I've always accepted the fact that transition years are inevitable for yearly videogame franchises, but I never expected to see such an example twice for one series during a single console generation. I suppose that there's a first time for everything, though, and that's exactly what's happened with THQ and Yuke's latest wrestling effort WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW
For those of you with hazy memories, the WWE SmackDown series underwent its first changeover period when the third title hit PS2s back in the winter of 2001. Essentially a higher-res version of the PlayStation One game, Just Bring It was widely considered a disappointment because of its barebones feature set, under-optimized memory card save, somewhat sloppy interface, and god-awful load times. Over the course of the last couple of seasons, however, THQ has done a terrific job of building on that foundation to create the single best wrestling franchise in America. Last year's Here Comes the Pain in particular was a stellar success for the company -- providing the most amount of upgrades we had seen in a single year. The Elimination Chamber, First Blood match, location-specific damage, Bra and Panties contest, weight detection, and a completely revamped career mode were just a few of the several new additions that were made. The general public was ecstatic about it too, and as a big wrestling fan myself; I was overjoyed at what the game had to offer. "If only it had a cool online mode," I secretly wished to myself a few months later. "If it just somehow could have that, it would be the greatest wrestling game of all time..."
Okay, so I was wrong.
But don't misunderstand me, WWE SmackDown vs. RAW is still a great wrestling game. It's managed to take all the same qualities that made last year's title standout and improve upon them just enough to make it an even tighter, better-rounded technical achievement than it was previously. More importantly, it's managed to add a handful of new features that the fans have been asking for for ages. The ability to create your own pay-per-view, the option to design your own belt, and the long-awaited online feature have all made it to the dance in 2004 -- but not without sacrificing a few questionable elements -- and that's where my affection for this game gets a little bit hazy...
Online (Dis) Connection
You see, as cool as it may have sounded to get the online feature that I always wanted, it didn't quite turn out the way I had hoped. Because unlike most of today's other prominent sports titles, be they Madden, NBA Live, or what have you, WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW doesn't offer any type of supplementary online content whatsoever. So while most competitive broadband users out there are used to such features as Internet gaming leagues, automatic ranking systems, downloadable content, and multiplayer support beyond just two players, SmackDown offers none of that -- providing instead, a simplistic two-prong option for either wrestling in a singles head-to-head match or a females-only bra and panties bout.
Regardless of what kind of match they choose to play, however, gamers will never be able to track their win/loss records, defend created belts online, wrestle in tag-team and specialty matches, or even protect their pseudo-identities -- as the GameSpy-powered Interface doesn't allow players to save permanent IDs sever-side. Perhaps most disappointing of all, though, is the fact the broadband-only setup doesn't support USB headsets, only keyboards while in the lobby area.
With a diagnosis like that you can see why it's pretty disappointing to finally go online and match up against someone else -- it isn't quite the experience we're used to. But to it's credit, SmackDown's online interface is extremely easy to use, almost entirely lag free, and offers a hefty selection of rooms to choose from when in search of your appropriate skill level. As smooth as the online play is, however, it just isn't enough to make up for its lack of features. At least it's there, though, which is whole lot more than I can say for last year's version. The Excellence of Execution
One area in which WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW doesn't disappoint, however, is with its gameplay. Already a kick-ass specimen thanks to last year's excellent revamp, this year's engine is an ever better one. All the same elements from Here Comes the Pain have made strong comebacks once again with a myriad of improvements that are sure to please the more technically-minded wrestling fan. The all-new reversal meter, for example, adds yet another layer of strategy to the tactical flow of a match; giving players a chance to time their button taps just right in an effort to overturn an opponent's submission to get the upper hand themselves. Unfortunately this meter only appears when you're caught in a specific set of moves (the figure four leglock, for instance), so its use may not be as widespread as you may think.
Another new addition this year is the pre-match mini-game feature. Totaling five in all, these interesting little extras provide a nice bit of presentational flair to the typical wrestling action. Usually initiated by circumstances instead of the player himself (by turning them on or off in the options menu), most (not all) of these mini-games are based on the same golf swing mechanic that powered Links LS for years. Simply hit the proper zones twice in a single turn in the appropriate area and you'll score successful hits on your opponent. The most common of these is usually the Stare Down Challenge, which is essentially just a shoving contest. The First Strike option, on the other hand, is a little more simplistic as it asks players to be the first to tap the X button in order to score a devastating punch on their opponent's chin. The Test of Strength Battle is a best "two out of three" contest to see who can press specifically highlighted buttons the quickest, while Chop Battles and Spanking Sessions (Divas only) work exactly like the shoving contests do. They're fun to participate in, that much is for sure, but my only real qualm here is that if they're turned on in the options menu they happen literally every time a match starts -- it can get a little bit repetitive. At least the spanking and chopping battles are user-initiated, though.
One of the most prominent new improvements to the gameplay system is the much more realistic weight detection mechanic. Spanning six different levels of heaviness that include Diva Weight all the way up to Ultra Heavyweight, it allows for a much more accurate representation of each superstar's various lifting abilities. This new weight detection improvement now applies to finishers too, meaning that a Cruiserweight won't be able to powerslam Kane just because his finisher is designated as such. The system still isn't perfect, though, and there are still a couple of loopholes remaining in the system. Turnbuckle moves like superplexes or falling backslams, for example, can still be performed no matter how large the difference in weights between opponents may be (I superplexed Big Show using Victoria as a normal move). Finishers that start on the ground and move into a lifting position later are also unaffected by the weight difference (again, I used Victoria to put Big Show in the Black Widow -- which starts in a sitting position before moving into a powerbomb), and there a few other weird anomalies I spotted here and there as well. On the whole, though, it's a lot more accurate than it was before.
If I were absolutely forced to choose my favorite new gameplay addition, however, it would have to be the all-new clean and dirty meter. A visual representation of how the crowd sees your character, these new meters are a terrific idea; and are essentially power-ups that reward heels and faces for behaving how they're supposed to. If a face wrestler continually taunts his opponent and does spectacular high-flying moves, for example, his meter will rise until it's completely full. Once complete, the gauge begins to flash allowing players to activate it with the right analog stick. The moment this has been done, the good-guy grappler is invincible for a short period of a time in addition to gaining a helpful damage bonus. On the flipside, heel wrestlers will be able to perform a devastating illegal move that they can't be disqualified for. But in a nice bit of strategy, the requirements for raising the dirty meter are completely different than the clean one -- it's smart thinking and a great addition. There are a number of other less significant additions to the gameplay mechanics as well. Steel steps and chairs have more realistic weights than they had before, for example, and disappear after frequent uses to keep advantages from becoming too frequent. Likewise, ladders and championship belts serve as devastating permanent weapons that do some serious bodily damage to your opponents but are a lot more difficult to use than the foreign objects of the past. It takes a lot longer to recover from missed aerial maneuvers too, while signature and power moves take more time to perform and are easier to counter. Needless to say, the all the changes here are good ones.
But last year's SmackDown truly set a benchmark for the series when it came to gameplay anyway -- so it's no surprise that the game meets with continued success in this department once again. As much as I enjoy each wrestler's list of more than 100 different moves apiece, however, I'm still pretty disappointed in the computer's completely lackluster Artificial Intelligence. Even when turned all the way up to its highest difficulty setting, CPU opponents are far too easy and rarely capitalize on openings or advantages. Veteran players of the series may never lose a single one-player match, in fact; as I know I didn't and I've had over 500 of them. Hopefully this is an issue that Yuke's will address in its next installment.
Features, Superstars and Creation
If there's one thing that's obvious the moment you fire up WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW this year, it's the highly improved selection of legends. While 2003's version of the game was ridiculed because of the decision to include guys like Hillbilly Jim and George "The Animal" Steele, this year's edition makes up for it with talent like Bret "The Hitman" Hart, Andre the Giant, and Mankind. Returning favorites like the Road Warriors, Legend Undertaker, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper have come back too, while The Rock, Masked Kane, and Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake round out the legends list quite nicely.
Strangely, though, the regular roster of superstars has taken a hit in comparison to Here Comes the Pain, with roughly 25% of the available wrestlers from 2003 removed and replaced with absolutely no one (there are only 41 guys in the lineup as opposed to 54). It's a strange omission to say the least, and while I can understand the technical limitations associated with their removal, it's still pretty weird to take a step backwards in regards to the available wrestlers. Which wrestlers are they you ask? Just check our table below to see for yourself.
As you can see, there are a number of popular superstars that are strangely absent from that list. Sure I can understand that newcomers like Gene Snitsky and Orlando Jordan won't make the cut, but why leave out guys that have been around forever? Where are Eugene, and Gail Kim, and Maven? Why can't we play as Rob Conway, Sylvain Grenier, or Tyson Tomko? And why have Billy Kidman, Funaki, and Johnny Stamboli been overlooked for the second year in a row? With expectations rising with each passing year, it's starting to become a little less acceptable to have such an obvious and incomplete roster.
To its credit, though, SmackDown! vs. RAW does a stellar job of recreating movesets for the superstars that it does have. Practically every single lock and hold that each wrestler has ever performed is available somewhere in their repertoire; while entrances and taunt animations are dead-on representations of 95% of the superstars. That's a pretty good success rate. Moving forward, players that enjoyed last year's collection of match types and bout options are likely to get quite the feeling of déjà vu with WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW -- as it has an almost identical feature set to that one. This news isn't really a bad thing, though, as Here Comes the Pain was pretty extensive to begin with. The Elimination Chamber, the First Blood Match, and the Bra and Panties contests have once again been joined by an extensive list of options that include the Royal Rumble, Hell in a Cell (regular and Armageddon types), Hardcore head-to-heads, Slobber Knockers, Cage Matches, TLC Bouts, and a host of other familiar setups.
I'll be the first to admit that while I'm not a fan of the Bra and Panties option, the rest of the game's available choices are great and should give your group of friends plenty to do with them. I particularly enjoyed this season's only new match type, the Parking Lot Brawl; which was modeled after an Eddie Guerrero /John Cena contest from the beginning of the year. For the unfamiliar, the Parking Lot Brawl is essentially a revamped backstage fight with entirely different interactive environments. Instead of just throwing your opponent into fences, walls, or television sets, however, you'll be able to toss them into a variety of different cars for various bone-crunching results. The limousine, for example, has multiple activity points; enabling players to smash their opponent's head into the window, slam them on top of the hood, or toss them in the backseat to get beaten up by its occupants. There are several other different cars that circle your fighting space as well, and each one of them are a hell of a lot of fun to explore and exploit on a regular basis.
Speaking of fun, another positive upgrade is the inclusion of several different customization modes. Originally expected to appear in last year's version but pulled due to time constraints, the much-anticipated Create-A-Belt feature has finally made its comeback. The options available to users in this mode are pretty extensive too, as gamers will be able to choose from dozens of different choices to create the exact championship strap that they always dreamed of. What's more, is that they'll then be able to do battle for and defend these titles against other human opponents during exhibition modes -- providing plenty of opportunities to make additional money for the Shopzone as well as real tangible proof of who's the best SmackDown! player on the block.
The brand new Create-A-PPV feature is potentially just as exciting, as it allows you to setup and create entire pay-per-view cards that can feature as many as eight matches at a time. Ever wanted to create your own even with all your favorite default and created wrestlers? You finally can, and without the messy process of having to go back and simulate one match a time. And while we're on the subject of created wrestlers, the character building feature of SmackDown! vs. RAW has been improved upon as well -- featuring a much more intuitive interface and a larger selection of clothing options than what we had before. Created wrestlers even have teeth and three different outfits a piece now (one for cutscenes, one for entrances, and one for the actual wrestling), and the number of entrance animations, background music, and TitanTrons have all been increased substantially (though for some unknown reason, the RAW and SmackDown! intros have been removed from your choices here, which is kind of a bummer).
Unfortunately for fans that are looking for additional feature upgrades, SmackDown! vs. RAW just doesn't have them. In fact, in many respects the game has taken a few steps southward. Backstage arenas, for example, have been removed entirely with the exception of a single large environment; and while that solo atmosphere is still highly interactive with plenty of different contact points, it provides nowhere near as much fun as the various backstage levels from Here Comes the Pain did. Additionally, THQ has removed the Cruiserweight, Women's, World Tag Team, and WWE Tag Team championships from career mode altogether (only the WWE, World, Intercontinental, and U.S. titles remain), and the cool stat tracking feature I thought was so helpful last year is gone as well. Making the list of complaints even more bizarre is the fact that the career mode seems a lot more linear than it was last year (I played five or six different guys across various seasons and the same exact thing happened to all of them). The reason that this was the case was pretty obvious too, as the development team removed the option to travel between different locations between matches which pretty much eliminated the branching points that were present in Here Comes the Pain. Don't get me wrong now, there are still points at which the story can change gears; but the ultimate path is still the same with few diversions in-between. I also have to admit, that I was further disappointed with the revelation that most wrestlers still don't alternate attires and that I could no longer utilize last year's option to customize my two shows. Why I can't change the default lineups of both brands when it was available in previous versions, I have no idea.
So why were all these exceptions made in the first place? The word on the street is that it's because of all the new presentational elements that THQ has implemented. Full-fledged voiceovers for every regular superstar certainly sounds like a great addition on paper after all, and in the case of ring announcers and pay-per-view intros, it sounds pretty good in practice too. But once the matches are underway and the commentary teams of Jim Ross, Jerry Lawler, Tazz, and Michael Cole start calling the action, their delivery is pretty damn excruciating. Light years behind the solid vocals found in the ESPN and EA line of sports games, both announce teams consistently repeat the same small collection of phrases over and over again -- with the only real exception being occasional character-specific background information. There's a lot of room for improvement here.
Superstar voice-overs are just as remedial -- sounding as though they were recorded in a highly acoustic bathroom and not quite as convincing as they'd be if they had been legitimately recorded for an angle on television. But at least most of the superstars have all their authentic music and some licensed menu tracks to booth -- it helps fill the audio void left by the lackluster voiceovers.
Still, there's no detriment on earth that could make me overlook how terrific the graphics in SmackDown! vs. RAW truly are. Boasting 40% more polygons than the previous game, as well as a higher resolution, better textures, and a couple of improved animations, it's definitely the best looking wrestling title I've ever see, The brand new arenas, facial expressions, and lighting effects in particular are of particular note, and all of them are worlds better than they were last time. My only wish is that THQ would finally decide to support widescreen and progressive scan televisions in its visual options menu, but I suppose there's always room for improvement in next year's version.
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