split into its own show as it was in reality five months ago and many of SmackDown and Raw's wrestlers are branded to the wrong show or use an old gimmick (Vito doesn't have his dress, Booker isn't a king, etc). What's more, superstars Paul Burchill, Psicosis, Joey Mercury, Kid Kash, and Mark Henry aren't even on WWE programming anymore, and the WWE's rival (TNA) has its biggest superstar, Kurt Angle, listed as the most dominant wrestler in the game. Whoops!
On a related note, the roster issues are made even more disheartening because of its omissions. Prominent tag teams from all brands, such as all five members of the Spirit Squad, Kendrick and London, and several others haven't been included at all, while other personalities such as AA Estrada, Charlie Haas, and Tatanka have been left off the lineup as well. It's understandable if recent impact players like Sylvester Terkay, The Miz, CM Punk, or Jeff Hardy didn't make it because of time constraints, but to see guys who have been around for more than a year and still not make the cut... is just sort of weird.
And what about those wait times? From start to finish, SmackDown vs. Raw 2007 loads slower and more often than a terrified civil war soldier. Almost every screen in the game past the initial menu loads in upwards of 10-20 seconds every time one is selected. There are even instances where... I kid you not... you have to go through a load screen to get to the next load screen. Couple this waiting time with the occasional PS2 lock-up (it seems to happen most during matches with multiple wrestlers -- must be memory issues) and the same non-aggressive AI from the past couple of years, and you can understand why the game feels a bit dated.
Does this handful of issues make SmackDown 2007 a bad game? Of course not, no sports or fighting title is ever without its problems. But given the current state of videogames and the continued progress that developers have made with AI, downloadable content, and realistic animation routines (especially on the next-gen level), SVR '07s lack of competitive fire in these areas certainly shows what's in need of an overhaul -- particularly going into next year, when all three next-generation systems are in full swing and expectations are high.
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