The sixth game in Yukes and THQ's Smackdown series continues the proud tradition of the sports game sequel, in that it's a game that only delivers incremental upgrades to the core gaming experience, along with the necessary roster updates. Sadly for grappling fans, a lot of what seems like incredible promise on the surface evaporates away on closer scrutiny, leaving you with a game that isn't really as advanced over last year's superlative Smackdown: Here Comes The Pain as it perhaps should be.
In some ways, that's more the fault of last year's game, however, as it extensively reworked Smackdown's grappling engine into a much more fluid game, and any changes that were made for this year's iteration were more likely to appear trivial in comparison. There are some good changes -- and a few key niggles that it appears Yukes are never likely to fix - and certainly if you're a rabid WWE fan, you'll love a lot of what Smackdown Vs Raw has to offer.
As with most of the previous Smackdown titles, Raw Vs Smackdown offers a season mode that puts you in the shoes of a WWE superstar who must fight through a year's storylines leading up to Wrestlemania 20. Yukes has pared down the interface even more for this year's game, as you don't even have to load screens to visit your brand manager, who (aside from appearing in storyline cut scenes) will simply appear as an onscreen icon if it's possible for you to challenge for particular titles. As with most of the previous storyline offerings, there are a few twists and turns that don't really make sense - but then again, given the state of current WWE storylines, the argument could be made that's stunningly accurate. As you progress through season mode you'll earn cash that can be used to unlock hidden superstars, from the truly legendary Bret "The Hitman" Hart to the slightly less stellar Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake. You'll also earn stat points that can be used to upgrade the season mode version of your character - by default all the superstars in season mode are weaker than their standard counterparts, so that any created wrestler you choose to use isn't immediately at a disadvantage. It also gives the season mode something of a light RPG feel.
Season mode isn't the only place where you can earn money, however, as Yukes has also put in place a number of exhibition mode challenges, which unlock additional secrets and pump up your bank balance at the same time. At the amateur level these are pretty simple - break a few tables in a match, or defeat anyone within 3 minutes, but once you get up to legend level, you're faced with tasks like defeating the truly gargantuan Andre The Giant using Rey Mysterio, the smallest and weakest guy on the whole roster. The challenges are pretty good fun, and they do give you more impetus to play through the exhibition mode.
In terms of gameplay innovations, the single largest is without a doubt the game's alignment meter. When you start an exhibition mode match, you get to choose whether your wrestler will fight dirty or clean in the match. Dirty fighters use weapons, eye pokes and attack from the outside to build up crowd aggression, while clean fighters taunt, fight fair and do spectacular moves to win crowd approval. Build up your meter (in much the same way that you do for regular special moves) and you'll briefly enter a state where you're either unstoppable and unhittable (as a clean fighter) with double-damage specials, or a low-blowing cad as a dirty fighter. It's a very nice mechanic, and a great way to force players to fight in a particular way in a match. Annoyingly, in season mode the choice of fighting styles is taken away from you, as you're automatically assigned either clean or dirty status as the storyline demands.
There's also a few ingame mini-games that attempt to impart more 'real' wrestling flavour into matches. At the start of matches you can enter into staredowns or pushing contests, both of which involve timed button presses, and during matches you can enter into chopping contests - again via timed button presses. These are less impressive and in the case of the pre-match minigames they can be turned off , but they're not generally an imposition, except for the chopping minigame, which can often be hard to follow in multi-character matches. The Royal Rumble also implements a meter that measures when you'll finally submit to being thrown over the top rope, although this is all too easily subverted by choosing a super-heavyweight, who can simply heft characters straight over without a fuss.
Now, for the complaints section. Why, after six iterations of the title, hasn't Yukes implemented a system of running attacks on downed opponents, something that its own Gamecube series of WWE games has done since day one? If the Smackdown series is Yukes' premier brand, why doesn't it feature the move-breaking hits that feature in the Gamecube titles - allowing you to break out of any move, and improvise some truly spectacular double team moves to boot? And why, for the love of God, can you still wander off high areas, like the broken middle section of the Hell In A Cell cage, and plummet straight down to your skull-cracking doom? These are all things that Yukes has shown it can program around, and even make part of the core gameplay, and it's perplexing that they haven't fixed them in any way for Smackdown! Vs Raw.
Smackdown! Vs Raw also features online gaming, which in theory sounds good. No, wait, let me correct myself. It sounds spectacular. Who wouldn't want to compete online in a 6-man Hell in A Cell match, or an ultimate submissions match, or even in the new parking lot brawl match? Well, we'll never know, at least not with Smackdown! Vs Raw, because the online implementation of the game brings new meaning to the term bare-bones. Logging in is simple enough, handled via a Gamespy login, and then into rooms of players based on skill level, although throughout our testing we never found anyone at all outside of the Amateur rooms. From there, you can launch a match, with the only choices being single player matches or bra and panties matches. No multiplayer, no additional match styles, and no online ranking at all. Just start a match, win or lose, and do it all over again. To add insult to injury, the game suffers badly from lag, at least in our testing, and when it does lag, you can say goodbye to a smooth match. In one instance, a match was lost on the opening move, a headlock, because the lag couldn't compensate fast enough for button pressing, and so we submitted through no fault of our own.
There's not much to fault in SmackDown Vs Raw's visual presentation, beyond the fact that the backstage areas have been pared down to an incredibly small degree, and that the roster of superstars on offer is pretty weak - but that's more of an accurate reflection of the current WWE roster than anything. Predictably, some newer wrestlers, such as Eugene and Heidenreich, are MIA, and there's a fair whack of wrestlers who no longer work for the company represented as well. The game makes extensive use of cutscenes, which animate about as well as they've ever done in the series, and which are helped along by another innovation - genuine superstar voices.
Just about every character in the game has some recorded dialogue, and while the quality of their delivery varies pretty wildly, it's a genuinely nice step that adds some character to the season mode when you're called out by someone not just via a text box. As your scripted answers are the same no matter who you play, you'll remain mute, but that's an understandable limitation. As nice as the superstar voices are, the same compliment can't be afforded to the game's commentary, which is incredibly sparse and often far too slow to call the action. Pro Wrestling's such a varied sport that it's probably impossible to deliver a fast enough commentary with canned responses, and Smackdown! Vs Raw doesn't do much to disprove that argument.
Smackdown! Vs Raw is a really mixed title. On the one hand, it builds well on last year's excellent Smackdown: Here Comes The Pain. On the other hand, it delivers features, such as online play, in such a shoddy manner as to make it meaningless to have them in the first place, and fails to fix some problems that have plagued the series since day one. Ultimately, it means that while it's clearly a top-tier wrestling title, and with only Backyard Wrestling to compete with since Acclaim went under you're not going to get a better PS2 wrestling title this year, it's not the best wrestling title of the year, an accolade that goes to the Gamecube's WWE: Day Of Reckoning.