IGN Review of WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2008
This may be the first time WWE's SmackDown! vs. Raw hits Nintendo platforms, but that doesn't mean the house that Mario built hasn't seen its fair share of WWE brawlers in the past. Looking back a few generations you've got games like No Mercy and Wrestlemania 2000, titles that still to this day define what it is to be a true wrestling experience. Fast forward to the GameCube and again WWE had a relatively strong effort, bringing the Day of Reckoning series to a system void of the SmackDown brand. For Wii's first effort, and the franchise's first offering across Nintendo platforms, THQ again looked to developer Yukes - responsible for DoR on Cube - to continue the tradition of wrestling excellence into Nintendo's new generation. And while it may not have the polish or depth of Nintendo's last wrestling experience, WWE's SmackDown! vs. Raw 2008 is a solid first step in the right direction on Wii.
We've already seen this situation countless times on Wii. Yearly franchises have a first year that nails the fundamentals, experiments with control, and gets fans hooked on the Wii experience early, only to ramp up production and improve drastically in the following year. Madden brought more features, depth, and Wii-like options after getting the first one out the door, and that's exactly what we'd expect from SmackDown! vs. Raw. THQ and Yukes pushed to include Wii in this year's release, and while the experience works as a general template, it's obvious the team will do a whole lot more next year. You've got wrestlers from all three brands, WWE legends, and a solid list of match options, but it lacks the polish and overall immensity we've grown to love and expect from previous SmackDown efforts.
With Wii, THQ decided to take this year's WWE effort in a totally different direction, and we commend them on that. The Wii version could have just as easily been a PS2 port with very little unique content, but instead Yukes pushed the time they had to the limit, adding in basic four-direction motion control for moves (all done via Wii-mote), Mii integration during Success Mode, and the create-a-legend tool, which allows for a ton of user-driven content across the board. SmackDown! vs. Raw on Wii is a faster, more intense game of wrestling than we've seen in years, and the direction THQ and Yukes are taking the series on Nintendo is the right one in our opinion.
It's still in its freshman year, though, and it shows. While the game's motion control is certainly a huge leap in the right direction it's also still very basic, using only the Wii remote for simple, button-like gestures. To set an opponent up for a power bomb you'll first grab with the B button, then lift with the Wii-mote to bring them into the air, and them slam down again to smash them to the mat. It works, but there's no additional tracking happening during the move, so it's essentially a drawn out action that's entirely predetermined. What this new control does give the player, however, are options, as you can grab a fighter, lift him into a specific position, and then work from there on the fly. Just because you set up with one move doesn't mean you can't link it together with another on the fly, as any available motion direction (up, down, left, or right) is highlighted with an on-screen cross pad; if it's green, you can motion in that direction. It's simple to use, it adds far more depth to general wrestling than the other console versions, and it's without a doubt the number one area Yukes should attack for next year's version. Motion control will make or break the SmackDown franchise on Wii.
That being said, it's still pretty simple, as you'll never use the nunchuk controller for wrestling, and there's still a pretty annoying amount of waggle throughout. Punching, for example, is done with a simple Wii-mote motion, and while it works there's no way to differentiate between a left-handed or right-handed strike, as nunchuk motion is used to initiate an irish whip. When attempting to reverse moves you'll again waggle, using the Wii-mote's motion as a modified form of button mashing to reverse at just the right time. When on the ground and waiting to recover or attempting to kick out of a pin, you'll again do the same wiggling motion. The concept of swinging to attack with your hands directly is tempting - especially when you factor in the possibility of doing it with both hands next year - but we found we'd much rather use motion for key, devastating attacks, and less for reversals and general fighting.
The potential for a dedicated Wii design is most certainly there though, as there are already aspects of the game that we're pumped to see evolve over Wii's lifespan. The sheer simplicity of the game, for example, is a huge testament to the design team, as it has never been easier to pull of moves, navigate the ring, or execute over-the-top attacks. Move towards a turnbuckle and you'll instantly start climbing it. Face towards the ropes and attack and you'll either slingshot yourself over the top ropes (if your opponent is outside of the ring) or pull off an in-ring rope maneuver akin to Y2J's lionsalt. It's simple, it's intuitive, and it makes for some slick chain wrestling. When you're dealing with a SKU that's generally younger, small changes in the design can make a world of difference, and it shows in SmackDown! vs. Raw. Even actions as simple as attacking from short and long distances is handled by AI, as an attack will automatically launch work within whatever context you use it, be it a running clothesline, standing punch, or interaction with turnbuckles or objects outside the ring.
The design does end up lack some depth during the transition though, and some of the more hardcore wrestling fans out there may not be too fond of the drops. Running, for example, is entirely removed from in-ring control, so you'll need to initiate Irish whips on your own, rather than using the ropes manually to set up huge attacks or dodge oncoming ones. There's also no actual region-specific strategy in the Wii version, as any/all attacks work an overall stamina bar down until it's entirely empty, at which point any submission move or pin will result in a victory. This means you'll be able to strike for 99% of the match with someone like John Cena, and then pull off the STFU for a quick win after working down the player's "power meter". As another symptom of the simplified gameplay, matches are far shorter in SmackDown! vs. Raw than any wrestling game we've played, with some finishing in under a minute, while longer matches stretch to about five at the very longest. Simple is good, but go too far and you start to lose the strategy of the game, as SmackDown vs. Raw feels more like a WWE version of Tekken or DOA than it does a traditional wrestling experience.
As far as we're concerned the new design is entirely give and take, with some aspects working extremely well and improving the overall experience, while others may bog it down far too much or sacrifice strategy and depth to become overly simplistic. In general though, we'd rather see Wii set itself apart from the other console versions than just port over PS2 every year, so it'll be a matter of fine-tuning the experience until it's of simplicity, strategy, and fun.
As a way of putting even more space between the SKUs this year, THQ and Yukes teamed up to give Wii players a totally different game mode, but again it's a total mix of hit and miss. Success Mode allows you to select your player, select your brand, and then make all your own choices as you rise through the ranks and become a legend. Rather than working within the 24/7 format of the other versions, Success Mode lets you book your own matches, accept and deny other wrestler's challenges, request to tag up with specific superstars, and essentially do what you want to do to get to the top. You can rest when you need to (something even the 360 version lacks), train when you've got the time, and go for title shots when you're good and ready. The entire mode is extremely simplistic, however, as it lacks any scripted story sequences, overall schedule, or general timeline to work within. You can only train, rest, or fight once a week, for example, but the weeks won't actually progress the season at all. Once we unlocked New Year's Revolution - a PPV event - we had title defenses there every other week. Rather than changing the pay-per-view event every month, we had to keep revisiting New Year's Revolution. Obviously this was a design choice to make the actual venues more like stages rather than actual time-sensitive events, but it's still an odd move in the WWE universe to continuously fight at the same PPV over and over.
As far as the decision making goes though, we're a fan of Success Mode. We can decline who we want, challenge who we want, team up with our favorite wrestlers (and even WWE Legends, once they become unlocked), and go after titles when we're good and ready. As it stands right now training is as simple as cashing in experience points for new attributes, though, and we'd love to see that develop into mini-games like the DS version adopted. It's also a little too thin overall, with wrestlers sending the same emails when challenging or having seemingly random fighters booked for each event, but we chalk that up to simply running out of time during the game's first release year. In one situation we defended our title against Bret Hart at New Year's Revolution, only to have a non-title rematch that following SmackDown with him, only to pair up with him for the tag belts at Backlash a week after that. Success Mode gives you a more free-form career mode, but it won't dazzle you with any kind of story or script either.
Finally, the game's presentation is again somewhat of a mixed bag, as both the audio and visual efforts have their moments, but also leave a bit to be desired. Commentary is recorded for each brand specifically, so you'll get the six key announcers across the board. Most of the commentary - aside from finishers - are based on the wrestlers themselves, however, and not on the actual moves being pulled off in the ring. This means you'll get the same backstory, the same character commentary, and the same finisher reactions over and over again. Those tidbits are solid filler, but without any actual move-to-move call-outs it gets pretty repetitive. On the graphical side Wii looks on par with PS2, maybe slightly higher in some respects (models are generally cleaner), with borrowed mo-cap from the next generation versions, giving it a great overall look. You'll still get clipping and odd transitional animations though, which is something wrestling games have suffered from since the dawn of man. Overall the interface looks decent, though it's obviously the same screens and objects as the next gen versions, with only Success Mode differing. In general the crowd is still pretty painful - a common curse with wrestling games as well - but we'd even be interested to see how an all-Mii stadium would look in a future version, as they're low-poly and support the whole Wii uniqueness theme that SmackDown! vs. Raw is already striving for. The game runs in 480p and 16:9 though, so that's already a huge plus.
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