Name: WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2009
Genre: Pro Wrestling
Platform: Xbox 360, PS2, PS3, Wii, DS, PSP (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
Last year, in my review of WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2008, I called for Yuke’s to do for wrestling games what EA did for skateboarding games with its revolutionary title, Skate. For too long, wrestling fans have been playing essentially the same game with new rosters and one or two new features every year. While none of the SvR games could be classified as “bad,” there hasn’t been any real innovation in the series since the 1990s. I and many other gamers had hoped that this year, THQ would give us a WWE experience that would change the way we see wrestling games. Sadly, that hasn’t happened, and instead, we’re treated a highly polished, gorgeous looking rehash of the same old game that includes plenty of new features, as well as plenty of the same old issues. It may be the best entry in the series to date, but there’s no mistaking its lineage.
WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 features over 65 WWE Superstars competing in over 55 different match types. All the major stars, like John Cena, Triple H, and Randy Orton, are present, as well as lesser-known wrestlers, like Festus, Jimmy Wang Yang and Kofi Kingston. For the first time in the series, WWE Legends are nowhere to be found. This is due to the impending release of WWE Legends of Wrestlemania, which will feature Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Stone Cold Steve Austin and others. With so many Superstars and Divas selectable, the omission is excusable. Pretty much every match type one can imagine (with the exception of the always exciting “Buried Alive” match) is here, including the new Inferno Match. This deranged match type pits wrestlers against each other in a ring with flaming ropes. Each attack you perform on you opponent raises the temperature of the flames from its starting point of 180 degrees. When enough attacks have been registered to get the flames up to 300, wrestlers can finish their opponents by dragging them close to the ropes. It’s not the most technically demanding match type, but it’s a decent enough addition to the usual assortment of TLC, Hell in the Cell and Royal Rumble matches.
Fans of the series’ story mode (or last year’s 24/7 mode) will be surprised at the way it’s handled this year, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. No longer are you able to create a character and guide him or her through a laughably scripted, poorly voiced WWE campaign. Instead, created characters (as well as most of the rest of the roster) can be guided through a cut-scene-free career mode. Instead of making decisions about who to team up with, or which Diva to choose as your manager, you simply wrestle the next match on the schedule, build up your attributes, and try to win belts. It works fine, but the lack of any sort of plot or storytelling is a mixed blessing. Not following your character’s introduction and initiation into the WWE makes it harder to care as much about your fighter, but not having to sit through awful, nonsensical drivel between matches is something of a relief. If you really miss the aforementioned drivel, you’ll want to try the Road to Wrestlemania mode. In this mode, you choose to play as Triple H, John Cena, Chris Jericho, The Undertaker, or CM Punk, or play a co-op story featuring Batista and Rey Mysterio. Each story is completely different, and they are all surprisingly coherent and in some cases, pretty damn entertaining. Personalizing the story mode marks a huge improvement for the franchise over the shoehorned-to-fit-your-character plots of previous iterations, and it’s a feature I hope the series never abandons. There is a tournament mode as well, which is best experienced online with a group of friends.
Of all the existing game modes, only Tag Team matches have seen any real change. This year introduces the “Hot Tag;” a staple of the real Pro Wrestling world wherein a healthy competitor mops the floor with his opponents after being tagged in by his wounded teammate. In SvR 2009, the ineligible wrestler holds down on the D-pad to build up his Hot Tag meter, and once he’s tagged in, he can clear the ring with a few well-timed button presses. This new mechanic, along with the ability to blind tag your teammate against his wishes, make for a much more strategic experience
Without a full-featured, robust character creation suite, it just wouldn’t be Smackdown vs. Raw, and 2009 is no exception. All the layer editing, face morphing and apparel customizing you’ve come to expect is still here, and it’s as hearty as ever. That’s right, you can create just about any kind of wrestler, superhero, movie character, or disfigured mental patient you can think of. Created wrestlers look better than ever this year, due in part to an increase in both quality and quantity of 3D accessories. Jackets, long hairstyles, capes and dresses flow and drape more realistically than ever, making custom wrestlers look and move more like the rest of the roster. Create-A-Belt, introduced four years ago, is no longer included. Instead, a new Create-A-Finisher mode has been added, allowing you to create your own devastating special move. The interface for this new mode leaves something to be desired, and the number of available move components are limited, and often don’t flow well together. The mode needs a lot of work, and serves as little more than a brief distraction this year, but with a few more modifications, it could become a necessary and enjoyable staple of wrestling simulators in general. To finalize your created characters, you’ll likely want to create your own ring entrance. This is an option that has grown and developed nicely over the years, and is now nearly as robust as character creation, with customizable pyrotechnics, multiple camera angles, and tons of different walking styles to choose from, as well as the ability to create custom entrances for tag-teams.
Perhaps the coolest new feature in SvR 2009 is the Highlight Reel; a miniature video editing suite. This allows you to capture clips up to 30 seconds long, from any match, and edit them together with multiple camera angles, transitional effects, sound effects, camera filters, graphics, speech, and music. You can even use music that’s saved on your Xbox 360’s hard drive, and create a virtual DVD case for your highlights when you’re done. The feature is surprisingly deep and functional, and should be a perennial inclusion for the series, as well as just about every other fighting game out there.
Visually, SvR 2009 continues the long tradition of excellence the series is known for. Character models are among the best in gaming, with incredibly detailed skin textures, completely convincing facial renders, realistic sweat and blood, and silky smooth animations throughout. As always, there are clipping and collision detection issues, as well as wrestlers morphing into position for certain moves, but these hiccups seem to be less prevalent than before. There is still no dynamic adjustment for grapple moves, meaning that a perfectly normal back suplex becomes a bizarre, grotesque move against heavier opponents, where the attacker’s arms end up well inside the opponent’s torso. Still, the game looks and sounds better than ever; there is even some improvement shown in the voiceover work by the announcers, especially in the Road to Wrestlemania mode.
While WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2009 doesn’t reinvent the genre, it may be the best game in the series. Wrestling fans shouldn’t feel conflicted about which wrestling title to pick up; it’s no contest. Despite its visuals and innovation, TNA Impact’s rookie effort can’t compare with the time-tested formula behind the Smackdown series. It’s certainly not a perfect game, but it’s an excellent wrestling experience overall, and one that no fan of the pseudo-sport should miss.