WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW - It's Gonna Be A Slobberknocker

November 24, 2008

THQ’s Smackdown series has been laying it down ever since the days of Blasto, but lately the franchise has gone through some hard knocks. Uninspired yearly releases glittered with marginal improvements haven’t exactly been kind to the brand, and neither has the engine, which has aged about as well as Hulk Hogan. Attempting to prove the series isn’t down for the count just yet, Smackdown vs Raw 2009 enters the ring with a toned-up list of features. Is this ring vet a headliner once again?

The Smackdown vs Raw series has straddled the line between arcade and simulation, and 2009 is no different. This time the features are a little more substantial and the fat has been trimmed, with irrelevancies like GM mode kicked out to the curb. Road to Wrestlemania stands as the replacement--a single-player story mode following the exploits of six separate grapplers.

The campaign story lines are amusing, and vary from wrestler to wrestler, with each written and designed specifically for that particular superstar. Each match leading up to the end-of-the-year slobberknocker comes with a set of conditions that need to be met, sometimes with bonus conditions that tease with unlockable content and features, like bonus costumes, wrestlers, and oddly enough, the ability to summon Hornswoggle from under the ring. The campaigns are lengthy and the bonus incentives are plenty, with just the right amount of that good ol’ WWE cheese to keep things entertaining.

The sixth cooperative Road to Wrestlemania campaign, featuring Batista and Rey Mysterio, is unique in that it takes advantage of the newly revamped tag-team system. Cronies can now team up for cooperative maneuvers, be involuntary swapped out with the forced tag, or turn the tables with the explosive hot tag. These tweaks give those on the outside of the ropes something to do to affect the outcome of each match.

Other new features this year include a new match type, the fiery inferno match. There’s also a streamlined career mode with automated stat progression, and two notable additions in the create-a-superstar mode: create a finisher, and highlight reel, which allows players to save 30-second chunks of gameplay and edit them together. These ambitious modes come with their expected share of limitations, but the modes provide just enough tools to create some hilarious results.

Rounding it all out is the requisite online multiplayer, with leader boards, ranked matches, and shareable highlight reels. Future DLC down the pipeline promises to update 09’s expansive roster with new talent, as well as special events to tie-in with the TV show to keep the game as up-to-date as possible. Paired with the list of improvements, additions, and excisions made this year, Smackdown vs Raw 2009 is definitely packing.

The wrestling engine has changed quite a bit over the years, but the core mechanics of striking, grappling, and pulling off ringside acrobatics remain intact. Everything else has seen some minor adjustments.

The superstar fighting styles touted last year, now live on as abilities. Some, like lockpick, act as defense, allowing you to break out of submission holds with ease. Meanwhile, others like hammer throw add an extra oomph to your Irish whips. Unlocking these abilities is based on completing specific objectives like kicking out of a pin a certain amount of times. Once you get them, though, they can be mixed and matched to your heart’s content. What you pick before the match could very well make the difference, so scrounging around for these tricky talents are a worthwhile time sink.

The tag team improvements usually work in action, especially when it comes time to pull off cooperative maneuvers. A new auto-targeting system takes some guesses at who you’re aiming to clobber, and though not perfect, you can fall back on the manual targeting as well.

All of these tweaks carry over into online play, which is still, unfortunately, a bit hit or miss--literally. Frequent lag leads to some clotheslines that careen off-course, and reversals are just as much a shot in the dark. Thankfully, some abilities help account for the differences in latency, just don’t expect things to go as planned when four players get thrown into mix.

Overall, Smackdown vs Raw 2009’s wrestling system maintains a good bit of familiarity while stretching its legs in a few areas. Though still largely the same as past iterations, a newfound investment in abilities and tag-team mechanics add some depth to each match.

Smackdown vs Raw 2009 boasts some serviceable visuals, though the jittery transitions between animations and some off-looking divas cast a shadow. The wrestler models hold a good resemblance to their real-life counterparts, but they’re largely recycled from last year. The same goes for the animation. And yes, clipping is still a problem, but we’re beginning to wonder if this will ever be fixed in wrestling games. The presentation just hasn’t seen much of an improvement, and the generic thrash metal entrance and menu themes don’t do much to fix it. It’s not a bad looking game, but it’s no looker, either.

This year may go down as the year of change, and WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2009 isn’t going to hurt its chances. It’s a solid entry for the series, with more notable innovations and improvements than the last couple games in the series. No molds are broken, but maybe next year it’ll come through with a solid TKO.