IGN Review of WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007
THQ's WWE SmackDown series has typically had strong annual performances because it adds enough yearly improvements to its sizeable arsenal to keep fans happy. This was definitely true last year, when the franchise made its PS2-to-PSP debut with strong results (albeit with some painful load times). Of course, its primary strength was the fact that it was just a scaled-back version of the excellent console edition with the benefit of a few mini-games. This year, however, the transition isn't as easy thanks to a heavy emphasis on '07's dual analog controls. With that in mind, what happens when you bring that kind of setup to a one-stick PSP?
Obviously, the answer is "to stick with a control scheme that resembles older titles while still retaining the new gameplay additions." In other words, the circle button is your grapple buddy here, with a fast tap or prolonged hold meaning the difference between quick and strong grapples. The PS2/ Xbox 360's "Ultimate Control Moves" are still in the handheld port of WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2007, but instead of using R3 to initiate them, you need only tap the circle button a second time once you're in a grappled state (without touching the D-pad since doing so simply selects which of the four standard grappling categories you want to pull a move from). The one available analog stick can then be used to control the UCMs once they've been activated.
These "Ultimate Control Moves" definitely add a much-needed player influence to the action that we didn't have before. Though there are fewer moves for the PSP version, UCMs do allow you to control the speed and frequency of certain powerslams, DDTs, powerbombs, and suplexes. The only downside is that they're not 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 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. It's fun stuff, but like the UCMs before it, there are slightly fewer hot spots to choose from when you go handheld because announcer tables can't be interacted with (which is due to the fact that there aren't any tables in the PSP edition).
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 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 betraying his brand right before the Survivor Series; and your character transforming into a hot young woman while feuding with Edge thanks to a magic wand... yes, really. 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, four-player ad hoc support, and the requisite increase in moves, and you can see why SmackDown is a strong force in the ring yet again. There's even a new PSP-exclusive feature called "Road to WrestleMania," which offers a number of different tournament creation options that the console version definitely could have benefited from.
So with all the positives listed above, where does the 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, 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, 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 six months ago and many of SmackDown and Raw's wrestlers are branded to the wrong show or use an old gimmick. What's more, several superstars 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! Roster issues are made even more disheartening because of its omissions. Prominent tag teams from all brands 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.
Of course this brings us to the biggest question held over from last year, the load times. In SVR '06 for PSP, the game loaded slower and more often than a terrified civil war soldier. It's still a problem this season as well, but it has been improved noticeably. Whereas before it would take more than a minute-plus to load-up between matches, this year's version is a much more tolerable 20-40 seconds. Unfortunately there are plenty of instances where SmackDown provides those opportunities to load -- between entrances, during creation segments, when moving from mode to mode... expect to see that loading screen often (even if it is for a shorter amount of time).
It's also disappointing to see that last year's option to connect the PS2 version with created wrestlers and season mode saves has been omitted. This means that owners of both versions will have to unlock everything separately and can no longer take their favorite console creations on the road with them. At least the remaining exclusions aren't as obvious. There has been some graphical down-scaling with wrestler models and the crowds compared to the PS2 version and in-match voice-overs have been removed entirely, though you'll still hear vocals during season mode. In a way, the loss of VO isn't a bad thing given how repetitive it was in the console version, but completists could have fits about it. At least the absence of the aforementioned announcer tables makes sense in this regard, though. Now if only there was an explanation for giving us the same non-aggressive AI we've had from from the past couple of years...
Do these 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 handheld videogames and the continued progress that developers have made with AI, downloadable content, and realistic animation routines, SVR '07s lack of competitive fire in these areas certainly shows what's in need of an overhaul. But 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.
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