Last year those that choose to take the 360 route into this generation of gaming got their first taste of the Smackdown Vs Raw franchise, bringing with it the salivating prospect of Xbox Live frolics, shiny new graphics and a new gaming engine to move the series forward and to set a marker for the future of the series. Now one of these things did not bare fruit, and it is still leading to growing apathy amongst the aggrieved wrestling games fans. So now we sit with the next instalment, again with the same prospects and again with all of the boxes ticked except the still creaking engine.
So this is the point where some interactivity rears its head for probably the first time in a Wrestling 101 review. Hand on mouse. If as mentioned in the preview for this title, you are a gamer not satisfied with more of the same, even if it is in the form of a thoroughly polished and honed end product with some neat new animations thrown in for good measure then click away and head back to anticipating one of the many big 360 titles coming to our shores in the coming weeks. Basically, this is not the second coming of No Mercy, so if you can’t accept anything other than this impossibility (except when No Mercy itself returns in it’s rejuvenated form on WiiWare) click away…now.
Now if you are one those that decided to stay put then we will get straight to the point. Smackdown Vs Raw 2008 is essentially more of the same with some bells and whistles thrown in for good measure. It has taken the good ground base from the last version and ironed out some grievances, and offered some new nuances to offer a slightly different way of playing that does not strand too far away from the already established formula. This is not a bad thing in most aspects in this reviewers opinion, and while a lot of the changes have been the fluttering around of some features from previous versions and limiting them in some aspects to force a new style of play onto the gamer; it does help to freshen matters when the title gets down to what it is essentially there to do: offer an in ring fighting experience in a Sports Entertainment environment.
Fiddling the controls
Here to stay from the last version is the main basis of the control scheme, ditching the use of the d-pad and button combo to instead embrace the analogue controls that were optional last time around as standard. Some fiddling has been made to toggle with niggles within the control system from last year and the scheme is much the greater for it and helps to provide a more fluid experience. This means the utilisation of combinations of strong and weak grapples with nudges if up and down of the right analogue stick to perform moves, but also marks the return of last years big feature, the ultimate control moves. Achieved by nudging left and right of the thumb stick after gripping into a strong grapple, they work pretty much the same as they did in the past with on screen prompts helping to advise the player as to how to pull off the move, and then leaving the player to control and time their finish as they see fit. When combined with last years other big addition, the environmental hot spots, it makes for some interesting possibilities if ashamedly they are all the same as they were in the last version albeit with a few new animations. New for this year is the opportunity to wriggle out of an already applied ultimate control move by wriggling the thumb stick. To prevent this becoming too much of an easy get out clause, injury plays a part in how easily your chosen star wriggles out of the move with any excess damage undertaken preventing you from escaping the clutches of your opponent. Evidently as you will have guessed this marks another return of the successful damage system, but brushed this year to great merit is the stamina bar from last year. While stamina still plays a part, your stamina will be regained automatically with a lack of action rather than relying on the player to fill a bar themselves thus ridding the lull in the game play this causes and lets the play flow more affably.
The big new addition this year though is the addition of fighting styles. Each wrestler has their own two fighting styles from the set bunch that include high-flyer, hardcore and dirty. These govern the styles of moves that the wrestler can perform and if we were to look at it cynically takes the moves such as the illegal pin from last years dirty and clean options and shares them out amongst the roster more evenly, rather than offering an abundance of new freedom of play. But taking off that cynical hat, it works greatly to even matters and offer fairer matches overall, and works to reflect the real wrestling world more appropriately preventing the likes of Johnny Cruiserweight power housing Andy Steroid. It forces strategy upon the player in a much more comforting way than the stamina bar of last did, and changes the former arcade style of play the series offered, although not to the extent that this becomes the wrestling version of Full Spectrum Warrior. Basically, someone considered a brawler lacks the technical moves they would not veer towards performing, and powerhouses lack the ability to fly off of the top rope and speed around like the second coming of a cruiserweight. Instead they are provided with moves appropriate to their style that helps them to accomplish what their style dictates, such as the powerhouse being able to perform an unstoppable flurry, or power kick out. These are achieved by gaining a fighting style icon in a style akin to the way in which finisher icons are collected and utilised. It works very, very well and should lead to players veering towards and favouring different styles that they can then hone and perfect either by creating a star of those styles or utilising one of the in game roster more often to become completely adjusted. Multiplayer exhibition matches, particularly online greatly benefit, with the game now actively producing players honed with particular styles and techniques similar to how online FPS’s produce players whom become more accustomed to a sniping approach or straight fragging. With the gameplay slowed down overall to reflect this, it makes for some good strategic battles.
Packed to the hilt
Again the series is filled to the brim with match types and variations to satisfy even the most cynical gamer. Maintained from last year are the new incarnations of the Ladder matches, with the ickle addition of the ability to now lean a ladder horizontally to perform a running move akin to Jeff Hardy and Shelton Benjamin. Fun much in the same way the stacking of tables was in the past, and will make for some interesting multiplayer fun. The big addition this year, fitting in with the tagline on the boxart, is the ECW Extreme Rules Match. Set within the ECW arena, the match type offers pyromaniacs the chance to live out their fantasy of sending superstars through flaming tables and be bashed around the noggin with a flaming barbed wire baseball bat, and offers a different weapons wheel providing some fun possibilities. Again a match type that will reap the most rewards from online play and offline multiplayer.
Mode wise, the Hall of Fame/Challenge mode is back again, with arguably easier challenges overall albeit some fiendishly harder challenges making unlocking those last few legends fittingly, a challenge. But much more importantly is the addition of Tournament mode. Offering King of the Ring, Road to Wrestlemania and Beat the Clock, you can either enter a pre-set tournament or instead change brackets to suit your fancy. If you so wish tournaments can be set up for different titles, including your own created belts, and decide which match types are to take place to settle the matter of whom is the genuine champion. The mode offers the facility to let you watch AI controlled grapples compete for your titles if that interests you; essentially letting you relive those dream booking moments in re-envisioned way of the old Create a PPV modes of the past. Overall a great addition that actually adds greater longevity than the new form of season mode that I will come to in just a tad.
The create modes have been streamlined and adjusted to good effect, with create a title for example offering a much more fulfilling editor allowing greater customisation to realise some decent looking titles of your own, or better incarnations of already established titles. The 360 version importantly offers that much loved feature of custom entrance music, which when coupled with a newly fiddled create a wrestler mode with a few more options makes a great mix in order to result in some super CAW’s again either of your own liking, or to recreate stars that did not make the roster for whatever reason. Create an entrance is pretty much the same affair, but the music feature more than makes up for this quibble.
One of the much-vaunted big changes this year has been the changing of the Season Mode, to instead evolve into what is now the 24/7 mode; for most the crux of their decision as to whether to buy or not to buy. This brings with it a mixed bag of improvements and niggles, which result in a mode that doesn’t seem to achieve the goals of what was set out, nor get across what it was trying to achieve. The mode is a combination of the now settled GM Mode together with the established Season mode to create scenarios where the player must concentrate on injuries, television plugs on their nights off and other general frolics on nights off hence the 24/7 moniker. In depth is a slight understatement, and this will not be to everyone’s taste. The mode is accomplished, and offers a deeper approach that most fans were crying out for after the last few incarnations of the season mode in the series. The player is offered more control over matters, and while again there are not enough scenario’s and twists to really satisfy the quench of the typically unforgiving wrestling fan (particularly for those playing the mode with their own created star); it sets a good ground base to build upon.
There lies one of the problems. Last years incarnation already set a good ground base as a title overall, other than the season mode which needed straightening. Thus it would always be the mode heavily scrutinised and looked upon when judging as to whether the title is greater than last year’s effort. They have worked enough on every other aspect to really up matters, but the downer is that rather than offering us the defining experience this time around with the season mode cementing matters, Yukes and THQ have again offered another mode offering promise that hasn’t been executed to the fullest extent it could have been. When you again couple in the amount of stars on an already smaller than expected roster that are playable within the mode, it knocks it down from the level that it could and really should have been. I don’t know about the average reader here, but frankly I would be happier if Yukes worked around their continued complaints about the lack of talent offered for voice over sessions and created some storylines for the season that do not actively require the controlled star to voice a role; with the talent they have recorded filling the gaps and creating the illusion. Essentially, the most successful season mode of the series in the form of the second Smackdown on the PS1 has still not been bettered, and ironically it was a season mode that did not have any reliance on voiceovers and was arguably all the better for it. But back to the other factor that is a gripe on the mode following on from this voice over grievance, as I afore mentioned there are not really enough story lines to satisfy the average gamer and certainly not enough of a good enough standard to make the mode engrossing enough to justify plugging through the borrowed tacked on elements from GM mode more than a few times and find it thoroughly enjoyable. This is not to say that the additions are not welcome, they add the much-needed depth but to justify this depth you need something exciting to drive you to plug through.
But wait; there is some fun to be had, and some unintentionally hysterical moments that I of course will not spoil for those just about to get their mitts into affairs. There is nothing quite as outrageous to match Candice and her now legendary (well should be) magic wand moment, but enough moments to offer the camp appeal that wrestling fans will appreciate if they free themselves up to enjoy the festivities, but may turn away those not caught up with the Sports Entertainment bug. And here lies the problem again for the wider gaming public; Yukes unashamedly cater for the Sports Entertainment fan and this brings with it some negligence towards those who edge away from the SE (as I now redub it) elements of the WWE and particularly those whom fail to see the appeal of the WWE and professional wrestling in general. This has always been the case for the long running Smackdown series, as THQ have always been able in the past to offer up different franchises offering more simulated approaches (WWE Raw springs to mind in this aspect) and more defined wrestling experiences (that point of the review where the inevitable No Mercy plug pops up). Now this is no problem quite obviously for the series big fan base, but for those wishing to have the alternatives with a more serious approach to their passionate pass time they have no where to go. So while the SD series continues to churn the niches and style that has boded it well for so long, it hasn’t gone far enough to cater the wider good beyond their settled audience, cementing this as a title for the fans only. The changes to season mode to add some depth and serious undertone to matters in the form of the GM Mode niches just works against this and presents a mode that doesn’t quite get across what it is trying to achieve.
The Pin Count
So there we have it, a better experience in every aspect but still not a definitive season mode that means a downfall overall for the title. It would be adept to simply copy and paste any of the summations of reviews from last year’s incarnation and then throw in some spiel about how nicely the fighting styles and re-envisioning of the analogue controls work alongside the slowed game play to improve the actual game play aspect of the title. And is this not the reason we play videogames, for the actual game play they offer? As you can see from my long twiddle related to the 24/7 mode itself, I do not believe that this title warrants a mark higher than last year because frankly it has not improved enough to prove that it is overall a better game.
As afore mentioned, the 24/7 mode was the crux that would define whether Yukes had taken their series forward enough from last year, or again not reached the heights they should have, and regrettably for whatever reason they have not managed it. This is not to say that this 2008 incarnation does not warrant your purchase. The tournament mode offers good longevity, the change of gameplay and introduction of strategic play offers more longevity to the multiplayer aspect of the game and the ECW hardcore niches added are nice enough touches that warrant any fans time. But what the title is not good enough to justify a purchase alongside last years edition, and instead if bought it would be best to trade in last years to knock the price down a tad, as if you don’t will find yourself choosing which of the two suits your tastes more and leaving the other simply to gather dust.
It isn’t No Mercy, but it is a very good title in it’s own right, just lacking the defining mode to cement it on a par with titles of No Mercy and Fire Pro’s standard. Again it is more of the same, and that is a good thing for people like me who enjoy the series. But with apathy growing, and other titles veering around the corner to distract the great interest in the series, Yukes and THQ have dropped the ball here that they could potentially not regain particularly if Midway cement some new ideas with their Impact! Title. But that is for the future, in the here and now; this title warrants a rental if you are interested, a purchase and trade in of last years if you are a fan of the series and for everyone else a miss unless you can obtain it at a decent bargain price.
Overall Score: 7 / 10