A funny thing happened last year: another WWE game came out on every system known to man, but the PlayStation 2 version didn't get treated like the red-headed stepchild. Sure, it didn't have the nifty graphics and online modes of its PS3 counterpart, but it still had the same awesome presentation and flair.
After playing WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2010 on the PlayStation 2, I'm happy to report that THQ didn't bail on giving the PS2 love and has given us another quality grappler for this console.
This iteration of WWE SmackDown vs. Raw is delivering more than 70 Superstars, Divas, and Legends, along with a plethora of match types and options. Most are things you should know from last time around -- Championship Scramble, Extreme Rules, and so on -- but that doesn't mean WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 hasn't packed in a bunch of tweaks and additions.
For starters, there's a new mode called WWE Universe. This is basically the combination of the old career and exhibition modes. Here, the game is generating an infinite WWE calendar packed with Raws, SmackDowns, Superstars, and pay-per-view shows. It plans the cards based on rivalries and rankings, and you pop in to play whatever match you want. If you don't dig a certain card, you're free to whip up a match of your own.
The only catch is, you can't just put a Superstar (created or otherwise) into a world title match -- that honor has to be earned by climbing the ranks and winning a No. 1 Contender match or snatching the briefcase at WrestleMania's Money in the Bank match. You'll play as wrestlers, raise their rankings, and earn your spots. Even better, the game is tracking rivalries and tossing in random cutscenes. Maybe Vince McMahon introduces another opponent after you've won a match or maybe your opponent attacks you during your entrance.
WWE Universe is undoubtedly cool. Basically, it's a never ending career mode where the game tracks feuds, Royal Rumble winners, and more. When you create wrestlers -- whom you can now give all the attribute points you want and who stick with the "layer" system folks know for clothes -- they're entered into the shows. You can simulate a decade and see how far they go or jump in and manage teams and rivalries so you can see the relationships unfold. WWE Universe is your SmackDown vs. Raw playset -- make some changes and see what develops.
The flipside to that freedom is Road to WrestleMania. On the surface, WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011's Road looks like that of the past -- you choose one of five tales and play through the weeks leading up to that Superstar's appearance on the grandest stage of all in between watching a bunch of cutscenes. However, there's a twist here: this year's Road to WrestleMania has you wandering around backstage.
Now, most shows will require you to go talk to someone before a match can begin, but there are a bunch of side quests to engage in here. If you want, you can rush to the gorilla position and head out to that week's match, but if you're the "do everything person," there are conversations to listen in on, people to talk to, and fights to start. Now, picking backstage brawls might sound foolish (and in a way, I found it to be), but every match or fight you engage in rewards you with Superstar points that you can apply to your move damage and damage resistance -- it's like a mini-RPG in a way.
Trouble is, leveling up your attributes is a bit of a bitch and not worth it. I've done every Road to WrestleMania, and I didn't find the leveling process worth much -- you have to pick fights with every Superstar backstage to get enough points to really max out your character. There's definitely something to be desired here. Although all the Superstars are voiced, mouths flap like mad and there's no lip syncing to speak of. On top of that, the backstage environments are empty caverns and the brawls you get into seem to go on way too long.
Here's the thing, though: even with those stumbles, I dig this year's Road to WrestleMania. Sure, the free roaming can be really cheesy and almost seem low budget at times, but the stories themselves are rad. Who doesn't want to see Edge and Christian reeking of awesomeness, Jericho getting Pedigreed on a car, or John Cena dealing with Randy Orton's mind games? Toss in that the Undertaker's storyline takes WWE SmackDown vs. Raw to places I never thought THQ would, and you've got a truly unique mode. There are decisions to make and different paths to go down. Sure, it's really rough around the edges, but the characters you unlock and the stories you get to be a part of make it cool.
I haven't touched on controls much, and that's because they're largely what you already know and expect. You run with a shoulder button, grapple with the right stick, and so on. However, there are some adjustments this time around like your ability to reverse a pin into a pin of your own. Still, the biggest change is the fact that there's no longer a strong modifier for grapples. Now, the game will read how damaged your opponent is and scale your attacks based on that.
That might sound fine, but I ran into a problem with it. Most of the time when you grapple, you start with a simple armbar or similar chain grapple move. From there, you move the stick again to enter into a slam or throw. Trouble is, reversing still comes down to one button this time around, and these chain grapples are really easy to reverse out of. This means that when I played people, I found myself getting into a lot of armbars, but reversed before I could get to a simple suplex. When I was playing Bryan Williams of THQ fame, I wanted to pull off different moves but he kept reversing everything, so I found myself doing the same running attack over and over.
There's a balancing issue that needs to be worked out here. When I can't even pull off a simple body slam, something's wrong and most definitely frustrating.
Still, the good additions outweigh the bad. Hell in a Cell has been revamped so that the cage is realistically sized and weapons are underneath the ring, Story Designer is back and has more scenes to use and less restrictions on created characters, and the Universe matches have logos in the beginning letting you know where the show is coming from -- it's just another small addition that sucks you into the experience.
If WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 has a weakness, it's that this title does feel a lot like a fixed-up version of last year's. Story Designer has new scenes along with some bells and whistles, but it's the same thing as before and you still can't share tales online. There's a new position for Create-A-Finisher, but it's what you know and have used in the past. Although there are new items in Create-A-Superstar, it's the exact same setup you've been fooling with for years. From there, bouts like the Inferno match and Extreme Rules are the same song and dance you've seen before.
Now, I'm not saying any of that stuff sucks; most of it is actually really cool. It's just that it feels like well-worn territory in some sections. As always, the characters look good while the crowd looks blocky and the commentary is repetitive and at times flat out wrong -- you know, it's SmackDown.