Much like the Madden NFL and NHL series, WWE video games have a tendency to suffer from “incremental-itis.” This little-known (because I just made it up) affliction affects games with annual iterations, and results from repeated new versions of a game that feature tiny, incremental improvements instead of sweeping changes. Despite the disease’s minor effect on games’ review scores, it doesn’t seem to have any detrimental consequences from a financial standpoint. WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2010 is certainly a carrier of the disease, but there are enough new features and improvements to suggest a better prognosis for the future.
As a professional wrestling game, WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2010 focuses on in-ring wrestling action. Controlling your wrestler hasn’t changed much from last year, or five years ago, for that matter. The right stick controls grapples, with the right bumper acting as a “Power” modifier, and strikes are performed with the X button. Last year’s countering system has been replaced with a single button that blocks both strikes and grapples, making the game a little more counter-happy than before. The other big change to the control scheme is the way Royal Rumble matches are handled. Royal Rumbles include up to 30 WWE Superstars in the ring at once, all trying to throw each over the top rope to eliminate each other. Depending on where you try to eject your opponent from these matches, a different button-pressing mini-game is initiated. Win the mini-game, and out goes your enemy. It’s a great gameplay mechanic that solves a problem that the series has had for years, and adds an element of frantic competition to head-to-head and single player matches.
WWE games are known for their excellent character models. They’re also known for the heavy clipping and collision detection problems to which those excellent character models are subject. Sadly, history repeats itself with SvR 2010, and we’re once again treated to highly-detailed, well-animated, remarkably lifelike characters whose arms, legs, and heads frequently pass through each other and clip into the ring and other environmental elements. Most wrestling fans are used to this by now, but it still makes the game feel dated, and in serious need of a physics overhaul. Overall, though, the game looks very good in motion. Every wrestling move in the game is faithful to its real-world counterpart, including signature moves like Rey Mysterio's "619" and the Undertaker’s "Tombstone Piledriver," and they all feel as powerful as they should. Lighting and pyro effects are prevalent, especially during wrestler intros, and look better than ever. Outside the ring, SvR 2010 features a slick, polished look with an all-new menu that’s appealing and intuitive, and a minimalist in-game user interface that forces players to keep an eye on their opponents’ body language instead of a health bar.
By far the weakest point in the game’s presentation is its audio. For years, the franchise has suffered from poorly recorded voice acting and a general feeling of auditory emptiness, and this year may be the worst example yet. Superstars generally read their lines well, and, believe it or not, they’re often very funny. The problem is that each wrestler sounds like they were recorded in a different room using different equipment. Some voices sound like they’re from a professional recording studio while others seem to have been recorded in a locker room, outside, or in a car. None of them, however, sound like they were recorded in a wrestling arena. Crowds, which look great, have a tendency to sound disinterested, especially during in-ring promo spots. They will, however, chant your wrestler’s name, even created characters who use one of about 40 pre-recorded nicknames, which is undeniably cool. The ringside announcing teams do a better job than last year. You’ll hear significantly fewer repeated lines during a match, and in career mode, the announcers’ statements match up to specific moments.
Perhaps more than ever before, this year’s WWE game is focused on customization. Say what you will about Smackdown vs. Raw’s gameplay; it’s among the most customizable franchises in the industry. Create-A-Superstar and Create-A-Moveset, longtime staples of the series, are present and more robust than ever. A new highlight video creator allows custom characters to show their own videos during their customizable ring entrance; a feature that should make custom junkies extremely happy. Players can even make changes to existing Superstars’ ring attire, though only in the color of their apparel. By far the biggest addition, and likely the best reason to recommend the game, is the all-new Story Editor. By placing and modifying different events and matches on the calendar, players can plot continuing storylines that last up to a decade. Every event can be customized, with options for participants, camera angles, location, mood, dialogue, and, in the case of matches, special conditions for victory. It’s astonishingly deep, especially for a feature in its first year, and a lot of fun. After creation, stories can be uploaded to THQ’s servers and shared with friends and strangers, creating an essentially unlimited amount of content.
For those lacking a creative streak, this year’s Road to Wrestlemania mode offers a surprisingly entertaining and well-structured narrative that does a great job of mirroring the melodrama, humor, and ridiculousness of pro wrestling storylines. There are only a few major stars with their own unique storyline, but any created character can be taken through a genuinely funny, entertaining story full of betrayal, redemption, and Vince McMahon’s oppressive ownership. There’s also an exhibition mode where you’ll be able to pit any of the 40+ Superstars against each other in one of over sixty match types, as well as a career mode that’s basically the Road to Wrestlemania without any of the story elements. Once you get tired of the computer’s sub-par AI, 50 of the exhibition modes are available for play online, as well, allowing up to 4 friends to get together to beat the holy hell out of each other. Online 4-player matches tend to get very hectic and crazy, but in a good way. In addition to storylines, created wrestlers, finishing moves and screenshots can be shared online, meaning that any old-time wrestlers that were left off the roster will likely be available for download soon.
With the exception of some control tweaks, the pro wrestling genre has remained pretty much unchanged this decade, but Smackdown! vs. Raw 2010 represents the most successful use of the somewhat stale formula. A lot of lingering problems exist, though, and to be honest, the game isn’t close to the massive overhaul that the genre is in need of, but players who have grown used to the collision, AI, and clipping issues will likely enjoy this iterations slightly tighter gameplay, and most customization fans will probably lose their freaking minds over the immense creation suites. It’s easily the best game in the series, and well worth playing, but one has to wonder how many more times THQ can get away with ever-so-slightly improving what is, essentially, the same game.