Wrestling and the PlayStation 2 go together like peanut butter and jelly, cookies and milk, and Ryan Clements and apologies. However, as the system continues to age, quality opportunities to lay the smack down are becoming more and more rare. This year, THQ and Yuke's have brought WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 to a smattering of platforms, and the PlayStation 2 hasn't been ignored. While it's true that this PS2 version is just a stripped down rendition of what fans are getting on the PlayStation 3, this is definitely a step up from last year's title even though this franchise is nowhere near what it used to be on Sony's second system.
On paper, it seems like SVR 09 should cruise to wrestling game greatness. The title packs more than 60 wrestlers, 14 one-on-one match types including the new Inferno option, a new story mode, better AI, and a focus on tag teams. However, when you get into the punching, grappling, and slamming that make up the game, the world begins to feel like well worn territory and begins to look muddled. In the end, we have a game that improves on last year's outing in a number of ways but falls short of returning SVR to its place of honor on the PS2.
Where there's smoke, there's an Inferno Match video.
Don't get me wrong, SVR 09 is a fun game. The solid controls from last year are back -- left stick to move, right stick to grapple, reversals via the shoulder buttons, and so on -- and come with a few minor touches such as the game flashing "Signature Move" when you can set off a stored special as well as the ability to enter the ring via the steel steps. These are welcome additions, but it's pretty much exactly what you saw last year. Still, there are a handful of other bells and whistles to grab your attention.
For starters, the AI in SVR 09 doesn't suck for a change. On Legend, the computer's still going to be reversal heavy, but it's also going to store Finishers, break up pins in tag matches, and basically give you a run for your money. If you're not happy with how the AI is acting, SVR 09 finally gives us sliders to adjust the game's thinking. You can make Finishers more or less powerful, you can adjust how much the computer reverses, and you can even modify momentum rates. Customization like the sliders is a theme in this game. While you're messing with menu, a smattering of entrance music is playing as a soundtrack. If you don't like a particular song, you can press in your left stick and skip to the next track. Via the game's Roster Editor, you can mold the WWE as you see fit with a few button clicks -- change what brand people are on, give and take away championships, decide who is clean and who is dirty. There are alternate attires for the likes of CM Punk, Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho, and others; there are 19 arenas; and you can unlock the WCW brand and classic championship.
Of course, this wouldn't be a professional wrestling game if it didn't add some new gimmick matches. The Inferno Match is an interesting bout that looks good but always ends a bit silly. You and your opponent duke it out in a ring where the edges are set ablaze. As you pull off moves, the flames leap and the temperature in the lower left corner rises. When the magic number reaches 500 degrees, you're supposed to drag your opponent to the ropes and toss him (Divas still can't participate in the crazy match types) into the fire. When one of you is successful -- there's a button-tapping minigame to try and reverse the strong-grapple dragging -- a body flies over the ropes and that guy's clothing is set one fire. It looks a bit goofy to see CM Punk rolling around with his ass on fire, but it's still a fun (albeit simple) fight. Meanwhile, THQ and Yuke's dropped the Parking Lot Brawl from previous games and replaced it with the Backstage Brawl. Here, you can fight in a KO-only match in the locker room or the gorilla position. There are objects to interact with in these areas, but they're pretty barren in general. Plus, there are lots of awkward times when you'll whip an opponent into nothing and they'll get caught on the edge of the screen. Sadly, you can't access these areas via the entrance ramp in a Falls Count Anywhere Match.
While it isn't a new match per say, there's a definite emphasis on the tag team scene this time around. Now, the partner pacing around the ring apron is as much as part of the action as the wrestler on the inside. The illegal partner can grab the opponent, distract the ref, pull down the rope, make a blind tag, and even create a "Hot Tag." Now, if you've watched wrestling, you know what a Hot Tag is even if the name doesn't ring a bell. One partner is in the ring getting the crap kicked out of him or her, the partner on the apron starts a clap, the audience gets into it, the beaten down partner slowly crawls to the clapping partner with his hand stretched out, the tag gets made, and the fresh person jumps in and just cleans everyone's clock. That's in the game. The partner at the turnbuckle holds down on the D-Pad, a little flame begins to grow underneath the team's shared momentum bar, and when it's full, the Hot Tag can be made. The new partner jumps in and needs to follow two button prompts to take down the legal man and take out the one stalking the side of the ring. Pull this off, and you'll have a full momentum meter so that you can drop the opponent once and for all. This is an incredibly effective move that can only be used once, so these tag matches actually become a thing of strategy as you try and wear down both opponents so that you can take everyone out with one move. The tag match isn't perfect -- when my opponents were building the Hot Tag, I stepped off the ring apron so that I couldn't be taken out only to find myself teleported back to my post when they started the ring-clearing maneuver -- but the new features, smarter AI that runs in when you hit a finisher, and double team moves make it fun enough.
All that is good, but the biggest gameplay change is actually related to a Superstar/Diva's Fighting Abilities. Last year's game gave every wrestler two Fighting Styles that contained specific abilities so characters felt more like their real-life counterparts. Randy Orton was a Dirty superstar so he could remove turnbuckle covers and push the ref into opponents, Tommy Dreamer was Hardcore and could hit himself with a weapon to heal limb damage, and so on. This year, the broad styles are gone and are replaced by specific abilities. In SVR 09, every character has six Fighting Abilities that give them special advantages. Santino has the Dirty Pin ability so that he can use the ropes for leverage when going for the three-count, Big Show has the Hammer Throw ability that allows him to hurl his opponent over the top rope with a strong Irish whip, and pretty much all of the main eventers have the Resiliency ability so that they have an increased chance of being able to kick out of pins. I'm sure these sound a lot like last year's Fighting Styles -- and they are in part -- but the fact that each Superstar has these combinations of six out of 21 abilities makes them feel unique and varied.
Beyond all that in-match stuff, SVR 09's packing a nifty mode addition that is all its own; it's called Road to WrestleMania and it's one of the greatest story modes a wrestling game has had in years (although the presentation on PS2 suffers thanks to blah graphics). In RTW, you choose to be one of seven playable Superstars (an in-house friend can join you for the tag team tale) and then take the grappler into his original storyline. See, Chris Jericho, Triple H, the Undertaker, CM Punk, John Cena, and Rey Mysterio/Batistia all have angles that are uniquely their own thanks to original voiceovers, branching storylines, cutscenes, and more. I can't thank THQ enough for this. Last year, 24/7 mode sucked. It had one generic story that forced wrestlers into situations that didn't feel natural -- enemies shaking hands in the back, WrestleMania being in the same place every year, etc. Now, you're getting original, interesting tales that last about two and a half hours a piece as you take each man to the biggest spectacle in Sports Entertainment. Each show starts with fireworks and an announcers' summary of what's going on in the federation, and each show ends with the WWE copyright logo and the usual dramatic scene you'd expect from WWE programming. Jericho has to figure out who the masked man that keeps attacking him is, Triple H has to choose between DX and Evolution, and Cena needs to figure out how to contend with MVP's new world order. Sure, a lot of folks are going to be pissy because this mode is only open to the seven folks the storylines have been written for, but once you get your hands on this mode and start having to make choices and unlocking entrances, characters, Create A Superstar pieces, and more, you should realize how awesome this part really is.
If you can't get over RTW's limited scope, Career Mode should soften the blow -- but it might add a few more issues. Basically, Career is a barebones spot for you to choose any Superstar, created player, or Diva and take them through the ranks of WWE stardom. No matter who you choose, you'll start out with a pitiful overall rating in the 30s and choose a championship path -- belts in SVR 09 include Cruiserweight, World Heavyweight, WWE, WWE Tag Team, World Tag Team, Intercontinental, Women's, United States, Hardcore, and ECW championships -- and begin challenging competitors on your way to the chosen title. See, when you start a path, the champion is a mystery. You're presented with a list of four Superstars (or four teams if you're going for a tag belt) and next to each is a star and a numeral. You'll pick to start a match from your private jet, choose a competitor to face, and then pick from a list of match types you've unlocked as well as rules such as DQ options and ring outs. You go face off in the match, and if you win, you're awarded a number of stars. These stars are then recorded next to the opponent and subtracted from the total number you need to face off in a match for the number one contender spot. Get the required stars, challenge the No. 1 contender, and when you win that stipulation match -- which always unlocks that match type for you to use in Career Mode -- you can go on to face the champ. Win the title, and you'll choose the next championship path you want to head off on and go after the next four opponents. If you want, you can defend your title, but there's really no incentive to do so. You're goal is to just win every belt in the game.
Can we interest you in an extreme rules tag match video?
There's more to this mode, of course; after a match -- win or lose -- your nine attribute ratings that represent everything from Durability to your Overall pop up in a series of meters and begin to fill based on how you performed in the match you just played. If you rolled out of the ring, grabbed a chair, and went to town on JTG's grill, your Hardcore meter is going to fill and begin building toward the next numerical attribute level. If you ran around the ring a lot, expect your Speed meter to fill. All of these changes happen in front of your eyes, and you get to see your overall slowly climb from the dregs of the low 30s to the Hall of Fame marker know as 100. On top of this, your character -- if created -- will start with no abilities, and you'll need to unlock them as you go through Career. If you want Move Theft (the ability to steal an opponents Finisher or Signature), you need to defeat 20 Superstars; if you want to be able to recover health via Durability, you need to beat a Superstar rated 20 points higher than you in terms of his or her Overall stat and do it when you both have orange limb damage.
Clearly, this is designed to be a place where your CAS cuts his or her teeth. I say "clearly" because this is the only place to get that Overall to something worthwhile after creating a character and the only place to earn attributes. See, you can choose a real wrestler and have their stats set to the low levels in the mode, but that Superstar's real levels will still be available in exhibition. However, if you create a character and don't take him or her through Career, that Superstar will stay at that crappy rating and be attribute-less in exhibition. To improve your CAS, you have to play Career Mode. On the one hand, for players like me who generally only create one CAS a year, this is a cool setup. With five hours and 42 minutes poured into this mode -- which you can tell from my exact time tracks everything in its statistic section -- Gruesome Greggy is a 71 overall and has all six of his attribute slots filled. However, if you're one of the thousands of CAS nuts out there who love to create every ECW legend, everyone from Japan, and so on, this reliance on building stats in Career will most likely suck. Are you ever going to have time to go through the mode with each of your game maximum of 30 created Superstars -- especially considering you can only have one career going at a time? Oddly, even if you dig the mode, you don't know how to unlock an ability until you've unlocked it. This means I could be saving my final Ability slot for the Evasive Dodge ability but accidentally get assigned the Object ability because I used a weapon too many times.
If you are one of those Create a Superstar crazies I just wrote about, I'd love to be able to tell you about how the system has been revolutionized from the ground up, but that would be a lie. The tried and true create option is back, but it's pretty much the same thing we've been seeing year after year -- which is a good thing in terms of the ability to manipulate face and body parts as well as the massive amount of clothing options (26 jackets, 50 tops, 43 bottoms, 37 boots/shoes, and a whole lot more) but bad in terms of the old problems this series can't seem to shake. Ties clip through stomachs, championship belts clip through jackets, chokeslams become faceslams if your character is too short, and just about every other problem you've seen in the past is still here -- you're limited to 32 layers.
To me, this is just the tip of the iceberg that sinks my enthusiasm for SVR 09. As pretty much the sole wrestling game fan in the IGN office, I have to put up with a lot of trash talking when a "nonbeliever" passes by my desk and catches me playing SVR. Usually, they'll start with reminding me that wrestling is fake, move to commenting on the clipping issues, and so on. I, living for these titles, tune them out and go on my merry way of slamming chairs into people's skulls and trying to hit my finishing move on the top of the Cell. Still, one of the most common complaints people announce while they watch me play actually hit home this year -- namely, it's the belief that "This looks just like last year's game."
Now, in last year's review
, I touched on the fact that SVR 08 felt a lot like the SVR games of the past, but I told you I was fine with that. Wrestling is wrestling, and a Pedigree is going to look pretty similar year to year. However, there are times when SVR 09 doesn't just look like
SVR 08, there are times when it is
SVR 08. There's the same animation for dropping an opponent on the barricade; there's the same ugly Boston Crab and knee-to-the-back Struggle Submissions for a ton of the guys; the crowd looks blocky and gray; a lot of the abilities are the same ones from last year; and Finlay has the exact same entrance from last year even though Hornswoggle is an unlockable character in the game this year.
For me, it's these little repeated tidbits that add up and take a toll on SmackDown vs. Raw 2009. By the time I reviewed last year's game, I had logged close to four months with the title and wasn't sick of it. This year, I felt like I had seen everything before the first month of the Countdown was up. Road to WrestleMania is fun on a story front, but the matches still feel like last year.
Although I'll give you the fact that this is a better game than last year's, I have a few issues with the additions as well as what was subtracted to make room. For starters, you need to know that 24/7 Mode, Hall of Fame challenges, and GM Mode are gone. Although a few squeak in due to storylines -- Ric Flair, Tazz, etc. -- Legends are also out this year presumably so that THQ can transition to next year's Legends of WrestleMania without any (much?) overlap. The ECW Extreme Rules match returns, but nothing's been added to the weapon wheel; why they don't just combine the weapon wheel with the hardcore match -- called a Falls Count Anywhere match this year -- and be done with it is beyond me, but they don't, and we get two watered-down matches.
Come see a caged Punk.
Another new feature that doesn't feel fleshed out to me is Create A Finisher. Here, you get a maximum of ten animations to create a finisher that's all your own and THQ says that there are more than 500 moves to choose from. The problem I found is that as you begin choosing things, your options become more and more limited. When WrestleMania 2000 came out on the Nintendo 64, it had this fireman's carry that kicked out into a Stunner in the CAS screen. I began using this move -- which I dubbed the Greggy Guillotine -- in my backyard wrestling federation and have been looking for it in every wrestling game since that title. When I got SVR 09, this was the first move I set out to create. I started with a kick to the groin, pulled the guy into a fireman's carry, settled for a Diamond Cutter kick out, and then felt my heart drop. All I needed was a Stunner to finished the move, but my only options were a Dreamer Driver Drop, Forward Body Press Impact, and Forward Military Press Slam. Now, there's a Stunner in this game, but for some reason I couldn't attach it to finish my move. In fact, as I toyed around with the feature, it felt like I could really only just add garnishes to existing finishers -- y'know, spray some green mist in a dude's face before hitting an RKO or taunt a bunch of times before hitting a cradle piledriver. There are going to be a lot of people who think CAF is the greatest thing ever (and more power to them), but I could've gone with a few less restrictions and a few more original moves to really give this feature some teeth.
On top of all that and beyond the clipping issues that are always present in these games, the graphics are still limping along this year. With SVR 08, I complained about people missing tape and other intricacies, but this year, I'm set to complain about the lack of detail in general. Most people have their outfits right, but folks like Cody Rhodes and William Regal don't look like themselves in terms of how their faces are constructed. This game isn't bad looking, but this franchise used to be a standout on the PS2. Now, it has shirtless blobs in the front row and a general, fuzzy look to it. When Big Show walks to the ring with a belt over his shoulder, the strap visibly hovers over his shape rather than touching his skin. These problems aren't just in the PS2 version of this title; if you want to see the full breakdown of how SVR 09 plays across the different platforms, check out IGN Insider's Head-To-Head
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