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WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW

All right, we don't really care about wrestling any more. But Gary Cutlack does.

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You're going to read two types of review of this, written by two types of people. Type 1 is the rubbish type written by lazy hacks who haven't seen wrestling since ITV stopped showing it in 1988. They will speak in clichés, mentioning men in lycra, thigh-slapping, the fact that it all "looks a bit gay" and will name-check the only two wrestlers they've ever heard of - Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks. Both of those men are dead. This is a Type 2. We know about post-1988 wrestling and can tell the difference between JBL and Garrison Cade by looking at their elbows.

We know that last year's Here Comes the Pain marked the highpoint of THQ's PlayStation2 wrestling efforts, starred the amazing Brock Lesnar and pushed Sony's ageing black slab to new levels of performance. SmackDown! vs. RAW is the same as that. Everything's back, which is good news, and also a marginal disappointment.

The SmackDown! series has always been busting with options. Every match type from the telly, all the pay-per-view oddball fights, the degrading and simultaneously arousing lady fights, the works - it's all in here. Screens and screens of options await, but they did just that in 2003's Here Comes the Pain.

Minor tweaks have been made to sideline features like the wrestlers' entrances to the ring, but seeing Eddie Guerrero driving his car to ringside is hardly an electrifying new experience worth £40. The Bra and Panties matches - where you rip off your female opponent's clothes in what some might call a Violent Rape Mode - is back. Just thinking about it makes us blush.

Can you see what the Japanese men are programming!?

The new stuff in SmackDown! vs. Raw is confined mostly to minor play additions, and even then it's hardly worth writing - or even texting - home about. It's WWE Mini Games Edition, with loads of "Press this now!" and "Quick! Hit a button! Be excited!" diversions added to fill the gaps. Now you enter a slapping contest at the start of a match, or indulge in another button-pressing coordination test to escape a hold.

Nice little ideas, but hardly the sort of groundbreaking innovations that are going to change the way wrestling videogames are thought about and designed for the next decade.

The fighting itself is the same as before. You grab, punch and kick in combination with the D-pad to pull off moves, with each wrestler having an identical stock of actions and a few specific special attacks. It's simple, it's fast, it works and it's accessible to people who wouldn't know a Rock Bottom from a reach-around. You do special moves by pressing a button when the logo comes on the screen. It's that easy. A dog could play it and have fun.

The physics are better now. Ladders and tables do less floating around and don't go through the scenery in such an obvious fashion, plus the PS2-controlled players are more intelligent than before. Now they actually follow the rules of the match you're playing, react to your moves better, get stuck and confused less and offer a bigger challenge.

Developer Yuke's has also added a load of new challenges to add more of a solo test. Now, as if you're playing Tony Hawk, there's a grid of tasks for you to take on. Do a certain move on a certain opponent, use three finishers in a row, do a poo on someone's chest, that kind of thing. This is not a particularly thrilling or innovative addition, but at least they have tried.

Another mini tweak is the chance to be a ‘clean' or ‘dirty' fighter, with an extra little gauge filling up as you progress towards the light or dark side. More powerful attacks, temporary invulnerability and super, super special taunts are available to the full of gauge as a reward.

Can you hear what the man is speaking!?

Oh, and now you hear their voices. Most of the big WWE superstars have recorded dialogue, so now you get to enjoy them awkwardly delivering lines as you hack through the Career game. You'd think this would limit and contract the game's Career mode, but no - it's bigger, more involving and interactive than before.

This follow-a-fighter story game branches off more often, features different plots for key characters, and has your actions taking the plot down different routes. Although there are still plenty of generic, non-specific lines of dialogue ("Ahh! It's you again! I knew you would do this thing again!"), the feeling of following a whole year's worth of WWE programming unfold is quite superb.

It's all very-like-the-telly indeed. PlayStation2 is defying its age to produce incredibly detailed wrestlers, and maker Yuke's has once again captured the look and feel of the superstars perfectly.

Can you see where the cracks are appearing!?

But this game has captured the WWE at a downturn. Last year's Next Big Thing Brock Lesnar has quit and isn't in it. That's a massive loss for his "jogging on the spot" victory celebration alone. Steve Austin isn't here either, nor is the mighty Goldberg. In their place are a collection of charisma-free, cookie-cutter beefcakes that wouldn't set anyone's loins afire with wrestling or homoerotic desire. Like, for example, Mark Jindrak. He's in, even though you wouldn't recognise him if he introduced himself while wearing a "Hi, I'm Mark Jindrak off the wrestling" T-shirt.

So you're left with fading, ageing stars and non-descript newcomers. A sad state of affairs, but one that accurately reflects WWE TV's current flaccid and directionless output.

And the one big saving grace - online play - is a massive letdown. Only two match types are available in link-up mode; standard Singles and Bra & Panties games. That, frankly, is rubbish. Add to this the lack of any ranking or statistics and you're left with a pretty sterile, dull and meaningless online option that hasn't been done properly and therefore shouldn't have been done at all.

Can you read what the reviewer is summarising!?

This isn't SmackDown! vs. Raw. It's last year's SmackDown! with a few mini-games, an updated (and therefore poorer) rota and embarrassingly duff online play. As a wrestling game, though, it's still the best - the fastest, smoothest and most authentic representation of the clenbuterol pantomime. But if you've got Here Comes the Pain (now available for half the price, remember), this near-identical remix is hardly worth the outlay for the mini-innovations it contains. If it was a £4.99 downloadable upgrade, though, it'd be essential. The law of diminishing returns has well and truly smacked the score down.

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7 / 10

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