Name: WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, Nintendo Wii, PSP, DS (Reviewed on the Nintendo DS)
WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 for the Nintendo DS hoped to improve on the previous year’s release, which felt more like a turn based RPG than a wrestling game. Players would pick their attacks and watch the events unfold in an entirely unenthusiastic manner, but the developers still received some respect for trying something different with the series. This year moves the series in the right direction, but still remains too gimmicky for casual gamer consumption.
Wrestling combat is much improved, and instead of choosing attacks from a menu players actually use the touch screen and D-Pad to fight Tapping on the opponent executes basic attacks and drawing circles initiates a grapple. It’s accurate and responsive enough, but the problem isn’t really the touch screen itself, but poor implementation of touch screen controls. Tose Software took two steps forward and one step back when trying to create intuitive controls by simplifying them to a Super Nintendo level. Because the developers limited themselves to swipes across the screen to throw an opponent against the ropes they left out other important maneuvers, stripping the game down to a bare-bones fighter without any of the depth of the console versions. Like a launch title, it seems like the touch screen is being used because its there, and the game would be drastically better if attacks were mapped to the buttons instead.
The controls bring out another issue with the game – speed. Each match goes by slowly, and it feels almost like a rehearsal for an actual wrestling match. The graphics are nice enough, but the animations just seem clunky. Wrestlers will slowly pick up their opponents, who seem all too comfortable with the action, and slowly drop them onto the ground, where they will slowly get to their feet. Because the controls are so awkward it’s hard to keep momentum going, and the game feels like it’s moving at ½ the speed it should.
Surprisingly, despite the faults with the gameplay mechanics themselves, WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 comes complete with many features usually missing from most handheld ports. There’s a fairly in-depth character creator, several different Match Types (such as table, hardcore, and cage matches), and a full career mode that features as many RPG elements as it does wrestling ones. The problem is that none of these modes are good enough to make up for the slow combat and terribly simplistic controls.
By changing the game to more of a true wrestling game and less of a turn-based RPG, the developers definitely took a step in the right direction. Wrestling fans don’t really want innovation if it gets in the way of controls, and I don’t think anyone could blame them. There are over two dozen different characters and plenty of modes, but none mask the issues in the game design enough to justify picking this up. Hopefully next year, SmackDown vs. Raw will completely remove the faulty control scheme, turning the portable version into a true handheld experience worthy of purchase, but as of now it's like a Mae Young Frog Splash; awkward, ugly, and unlikely to be seen in my living room.