Now here's a weird thing. We didn't really rate SmackDown! Versus Raw 2006 on PS2 very highly a few months ago. "More of the same" we moaned endlessly, because we've been reviewing these things for about seven years now, and it was, literally, more of the same with minor tweaks that even its mother would find hard to spot. "Not enough new stuff" we also whined like spoiled babies, thanks to a minimal number of new wrestlers and a tweaked energy bar system that wasn't really as good as the one in the previous year's game. Change for the sake of it, was the harsh summary.
But there's a but! Everything has turned out OK! This is SmackDown! Versus Raw's happy ending! Because on PSP it all seems so much better. Maybe it's due to us having lower expectations of PSP games, what with them often being inferior PS2 conversions. Because the most amazing thing about PSP SmackDown! isn't the play, or the look, or the Wi-Fi local link-up stuff, or the PS2 USB connectivity, it's the way all this comes together to give you an enhanced game for PSP that's markedly better than the PS2 original. This is not some feature-light, stripped down cheapo version for the handheld boshed out by some third-party developer in an Indonesian code shop - there's more in here than there was in the PlayStation2 game.
You can play it in ad-hoc link mode for starters, although 'proper' online play through whatever network you've got is sadly missing. There's also much more 'new stuff' - an Arcade section lets you play bewildering card games between WWE stars, there's a WWE trivia challenge, mini-games and more. They're all a bit on the crap side if we're being our harsh-but-honest selves, but are decent enough diversions for a mobile game that needs lots of short-burst play options.
What you also get here is a slight glimpse into THE FUTURE OF ALL GAMES. With a USB lead you can connect it to your PS2, load up SmackDown! on both Sony machines and download your progress through the Season mode and play it on the go. That's very, very cool, and even the gigantic but rather dull General Manager 'You Are The WWE Boss' mode has been shovelled in, giving you something slower to play when, say, being buffeted around on a manky bus and unable to fight properly.
I'll quickly do a couple of paragraphs about it plays, just in case you're not familiar with the age-old, never-changing SmackDown! style. You punch, kick and grapple, with on-screen prompts telling you when to counter and pointing out how to use your special moves. It's the most straightforward and accessible fighting game there is, thanks to characters that all share similar attacks and finishing moves. Once you've learned one wrestler, you've learned them all.
The Christmas 2005 PS2 update saw a tweaking to the energy bar system that purported to alter the momentum of a fight and give you more control over your stamina, but in reality made little difference to how the game worked. You still punch away, throw like mad, try to get yourself a chair or ladder, then go for the finishing move and pin your opponent for the win. It's about wearing down your opponent through positioning and endless head-battering rather than memorising combos, and when you've got one eye on battery life or are playing it in your cigarette break on company time, that's exactly what you need on PSP.
This simplistic combat seems more at home on a handheld. At home, on your big telly, in your posh lounge when you're settling down for an evening of play, hammering X (strike) and Circle (grapple) endlessly, over and over again starts to seem a little dull after the third or fourth hour. Also, the endless yearly sequels have taken some of the shine off the series recently. But SmackDown! suits PSP. It really does.
They probably should've ditched the ring entrances, mind, as it takes an age to get into a game. Given PSP's not exactly incredible game-loading skills, actually starting a match is something of a chore. Your ring entrances and eventual match all take a good while to kick in and make the poor little PSP whirr and grind away for ages. There's also the odd pause during play as the disc accesses some important data or other, resulting in the occasional jarring halt to the action. It's rare, but a curious little flaw nonetheless.
It doesn't quite have the same look of PS2 SmackDown! either. It's very close in style, but the characters are a little more spindly, the crowd flatter and more sparse, the great lighting and lens flare effects have been ditched. You can also see more glitching as the camera wobbles through corner posts and the ring floor too, but the atmosphere is there. It's not as polished, but it still works. Close-ups of the wrestlers show that there's not much critical detail missing from them at all, with brightly-dressed posers like Hulk Hogan in his red and yellow playsuit shining out of the PSP's lovely little screen.
But it's all about the content. This is a rare PSP game that's not a poor translation of a PS2 flop from four years ago, or a disappointingly crippled version for the handheld. It's a spot-on, virtually perfect miniature version of the PS2 smash - and one that's arriving on the console only a few months later with loads of extra features in tow. It looks nearly the same, plays exactly the same, and if you connect it to your PS2 via USB cable and download your saved game data, it actually is the same. Quite an amazing achievement, and for WWE fans wanting a mobile SmackDown! it's just about perfect.
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