We’re just going to have to accept that THQ and Yuke’s, the publisher and developer of the WWE Smackdown Vs. Raw series, aren’t going to make sweeping change to the core of their wrestling games. For years, reviewers have decried the series’ clipping, targeting, and collision detection issues, as well as its reliance on a slightly modified grappling system that’s been in use for more than half a decade. The series has sold over 50 million copies since its inception, though, and with a one-year development cycle, Yuke’s is perpetually on a tight schedule, so I understand THQ’s reluctance to change anything in a big way. Fortunately, the game’s other aspects, like its many customization options, game modes, and presentation, see improvements and innovation every year, and this year is no exception.
WWE Smackdown Vs. Raw 2011 is the eleventh entry in the Smackdown!/Smackdown Vs. Raw series. Once again, the game presents a simulation of pro wrestling, with every match type, pay-per-view arena, and WWE personality represented. This year’s model includes the largest roster of WWE Superstars to date, with over 70 wrestlers available, as well as supplementary personalities, like ring announcers, managers, referees, and commentators.
SVR 2011 does a good job representing the in-ring action, but still suffers from the same issues that have held it back from being an elite game for years. A modified grappling system makes its first appearance this year, and it marks a minor improvement over last year’s. Instead of holding down a button to modify a grapple into a strong grapple, a new contextual system has been implemented. This system rewards players damaging their foes by opening up more powerful moves against groggy opponents, making matches flow more realistically. A few other new elements have been added, such as the ability to drag opponents into strategic spots, and the ability to aim suplexes and slams. This aiming system works in tandem with the new physics system to make it easier to put opponents through tables or toss them out of the ring. The system works better than it ever has, but it’s still a bit wonky, and can be frustrating. Still, it’s cool to perform a fisherman’s suplex and have the victim fly into his tag team partner, sending both to the ground.
Almost every type of match one can imagine can be simulated in WWE Smackdown Vs. Raw 2011, from steel cage matches, to tables, ladders and chairs matches, to a 30-man Royal Rumble. In a unique move, THQ has omitted a standard exhibition mode this year, and replaced it with WWE Universe mode. This mode tracks players’ wins and losses, and forms rivalries and partnerships based on them. Every match is like a continuation of an evolving story arc, though without scripted events or commentator involvement. Matches can be customized to include whom ever the player desires, but predetermined matchups are created by default, continuing the various feuds that players involve themselves in. It’s a surprisingly organic way of keeping the standard exhibition mode fresh, and hle it definitely has room to grow in future iterations, it’s a welcome addition, and one that will likely be influential to other games in the future.
Road to Wrestlemania is the main story mode, allowing players to take John Cena, Christian, Rey Mysterio, or Chris Jericho through a series of scripted matches and events on their path to wrestling’s biggest spectacle. Players can also use their created characters in an attempt to end the Undertaker’s 18-strong Wrestlemania winning streak. Each story is unique, and presents a good look at each Superstar’s legacy and place in the WWE. In addition to scheduled matches, these stories also include tons of backstage content, from GM conversations, to interviews, to backstage brawls, and even romantic entanglements. These plots are surprisingly strong (for a wrestling story), but dismal audio presentation really hurts their enjoyability. Wrestlers provide tons of spoken lines, but the quality of both the acting and the recordings themselves are all over the place. When John Cena calls you a punk, and challenges you to an Inferno match, it sounds great, like Cena did multiple takes in a professional sound studio. When R-Truth asks you to be his partner, however, it sounds like they got him to deliver the lines in one shot while he was getting out of his car. Sound quality has long been a problem with the storytelling aspects of the series, and 2011’s entry does nothing to remedy them.
Every mode in the game is playable online with up to twelve participants, but so far, online play is barely functional. Severe lag has affected every game I’ve tried to play, and game freezes and disconnections are very frequent. Squaring off in a 12-man Royal Rumble match would probably be a blast, especially with created characters, but as it stands right now, it’s not worth bothering with. Even Community Creations, which allows players to upload and download their creations, seems to be nonfunctional.
Road to Wrestlemania and WWE Universe offer a ridiculous amount of content, but the game’s extensive customization suites make it essentially infinitely replayable. There are no new creation modes, but Create-A-Wrestler, Create-A-Finisher, Story Designer, and Create-A-Move Set have all seen improvements. Tons of new costume pieces and moves are available, and a new starting position for finishing moves (top turnbuckle) is available, allowing players to create their own devastating superplexes. Story Designer, however, has seen the most improvement, and now offers an extremely deep and robust experience that allows for the creation of almost any story arc one can conceive of. Last year’s Story Designer was satisfactory, but 2011’s version offers a vast array of scenes and match conditions, and even allows for branching storylines that change a Superstar’s path depending on his decisions and match results. It’s a deep and truly impressive mode, and one that will rob creative fans of countless hours. Sadly, the broken online component seriously reduces the value of the mode, since storylines can only be played by their creator until THQ’s servers start working correctly.
WWE Smackdown Vs. Raw 2011 is the best looking game in the series, but still suffers from inconsistent visual presentation. The character models of major stars like Undertaker, John Cena, and Randy Orton, look great, with incredibly realistic skin textures and instantly recognizable faces. Lesser known stars like Vance Archer and Dolph Ziggler, however, don’t look quite as good, and feature more generic body parts that are shared between Superstars. Created characters, as usual, fare the worst visually, but still look pretty good in motion. Environments are likewise inconsistent. When the cameras are on the ring and audience, everything looks great, but once the action moves backstage, it becomes a mess. Backstage areas are vacant and ugly, featuring no lighting effects and flat, seemingly unfinished textures. There are some fun interactive elements that can be used to dish out damage to opponents, like TVs, trophy cases, and dumpsters, but overall, the in-ring presentation is far better than anything found backstage.
At a glance, WWE Smackdown Vs. Raw 2011 doesn’t seem much different from its predecessor, and in the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t. A closer look, however, reveals a considerable number of smaller changes that make the game far more robust and enjoyable. The Story Designer alone has seen huge improvements, and while it may be too daunting for some players, those with a creative streak will undoubtedly get lost in its intricacies. Wrestling games certainly aren’t for everyone, and this one is by no means perfect, but anyone who has ever enjoyed the pseudo-sport or its virtual representation would be well served by picking up this game. It’s the most complete wrestling experience we’ve yet seen, and one that should satisfy wrestling fans of all types.