Chris Benoit is the best technical wrestler alive today. Stone Cold was better than the Rock. And the Big Show will kick Hogan's wrinkly old arse at Wrestlemania 23.
The amount you are either shaking or nodding your head directly relates to how relevant this review is to you. Because, let's face it, people who don't like wrestling don't play wrestling games. While this is true of most sport genres, even people who don't like football will have some idea of the rules should they find themselves in front of a copy of Pro Evo. The rules of wrestling are much harder to figure out. And I'm not talking about ones like "throwing a 350 pound guy around the ring is child's play compared to the extreme exertion required to climb a ladder". The sort of silly but fun rules that make perfect sense to a fan, but will just cause others to say, "he's been hit in the head with a sledgehammer! Why isn't he dead?"
Unfortunately for wrestling fans, they don't seem to quite know what they want in a wrestling game. Look at message boards for this [actually, don't, if you value your sanity - Ed], the latest in THQ's long running Smackdown series, and you'll see complaints along the line's of: "wot der's no legend cage in dis one? this sux the game is going downhill im not getting is dis yer!" And on the other hand, you have the fans who actually do care about the gameplay complaining that no wrestling game will ever be as good as No Mercy so THQ shouldn't even bother. So who do they try and please? The fan that wants good gameplay, or the (seemingly more numerous) fans that just want every type of match and option possible.
Their solution has been to create two series and evolve them along those lines... the Smackdown series on the PlayStation has more and more options added to it every year, and Day of Reckoning series on the GameCube concentrated on turning itself into a No Mercy beater. Unfortunately, with the GameCube all but dead, we are left with just Smackdown, now also on the Xbox 360. Who has Yuke's tried to please here?
The first thing to note is the range of options. It really is staggering. You can play almost any type of match conceivable, including the Elimination Chamber and the new-for-this-year Money In The Bank match (essentially a ladder match for six people). Most matches can be tweaked from the norm (i.e. whether you can pin or not in a cage match), and the depth means you'll spend ages just trying all the different permutations.
The roster is also impressively large. People will complain about some surprising omissions (such as the super umpy flippy London & Kendrick - the WWE Tag Team Champions, as well as all the Spirit Squad), but it's still far bigger than the DOR series. There's also a healthy selection of legends for people who stopped watching wrestling five years ago (Rock, Austin, as well as Mankind, Cactus Jack and Dude Love which, combined with the regular Mick in the standard roster, means that you can have a Foley Four Way and annoy your friends by using that pun over and over again); there even a health selection if you stopped watching ten years ago (Bret Hart), or longer (Hogan, Piper, and some interesting new legends like "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes). The story mode is also pretty good. The superstars all provide voiceovers, and the different scenarios are all WWE-believable. All in all, if we're talking about people to play as and things to do with them, you are well served.
Online is pretty good too. There's some minor slowdown when you have lots of people fighting, but there's a good range of match types available, and you can be a sneaky bugger too. I was playing a Triple Threat match when the ref got knocked down. I immediately ran outside, picked up a chair, ran in the ring and blatted one of my opponents with it. I then dropped the chair. The other guy picked it up, just at the point the ref was waking up. He hit me with the chair, got disqualified, and I won the match. Very WWE. I should also mention that there's a good range of achievements, if that's your bag. (I haven't got most of them, but that's because I suck, obviously.)
As for the core gameplay itself... well, they've certainly tried this year. The grapple system has been changed so that it's all on the analogue stick. This isn't quite the representation of human movement that Tiger Woods and Fight Night offer, but it does allow for snappier matches. Quick flicks do light grapples, while holding down RB combined with the stick makes your wrestler perform stronger, but slower and more easily countered moves. The ability to actually use parts of the scenery in the match is also very welcome. Drag your opponent to the steps outside the ring and you can smack their head against them. Drag them to the turnbuckle and you'll mount them and start doing the 10-punch thing that Hogan used to do so well. It all helps to make you feel move involved, and less like you are just watching pre-set animations run through their course.
That problem does still exist to a certain degree though. Getting Rey Mysterio to do his 619 and West Coast Pop moves in the DOR series involves you having to actually knock your opponent onto the ropes with a punch or kick, run at them and time your special successfully, and then get on the apron and jump on top of them. To do the same move in SvsR you have to get a special and then press LB. Which you prefer will come down to how much control you prefer to have, but despite a lot of improvements in this area SvsR can still sometimes feel like watching, rather than playing.
The controls also still feel a bit spongy. If your partner is getting pinned and you run in to break it up, your opponent responds to getting kicked by just letting go of your partner and standing up. There's a lack of contact that pervades throughout. If two wrestlers are in the middle of an animation, it's impossible to stop it. While it's true that wrestlers in real life seem very willing to let other guys in the ring go through their routines without interruption, it's also true that it does sometimes happen. You can hit RVD with a chair as he's doing a frog splash in DOR, so why can't you here?
The entrances are a good example of what's wrong with the series. They look fantastic. Mr Kennedy saunters in, grabs the mike, and announces himself. Pick HBK and Triple H as a tag team and they'll come out to their DX music. They're amazing. And you'll only watch them a handful of times before you'll skip them in order to get to the match. The amount of effort is impressive, but misplaced, which applies to the series as a whole. I would love for Yuke's to do the same thing that I've always wanted EA and Konami to do - combine their best efforts. DOR is like Pro Evo - the gameplay is the most important thing, but there's an almost arrogant attitude to the trimmings. They may be less important, but that doesn't mean they have no importance at all. Smackdown vs RAW is the wrestling FIFA - drowning in customisable settings, but the gameplay isn't always completely there. However, like FIFA, SvsR has made some admirable steps this year. Let's hope next year, when there isn't a PS2 version to use as a lowest common denominator format, Yuke's will let rip and show us what the next-gen can really do.
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