Reviewing games isn’t as rock and roll as it used to be. These annual updates don’t need much reviewing, seeing as they’re too important for any drastic changes to be made. It’s about protecting the franchise, innit? The easiest thing to do would be to sit down with a nice PowerPoint presentation that points out what’s different this year from last year, then make a few notes.
This year’s presentation on the new stuff in SmackDown! Versus Raw 2006 is the shortest yet. Which is good - PowerPoint presentations suck. But SmackDown! doesn’t.
The easiest bullet point to pick up on is the way it looks and how the wrestlers carry themselves. It’s obviously better. The ring entrances are now two, three or ten times longer, with presentation copying that of the TV shows well. The Undertaker doesn’t just plod to the ring with his music playing. He trots around the walkway, works the crowd, disappears into a haze of smoke and camera flashes (also new and better), taking ages and really milking it.
It’s great to see. At least, it’s great to see once. Then you skip it every time or better still turn the Entrances off completely at the Options screen to save on loading time. Which kind of sums up most of the changes in SmackDown! Versus Raw 2006 - they’re good, but so minor that if you turned them all off you’d be hard pushed to notice any differences at all.
Also fiddled with for no particular reason or benefit is the energy bar system. Last year’s perfectly adequate Clean/Dirty gauge has been dumped in favour of a Stamina and Momentum set up. The idea being to reward players for pacing themselves and to punish lazy skanks who hammer the same move over and over again.
But it doesn’t make much of a difference when you play. Yes the Stamina bar goes one way, the Momentum swings against you and the little bars up top there tell you you’ve apparently got the upper hand, but this isn’t a new feeling - it’s already been happening automatically beneath the surface in SmackDown! games for years.
As ever, SmackDown! is still about simple counter-attacking and momentum building, with novelty match types letting you do it all in a cage or while racing to climb up a ladder.
This year, us lucky people are treated to... a new move! Pressing triangle and circle together pulls off a Power Irish Whip, which is nice, but hardly an exciting new world of innovation. The wrestlers still share virtually all the same basic grappling and attack moves. The end result of your button press may look different depending on who you’re playing as, but once you’ve learned how to wrestle, all the characters - even the sexy Diva ladies in their lovely bras - are controlled with the same set of button presses.
It’s not up there with Virtua Fighter 4 or even Pit Fighter on the Nokia 6680 when it comes to depth and realism. Which is why those entrances and the convincing wrestler faces are so very important. If it wasn’t for the look of the thing, the façade of being ‘in’ the WWE would crumble away completely.
The online aspect has seen a large retooling, for the benefit of the 20 people likely to bother trying it. Most of the match types are playable online now, four people can dish out pretend violence at the same time and it’s possible to trade created wrestlers - so now the world can see your anatomically correct Carol Vorderman.
But when playing on your own there’s... exactly as much to do as there was in last year’s game. A few new backstage areas have been added to fight in, a handful of new match types are available (including the Buried Alive match, which is only marginally different from the old Casket match so kind of a letdown in the end), and there’s the joy of the Fulfill Your Fantasy Diva-stripping game; that’s just a new name for the Bra and Panties match from last year, so don’t get too excited. The aim is still to virtually molest your female opponent by playing rough and tearing her clothes off, only now there’s a bed and cushions up on stage so it looks more like she’s consenting to it.
There’s also a minor sprinkling of new wrestlers, but not many to bother TXT-ing UR home about. ‘The Masterpiece’ Chris Masters is in, ‘Useless’ Eugene (we made that nickname for him up ourselves) and a few other charisma-free new guys make up a lacklustre collection of mostly familiar faces. It’s a disappointing roster, but then so is the WWE’s these days.
The Career game is the same as it ever was, except now twice as long - and it’s still your usual tame WWE story with backstage cut-scenes and the odd bit of American slapstick comedy. It’s slow, big and not particularly thrilling, but remains a good enough way to give single players lots of matches to fight for ages.
So, those are the new things. As for old stuff making a comeback, well, there’s loads of it, good and bad. The poor old PlayStation 2 still isn’t capable of recreating even the basic intelligence of an average wrestler (about the same level as a dog, only with a slightly larger vocabulary). So when fighting a PS2-controlled wrestler, expect to catch them attacking empty spaces, endlessly climbing in and out of the ring, messing up with weapons and falling over. It’s pretty poor on occasion.
The line-up of ‘Classic’ old wrestlers is familiar too, the moves are virtually unchanged, and it’s all very much the same as it was before. Which means it looks polished and authentic, it plays in the same simple, semi-automatic fashion, and there’s a load to do especially if you’re a member of an active multiplayer ‘crew’.
But it is starting to spread itself a bit thin. If the SmackDown! series doesn’t start making proper innovations instead of these minor cosmetic tweaks year after year, there’s every chance we’ll get a little bored of it. For now, though, SmackDown! is still as good as wrestling games can get. And probably meant for kids.