Spandex, steely glares, and more muscles (well, ‘mussels’) than a Frenchman’s dinner plate; the world of ‘professional’ wrestling is nothing if not predictable. Even so, you’d be hard pressed to think of anything more predictable than the annual release of SmackDown vs Raw on home consoles. Year-in, year-out, wrestling fans lap up the brawler for its impressive array of match types, ring variations, customisable rules, and officially-licensed tournaments, but the fact remains that very little has changed since the series’ heyday on PS2. Developer Yuke’s has proven itself to be the heavyweight champion of the genre with UFC, but SmackDown vs Raw 2011’s template is so antiquated, it creaks like Hulk Hogan’s kneecaps on a cold, winter night.
The game’s core fighting mechanics are almost identical to last year’s slapstick offering; clunky, archaic, and about as elegant as a blindfolded Morris dancer. That said, developer Yuke’s has at least attempted to simplify the proceedings for this year’s update. Grapple strength is now determined by the physical state of your opponent (defaulting to ‘strong’ if your opponent is stunned, or low on stamina), and almost every move in the game can now be reversed – preventing scraps from becoming one-sided, button-mashing affairs. Elsewhere, loading times have been shortened, and menu-based preamble has been scaled back considerably, allowing you to get straight into the pugilistic action. Which is great news considering the sheer amount of content on offer this year.
Drawing all of this content together is the WWE Universe; an all-new game mode that’s sure to delight hardcore wrestling fans. Inspired by the television shows upon which the game is based, WWE Universe plays out like a combination of career and exhibition modes, and forms the most engaging portion of this year’s offering. Put simply, WWE Universe tracks a player’s history, and uses it to generate event cards, rivalries and storylines. However, it’s the attention to detail and focus on player choice (you can even recast entire matches) that impresses here. Occasionally, the game even goes as far as to toss an event or cutscene into the mix, creating the sense that you’re an integral part of the WWE television shows. It’s certainly a fantastic addition, and one that will surely serve the series well in the future.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the game’s Road to Wrestlemania mode, which attempts something similar, but which feels overly-contrived by comparison. As the name suggests, players take control of a second-tier wrestler (from the likes of Rey Mysterio,John Cena, Christian and Chris Jericho), and then brawl their way to the top of the ranks in preparation for the illustrious main event. None of these storylines are particularly interesting, and most serve only to delay the actual fighting as you run amok backstage, collecting various items, getting lost, and attempting to converse with the other hare-brained wrestlers.
We don’t pretend to know an awful lot about wrestling, but it’s hard to imagine that even the most passionate of WWE fans will be enthralled by the storylines on offer here. Before long, we found ourselves wrapped up in some nonsensical quest about “lost souls” and “sacred” urns, before partaking in a 20 minute Royal Rumble against The Occult. Seriously, the diversion was so off-kilter you’d be forgiven for thinking that Tolkien had written it. Factor in terrible voice acting, mouths that open and close like venus fly traps, and a camera angle that obscures everything beyond your wrestler’s back, and Road to Wrestlemania is a mode best avoided. We’d like to tell you there’s a novel RPG element to it, but improving our wrestler’s attributes with SP earned from fights didn’t seem to have any effect on scraps whatsoever.
Step outside of the ring, however, and SmackDown vs Raw 2011 reveals its impressive array of customisable options. Players can create their own wrestlers, finishing moves, entrance videos, match types and storylines in the vastly-improved Create-a-Story and Create-a-Superhero modes. There’s even the option to create and share highlight reels via Xbox Live, and while such garnish couldn’t possibly make up for the gawd-awful Road to Wrestlemania mode, they’re fun, accessible and also help to increase the game’s already-impressive lifespan.
If there’s a complaint to be levelled at SmackDown vs Raw, though, it’s that opponent AI often struggles to find a middle ground in terms of difficulty. Cranking up the difficulty level rectifies this issue somewhat, but only really succeeds in allowing opponents to counter blows with telepathic precision. It’s a crying shame really, as it means you’ll have to put up with either ridiculously easy or painfully difficult foes. Add a friend into the mix, though, and SmackDown vs Raw 2011 is a game transformed. Immediately, the game’s clunky fighting mechanics stop being awful, and become the source of much laughter and merriment as you miss attacks, press the wrong button to counter and generally make complete and utter fool of yourself. Ladder matches, which would have lasted an eternity thanks to poor AI, are now butt-clenchingly tense feats, peppered with side-splitting laughter.
It’s a shame, then, that online play isn’t quite the saviour we thought it’d be. Don’t get us wrong, SmackDown vs Raw 2011 boasts the most comprehensive online offering of any SvR title (featuring every match type and wrestler available, Divas included), but the execution is less than stellar. Royal Rumbles now allow for up to 12 participants online, and while there’s a lot of fun to be had taking part in such epic brawls, connectivity issues and a considerable amount of lag means that most players will struggle to even enter the ring. Unfortunately, such issues also make their way into other match types, meaning it won’t be long before your online ranking becomes severely affected, as disconnects are forever marked on your profile as a loss.
More off-putting than anything else though, are the game’s less-than-sexy visuals. Character likenesses are generally spot on, but the same can’t be said for the game’s supporting cast – with such characters as Stephanie McMahon having noticeably drawn the short straw in the beauty department. Factor in ropey textures, unconvincing lighting effects, and ridiculously blurry crowds, and it’s hard not to scoff at THQ’s latest for being a little more than the Chrimbo’ cash cow it truly is.
That said, there’s a lot to love about Smackdown vs Raw 2011. Ancient mechanics and ropey production values aside, the game is still a barrel of laughs (especially in multiplayer), and hardcore wrestling fans will be delighted by the sheer amount of content on offer here. Whether we’ll ever see improvements to the series’ dated formula is debatable however. Without any true competitor, and with a loyal fanbase hanging on each and every release, there’s very little incentive for THQ to mess with the current formula. And therein lies the rub: stump up for a game you already own, or save your hard-earned until Yuke’s finally put forth the effort?
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