Last year's transitory SmackDown vs. RAW was somewhat of a letdown. Strong game that it might have been, it didn't build on the evolutionary changes that 2003's Here Comes the Pain did. Instead, it opted for the "minor update" route that's plagued professional sports titles for years and even lost a couple of features that were so enjoyable from the previous season. So while the game was certainly a lot of fun and did plenty of things right, it didn't do enough to set itself apart like the aforementioned Here Comes the Pain or Aki's No Mercy did. WWE SmackDown vs. RAW 2006, on the other hand, definitely does.
The old addage "...everything but the kitchen sink" should be the first thing that comes to mind if you were to step back and realize just how much of an improvement SVR2006 really is. The teams at THQ and Yuke's Media Creations have done a spectacular job of listening to fans and critics alike to formulate one of the most feature-packed wrestling games around. Be it presentational, the gameplay, customization options, or the online mode, almost everything in SmackDown vs. RAW 2006 has been improved in some form or another (and that's an impressive move for a sequel no matter what the source material is).
At the forefront of SVR2006's list of improvements is combination of the brand new stamina and momentum systems. A much more important addition than first thought, these meters add a lot of strategy and balance to a title that used to have issues in that category. In the past, it was easy to find a couple of repeating 'money moves' that kept your opponent floored or permanently dazed so that you could beat him up with few problems (how many of you, like me, would exploit this fact in tag team matches to keep one guy from ever reaching his partner?). Because of the addition of stamina and momentum bars, however, move duplication isn't as problematic anymore.
The reason these systems bring such balance to the action is because they penalize players for repeating similar maneuvers. If you continually bodyslam an opponent over and over again, for example, your momentum will begin to drop and you'll lose the support of the crowd. This makes a comeback from your opponent a lot more likely and also prevents you from earning a SmackDown finishing maneuver.
But let's assume that you do decide to mix-up it up and start delivering power grapples and signature moves until your momentum meter is charged. That's the way to do it, of course, but you'll have to be smart about it or suffer the consequences. String together too many high-end attacks and your stamina bar drains to almost nothing. This makes your movements slower and your character prone to easier exhaustion (opening up another opportunity for your enemy to attack). Knowing when to press select to manually regenerate your stamina between big spots is essential to winning main event matches on the higher difficulty levels.
Be warned, though, the meter does seem to drain a little faster than it ought to and may take some getting used to (and should probably be tweaked a bit for next year). Nonetheless, it's a great feature and it's hard to imagine any SmackDown game from now on without it. Another nice gameplay addition this year is the inclusion of a Power Irish Whip. Performed like a Tekken throw (Triangle and Circle together), the Power Whip adds a small (but appreciated) new layer of offense. It's an ideal move to use for the Royal Rumble too, as it makes throwing people out of the ring a whole lot easier than it used to be. Of course, you still have to contend with the Rumble's struggle meter from last year should you choose to grapple someone on the apron, but the stronger whip makes that process less painful.
But the mechanical additions don't stop there. One of the most impressive new features in WWE SmackDown vs. RAW 2006 is the ability to customize your character's grapple categories. In the older titles, grapple types were identical for every character (Signature, Power, Speed, and Submission to be exact) but that's not the case any longer. Now users only have to share two commonalities: Submission (down and grapple) and Dirty/Clean (grapple button by itself) maneuvers. The remaining three grappling categories can be customized with seven open choices (Power, Speed, Technical, Brawler, Martial Arts, Luchadore, and Old School) and it means that your wrestlers can be a lot more varied (or specialized if you prefer) than before. It also gives them a higher number of possible grapples compared to last year too, and that's a good thing.
Amazingly, there are still several other mechanical tweaks worth mentioning. The reversal system first implemented in last year's game, for example, has been fine-tuned to allow users to chain moves together for an attack / counter-attack string of up to three turns. It's a pretty cool little feature that adds even more reflex-based strategy to an already-better-weighted combat system. In fact, the reversal system gets a bit addicting once you've nailed the timing down and it made me wish that you could do a few more moves before ending a sequence. Other cool new additions this year include a brand new sleeper hold system (long overdue in my opinion), the ability to play possum for surprise "small package" wins, and two new player attributes (Hardcore and Stamina) that affect how well you can wield weapons and how fast your energy will regenerate.
As has been the case every year, though, SmackDown vs. RAW 2006 does run into a problem that shouldn't be too unfamiliar for seasoned players. Naturally I'm speaking of the AI. Though the CPU has been touted as "much improved" this year, it's still a little rough around the edges. Yes, players will have a harder time with dominating their computer opponents than before, but that's just as much a result of the new strategic gameplay elements as it is the AI's decision making. The actual planning and strategy of your computer opponents doesn't seem different from the older titles much at all (unless they're severely hurt, at which point they'll start searching for weapons to help). Otherwise, most wrestlers seem to approach you with the exact same tactic.
That said, the harder difficulty levels will still challenge you for sure, but that's mostly due to the fact that the computer's counter ratio gets pretty ridiculous and is harder to hurt. Longtime fans of the SmackDown series should welcome the new challenge just as I did, but as I alluded earlier, it would have been nice to have more diversity in opponents (at least you can customize a whole boatload of AI options with adjustable sliders, though, but it affects everyone as opposed to individual characters). Either way, this shouldn't be an issue in the long run as SVR2006 is meant to be more of a multiplayer game anyway. While we're on the subject of multiplayer, it goes without saying that SmackDown vs. RAW 2006 supports the notion very well. There are a huge number of modes and options that players have at their disposal and there should never be a shortage of things to do. Offline, gamers can hook up and duke it out with five other players for some serious six-person action. One of the best multiplayer features, though, is the ability to win and defend championship belts. Be they individual or tag team, you can win up to ten of them and even bet people money for belts if you want to raise the stakes. With a couple of friends and a pizza, the title match option can take up a good chunk of your time. The only thing I would have liked to see added is the ability to create your tournaments to help you out.
But nothing says multiplayer like online... and SmackDown vs. RAW 2006 has enough online options to make folks disappointed from last year much happier. To start, THQ keeps a server-side record of Wins, Loses, and Title Belts earned so that users can get some background info on their opponents before they face them. Up to four players can compete at once while online too, and almost every major match type is supported (sadly, no Rumble). The coolest feature, though, is that players can get together and trade created wrestlers with one another all day long. You can even preview the created superstars before you download one. As Carlito would say, "Now that's cool."
Unfortunately, SmackDown 2006 is still a little behind in a couple of other areas. You can't communicate with one another while in a match, for example, and setting up buddy lists and clans isn't an option. Tech heads probably won't like the fact that there isn't any USB headset support either, and the fact that there are no anti-cheating measures in play is pretty disappointing.
Despite your preference for multiplayer or single-player experiences, SVR 2006 still has a number of match types and goodies for even the most discerning wrestling fan. Personally, I really like the new backstage brawls and their highly-interactive environments. Likewise, the refined cage match (you can leave out the door now), ladder matches (multiple ladders), and Fulfill Your Fantasy bouts (half-naked ladies) bring new life to some old favorites as well, and the option to setup 2-on-3 matches or over the top rope battle royals has been a long time coming.
Of course, the new match type that's received the most press is probably the oft-requested Buried Alive contest. Allowing users to wrestle from the ring all the way down the ramp and into a giant mound of dirt, this mode can't end until one player stuffs another into a casket and piles a couple hundred pounds of earth on top of him. Personally, I found the match to be somewhat of a chore after the first couple of playthroughs (these things can take forever), but the effort is there and there's nothing wrong with it mechanically other than its length of completion. Strangely, the season mode is both an improvement and more disappointing than last year's version. On the plus side, its more structured setup, better voice-acting, and WWE-style presentation really makes you feel like you're in the middle of World Wrestling Entertainment programming. The cool twists and turns and nods to classic feuds and storylines is a big bonus too, and the ability to play two entirely different years on two different shows is awesome. But then you have season mode's more unsatisfactory elements -- most notable the lack of customization and flexibility afforded to its earlier "text-only" counterparts. There's a lot less opportunities to branch off and do your own thing too, which gives it a little less longevity than season modes from the past.
To help combat this, THQ has also included the recently-revealed GM Mode. Borrowing its inspiration from the Madden and 2K line of sports titles, the GM Mode gives players full control over the WWE. They can draft all-new rosters for their shows, setup rivalries and feuds, try to raise the ratings of their favorite program, and move mid-carders like Heidenreich all the way to the top. It's a pretty cool diversion from the typical season-type match that we've grown accustomed to over the years and the ability to hop in and play or simulate any and every match is great. Those who don't like to cycle through a bunch of menus and read text, however, may not like it as much as I did.
But even if GM Mode isn't for you, the list of things that can be done here is extensive. As an example, your profile saves a complete record of everything you've accomplished in the ring (much like the online stat tracking) and you can earn all sorts of special trophies and title belts to decorate your virtual locker room. You can customize that locker room too, and even adjust the color of your walls and floors, add knick-knacks to your desk, or completely change your couches and furniture altogether. Create-A-Wrestler and Create-A-Stable have been streamlined for easier access too, and you can even make stronger tag teams by developing the chemistry of your favorite squads. I'm also a huge fan of the new "Create-an-Entrance," it's so much more flexible than the canned stuff from before that it'll be impossible to go back. There are literally dozens of other cool things to talk about as well, from the higher polygon count and post-match celebrations to the awesome challenge and better weapon balancing. The list is highly impressive.
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