IGN Review of WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009
For many of us at IGN, wrestling runs in our blood. We've been hitting up WWF games in some way, shape, or form for over 20 years now, playing on NES, hitting up arcades, and of course rocking the legendary N64 titles until Day of Reckoning took over on GameCube. Now that the Smackdown vs. Raw brand has extended to every system - we're talking PSP, DS, Wii, PS2, PS3, and 360 - we've got our hands full, and if we're saying that, we can only imagine how much of a yearly crunch developer Yuke's goes through to crank out so many versions of the game on a yearly basis.
Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 is still obviously a bigger overall effort on 360 and PS3 than it is on Wii, but even with those being the lead SKU for THQ, there are still some sizable changes being made across the board, and Wii got a huge bump this year as far as exclusive content, online, and overall depth. There are still some must-change aspects, and a lot of evidence of just how crazy development is over at Yuke's (rough cuts and transitions, some annoying bugs, and even scrip typos for wrestlers) but it's yet another huge step in the right direction. Are we going to tell you to drop everything (360 copy of SVR09 included) and rush out to buy this year's Wii effort? No, that's not happening; at least not for another year. What we will say though, is that if you chose Wii as your primary system this year, and have your heart set on some Smackdown, you'll find a fun - though still flawed - effort in 2009. The WWE fan in us has no problem sitting down for a few rounds of Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 on Wii. The hardcore gamer in us though, is still going to head on over to the other systems for a more serious take on it all in the end.
Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 made some huge changes this year, and the final result is a game that borders on the "great" category, cut just short due to some of those odd bugs and flaws we mentioned earlier. Main Event mode is gone this year (that was the disjointed single player career mode from last year) and instead Wii owners are getting the same single player awesomeness that is Road to Wrestlemania mode. THQ would be smart to keep this formula for next year, and simply expand on the depth and diversity of it, as it really is the best story mode we've played in a wrestling game since, well, maybe ever. Players can chose from Triple H, CM Punk, Undertaker, John Cena, Y2J, and a tag mode made up of Batista and Rey Mysterio in character-specific, VO-filled story modes that are often times stronger than the actual WWE programming we've seen on Raw, Smackdown, or ECW lately. We're talking things like MVP defecting from the USA entirely, Triple H dealing with the rebuilding of both Evolution and DX again, and CM Punk retaking ECW for the hardcore, teaming with Tommy Dreamer and eventually laying the Smackdown on Taz himself, who plays a pretty convincing heal as an announcer personality. It's pretty fun, but ultimately over too quickly. On Wii, you'll ge the same core gameplay and story, but we couldn't help but wish there were less odd transitions and quick cuts, less load time between quick matches, and less overall quirky gameplay. We had tag matches where the ref quit giving the five count (so we were able to kick the crap out of our opponent in a 2 on 1 while the CPU partner on the opposing side obeyed the traditional tag rules), matches where we had to avoid weapons that were constantly being thrown into the ring despite it being a non-hardcore match, and a few other oddities along the same lines. There were quite a few "wait… what?" moments in there, but all in all Road to Wrestlemania is a fun single player mode that actually makes us want to play through it to enjoy the story and superstar feuds.
Create-a-Superstar makes a return to the Smackdown vs. Raw brand this year, and it works great, allowing us to make our own El Gringo Primo to beat up on during the Wii roster countdown we hosted over the last few months. The only issue here - outside of a lack of Create-A-Finisher, found in the 360/PS3 versions - was that all created characters this year need to be powered up though the game's career mode, so while older games let you make new fighters inspired from WWE's history (or other brands, got forbid!) and tweak their visual and attribute offerings per character, this year you'll need to play through career to change each one from a 35 overall. It's a decent system for what it is, having your actual play style determine their stats, but if you want to make a specific wrestler from other wrestling brands (a world without the real Colt Cabana isn't a world we want to live in) you'll need to power them up through career, rather than just assigning stats and moving onto the next created fighter. It's a pain in the ass, and while THQ has just sent out a press release during the writing of this review, stating that you can fully tweak stats after completing career mode as of January 31st, that still means you'll need to beat career mode with every character, and a Wii option for that has yet to be confirmed.
As far as general play goes this year, it's deeper than last year, but still not as complex as we'd like it. There's still no area-specific damage, so it's all about taking down an opponent's overall health and putting them out once they are in "danger" mode, which again can lead to 30 second matches. It's a bit tougher to do this year, but you don't see a lot of swings in matches. If you're kicking the crap out of Batista with Triple H, for example, he can be put down in one fluid line of attacks. No second wind, no valiant attempt with the crowd at his back, nada. There are a lot more matches this time around - we're talking nearly 40 different types, including everything from ladder, hell in the cell, cage, TLC, table, hardcore, extreme rules, royal rumble, and many, many more - but some of them are still really basic right now too. If an opponent is going up a ladder to grab a title, for example, your best bet it still to climb it and knock him off. Going up a turnbuckle to deliver an air attack on the ladder itself, or trying to pull them down from on the ground isn't always easy or even possible for that matter, so depth is considerably less. We also found ourselves doing a lot of trial and error to really interact with objects in the game, whether it was using objects in finishing moves, getting players up on tables, or the like. If Wii is all about being more arcade-like in nature, we're fine with more on-screen prompts (or at least an option for them) while doing some of the more match-specific actions. Ladder matches do a nice job of showing players how to reach for a belt, and cage matches make climbing an obvious Wii-mote/nunchuk motion, but it isn't always that easy when dealing with other objects or interactions in the world.
In the control department, motion is front and center with waggle for hits, and specific motions for grabs and throws, but it again can be deeper. Motion taunts work most of the time, but we've had a few (in taunts and specific moves) where the Wii-mote seems to be completely broken and won't catch any movement. This should be completely fixed next year though, as Wii MotionPlus is on the way. Again, we'd like to have two-handed moves, using the nunchuk in addition to Wii-mote, and it's still very odd to not be able to run with a button (instead, you can only run outside of the ring by continuously moving in the same direction, or attack from a distance to run and attack when in the ring). The team could put a much larger emphasis on the motion control from a presentation a standpoint as well, as game like No More Heroes actually overlays the motions in a stylistic way during key moments. If the FU, for example, actually brought up huge transparent motion controls, and had players doing step by step actions all the way through the finisher, it could be a really cool finale to the match. Or, for example, a finisher initiated the first kick in a Pedigree, and then you needed to lift with the Wii-mote to raise your opponent's first arm, raise with the nunchuk to lift the second arm, and then both at the same time to jump and finish the attack. Already there's a timing mini-game incorporated into the finishers, and it feels great to slap people with well-timed finishers. Build on that, and it could be truly amazing.
The biggest issue with this year's offering though is just the overall presentation and feel of the game. In Road to Wrestlemania character AI will bug out and not participate during key sequences, cuts run too long or objectives are unclear along the way, and during regular matches the camera is panned too far in and unchangeable. The crowd again looks pretty terrible (PS2-like), and the game still pans across them, which should just be cut entirely. Signs look low-res in the crowd, odd model work has some of the mouth animations looking really strange (Elijah Burke and Kofi Kingston are good examples of this), and the overall effort still looks very PS2-like across the board. If there's a way to add more polys to the main models, and make the crowd fully 2D portraits (since it already looks bad with low-poly models) the team could get more out of the in-game characters, which might be the way to go on Wii.
The interactive entrances this year are an interesting concept, and actually a pretty fun way to add pre-match momentum into the mix, as well as more player interaction overall, but it could be deepened. If there was an interactive "Face/Heel" aspect of the game, different entrance options could lead to how the crowd reacted to you. Right now everyone has the same general cross-section of moves, but we'd love to come out as Y2J (even if he's supposed to be a "face" down the line) and turn the crowd by pulling off mean entrance motions. If they were color-coded for good, bad, and neutral, we'd have a better idea of how we were interacting with the crowd, rather than just picking a motion and watching it act out. Tearing a kid's sign in half is fun, but it'd be so much more fun if we came out to a cheering crowd before flipping them when we damn-well pleased.
In fact, even online was added this year, rounding out the package with the last main improvement we'd expect from the Wii team over at Yuke's. It's person-to-person connections, so like Smash Bros. and others before it your experience is only going to be as good as the people you play, but in an IGN vs. IGN match the game ran fine with very minimal lag or hiccups along the way, and the amount of options is very impressive for online. You can play with up to four players (only one per system though) and play any of the matches found in single player, with varying rules. There's a rating system for match-to-match standings, an online and friends leaderboard, and even a "Legend" status that goes up as you win matches. If you can get into the game despite its flaws, and have a fast enough connection to make it worth your while, it's a fun mode on top of the regular offering in Smackdown vs. Raw. Hell, THQ even tries to get around the lack of communication with pre-canned text chat similar to EA's offering in Madden and Tiger, and it works pretty well. Even created players can be used online (as long as you don't use custom text on shirts), which is a blast. Before getting into matches, by the way, you can check all stats, so if you want to wimp out when facing a perfect-rated character, you can. You'll just have to live with being a jabroni.
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