Ladies and gentleman, making its way to the ring, weighing in at around twenty-five English Pounds, the current undisputed wrestling game champion…. the one, the only, WWE Smackdown Vs Raw 2009!
As the bell rings what can we expect from this little encounter?
Looking at the box we are promised “high-impact double team moves and new bone-crunching tag team finishers,” “an innovative user interface” to “design the most devastating finisher ever” and the new “inferno match” alongside an “all new season mode.”
Like other sports games the promise of a new season is something that really should be expected and not something that warrants the ‘wow factor’ of a shiny new feature, which is probably my main gripe about the game, and indeed the series as a whole. Sure WWE Smackdown Vs Raw 2009 (a less than catchy title) brings some new moves to the table, and sometimes through the table too, but it would be nice to have seen something a bit more innovative.
The new inferno match disappoints and appears to solely involve beating up your opponent until the temperature gauge reaches a certain level and attempting to strong grapple your opponent into the flames. Unfortunately it soon becomes a bit repetitive as your opponent wriggles free of his hot destiny for the seventh time in a pre-scripted animation leaving you wondering what you have to do to make them burn before boredom makes you throw yourself into the fire just to end the match.
An innovative user interface appears to be so entirely devoid of innovation as to be invisible. Although for a user interface to be not noticed at all is probably as compliment. Graphically the game is a good, with strong likenesses for all of the superstars and the created wrestlers are not noticeably different.
But what about online? The future of gaming?
Surely the people who watch this brilliant soap opera of pre-rehearsed moves and choreographed matches would be falling over themselves to utilize the “Highlights Reel” feature to create some truly entertaining matches? So, with a newly-created wrestler all set-up, complete with a dramatic entrance made from the ‘Create An Entrance’ mode, which is simple if a little low on the customization options especially the music range which is very limited, I await the attribute allocation screen to tailor my wrestler; an unsavory grungy ninja, but am disappointed to discover that in order for him to increase from his rating of 35 to nearer the standard of the most pathetic superstar (starting at around rating 83) you need to slog through dozens of matches in the Career Mode. With each match rewarding only a couple of points per match, some gamers will soon be calling it quits at rating 54. Not everyone will want to create a customer wrestler but those who do will be rewarded with a rich array of moves and appearance options which, whilst making the whole process fairly time consuming, is richly rewarding.
One nice feature to keep the player from simply blasting through the Career Mode in as quick a time as possible is the inclusion of challenges that unlock after hitting certain criteria; using a weapon a certain amount of times or being made to bleed but still winning the fight, for example. Additionally you could also unlock certain skills to enhance your wrestler, some being more difficult to stumble across than others. These include new abilities such as being able to make new moves or utilize weapons more effectively via grappling.
The match mechanics are a little inconsistent however, based on a well balanced foundation of timing your actions, be they attacking or countering. Unfortunately the AI, whilst initially embarrassingly incompetent, will suddenly become super effective at countering your every move later in the career stages no matter how unpredictable your attacks are. You might soon find yourself turning off disqualifications and going outside looking for a hammer just to even up the odds.
Being able to choose a pre-set name for your custom made finishing move which the commentators will use during the match is a nice touch which helps the realism, although the crowd response is a little watery and sometimes feels a bit mis-timed. With a little thought the game could be made much more crowd interactive than it is currently, a key mechanism in the entertainment value of the WWE.
Back to the multi player, with The Ninja tooled up with a few special skills, a nasty looking finisher from the ’Create A Finisher’ mode, I take to the XBox Live arena hoping to have a nice theatrical fight and some entertaining chair shots whilst possibly making a few Hot-Tags in the process (recreating classic tag-team moments with a pre-animated sequence that requires the correct button to be pressed at when prompted in order to clear the ring of your opponents). Unfortunately when I find my way online, what I find is what I sincerely hoped I would not find…
Online I immediately join a four man free-for-all and last approximately two minutes with my underrated wrestler. Being completely obliterated by young children with super ranked up uber-wrestlers who have programmed in the most effective moves to enable them to win was not my idea of fun, and being made to watch the remainder of the fight or risk being labeled with dropping out wasn’t great either. The following matches all followed a similar path only made worse by some killer lag which meant my wrestler responded long after I instructed him to move/punch etc.
I pleaded with my opponents to just have a fun match of violence and not worry about the result but found myself demolished time and time again by ultra competitive gamers, even in non-ranked matches. I had sincerely hoped that the online experience would have been all about entertaining and not competing but this just doesn’t seem the case, which is a shame because the Highlight Reel feature is both simple and enjoyable to use.
So, with a heavy heart you might find your way back to the one player and set about bolstering your wrestler to a higher rating. The fact of the matter is this, if you’ve played one of the games in this series you will know exactly what to expect from this episode. The ever present loading screens which have dogged the series since its inception are disappointingly still far too lengthy although there is the option to speed things up a little by turning off the entrances.
Whilst the Road to Wrestlemania story mode is nicely done with custom commentary (which in general is of a pretty low standard with far too much repetition but made more interesting with the addition of storyline specific dialogue) I can only recommend this game to those die-hard wrestling fans who want the up-to-date rosters. For those new to the series I would recommend picking up a previous year for a nicely discounted price (series such as this are notoriously bad at holding their value) and see what you think before buying new.
Reviewer’s note: The Xbox 360 version was tested for this review
Strong visuals with some innovative new features, still feels somewhat recycled from previous iterations.
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Some elements of innovation, mixed with the same old song and dance leads to an essentially positive mixed bag.
More often than not the voice over work is impressive and a soild soundtrack.
A decent length of time to complete the Wrestlemania arc, as well as a long (perhaps tedious) Superstar career mode.
A solid experience, great for a newcomer to wrestling games, but overlookable if you have played past games of the series.