This past week, my brother's been on a Duke of Edinburgh expedition, trawling through the mud, wind, and monsoons of the Lake District, in the hopes of getting a piece of paper that says he can put up a tent with some competence, and has enough common sense to manage to survive on his own for a week. It's almost ironic then, that at the same time my brother is most likely bailing out his tent, I myself have suffered a similarly testing experience, standing sunning myself in the Penthouse suite of the Mayfair hotel in central London, surrounded by food, drink, and people waiting on my hands and feet, enjoying a cold beer with top WWE star, Mr. Kennedy...
Sometimes, I really like my job.
Still, I wasn't there to be sunning myself and socialising - this was a business trip and a THQ press demonstration of the latest instalment in its best-selling wrestling series, Smackdown vs Raw 2008. With a whole host of new features lined up for this year's outing, including the addition of Superstar fighting styles, the Struggle Submission system, a whole new animation package, and, of course, the series' debut on three new platforms (Wii, DS, and PS3), THQ was understandably excited about its new baby.
It seems 2008 will be a big year for the Smackdown series, as the game essentially seems to be branching off in two completely different directions. As Keith Kirby, THQ Vice President of Product Development put it "we're putting the hardcore experience on the hardcore platforms [PS3 and 360], and providing a more casual experience for Wii and DS."
So, let's take a look at what the "hardcore" experience will offer, on both PS3 and 360. As you would probably expect, the game has received a complete graphical overhaul for this year's edition, and, while the models don't look that much more spectacular than those found in 2007, there has been a noticeable improvement in the overall lighting quality, and the switch to a more complicated shader routine. However, by far the biggest improvement to Smackdown's overall aesthetics comes with the brand spanking new animation system, which makes your wrestlers move, run and grimace in pain just like a real wrestler would.
However, it's not just the graphics engine that's been given an overhaul for 2008, as the grappling engine itself has received the same treatment. The biggest single adjustment to the game this year is the addition of the Superstar Fighting Styles, which add a surprising amount of depth to the wrestling experience. Whereas before you could switch from Big Show to Rey Mysterio and, no matter who your opponent was, effectively wrestle the same kind of match, this new system makes you think a lot more about your choices, and gives each character a number of unique strengths and weaknesses.
High Flyers, for example, are much speedier than the other wrestlers, and can dive and roll around the ring to get out of the way of larger wrestler's attacks. Powerhouse wrestlers, on the other hand, can power out of any pin attempt with ease, until you begin to weaken their arms. This forces you to approach each wrestler with a different strategy, depending on how their strengths stack up to your weaknesses (and vice versa). The stupid stamina system's been chucked too, saving you from having to hold the B button every ten seconds to get a breather.
However, while you're going to be finding the familiar, in-depth wrestling action on 360 and PS3, the Wii and DS are set to offer something a little bit different to your normal WWE experience.
On the Wii, Smackdown has taken a completely different stance to previous games, by letting you control your wrestler's moves directly. Holding the nunchuck in one hand, and Wiimote in the other, if you throw a punch, your wrestler will punch. When you push both hands forwards to grapple, your wrestler will grapple. Lift both controllers up then, and you can lift your opponent above your head, before slamming them to the mat. It's a system that tries hard to be intuitive, and it's certainly a nice idea, but in practice, we found that it was a little too hit and miss for our liking, as you could never really be sure which move you were about to pull off. While it may well turn out to be one of those "easy to play, impossible to master" type games, we're not convinced that the game is quite as precise as it needs to be. Still, the ability to perform a crotch chop in real life and have your character do it on screen could be a game seller on its own...
The DS, however, is by far the strangest edition of the this year's game, offering a style of gameplay that's so far removed from any wrestling game we've ever seen, we're not sure it can really be classed as such. The actual wrestling in the game has been slowed down to an almost turn-based pace, and is probably best described as a combination of Ouendan, and Advance Wars. If you can imagine such a thing.
Beginning with your wrestler facing your opponent, the game presents you with a number of buttons, placed over different parts of your wrestler's body, which represent various moves. For example, press your wrestler's left hand, and you'll be prompted (by way of a large arrow), to swing your arm at your opponent. Circle over your opponents head, and you'll perform a grapple. However, all the time in the background, your opponent is choosing his move and performing the relevant actions to strike you. This means that if you pick a move that takes a long time to execute, and your opponent picks a short move, he could well beat you to it, and cut off your attack. According to THQ, there are hundreds of individual move trees, which mean that no matches will ever follow the exact same path. If there's one thing that's certain, Smackdown vs Raw DS is one of the strangest games we've ever played - whether it has the depth, or appeal to the WWE's fan base to be successful remains to be seen.
All in all, 2008 is looking to be the defining year of the Smackdown series so far, as the new features, updated roster, and especially, the Superstar Fighting Styles all help to make 2008 feel like a significant progression from last year's game. However, that's not to say we aren't without concern. With so much going on, across so many different platforms, it's going to be a hell of a challenge to keep each game at the lofty standards that fans expect.