Since the year 2000, THQ and Yuke's WWE SmackDown! franchise has been steadily chugging along on an annual schedule. Save for one slight disappointment in WWF SmackDown! Just Bring It, the series has also continued to improve year after year, finally culminating in easily the most impressive effort to date in last year's WWE SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain. Yuke's has had a tough act to follow with its next sequel, considering how polished and well put-together its last game was--unfortunately, it just wasn't quite able to pull it off. WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw is the sixth installment in the highly popular series, and it's also one of the most marginally changed iterations of the series. Despite being the first WWE game ever to offer a full roster of WWE voice talent and the first North American-released wrestling game to feature online play, neither of these features live up to their potential, and the other random gameplay upgrades just don't feel like a significant enough progression for the series.
Yuke's returns for yet another go at the WWE SmackDown! franchise, though this effort feels more like a transition year than anything else.
Let's start with those gameplay upgrades of which there are at least a few worth mentioning. Nearly all of the gameplay changes made to this year's game are assorted ways to try to capture the proper flow of a real match. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in the little in-match minigames. At the beginning of a match, you'll frequently find yourself faced with a stare-down contest, a test of strength, or a shoving match. These are all controlled by specifically timed button presses that appear onscreen. In the stare down, you simply have to press X at the right time and you'll get the always important first strike. In a shoving match, you'll be presented with a meter that looks almost exactly like the kick meter from Madden NFL 2005 and it works pretty much the same as well. The meter swings upward to signify power for your shove, and then it swings back downward, challenging you to hit the X button at just the right time for maximum effectiveness. There's also an exact copy of this meter for the ever-popular chop battles you tend to see during real matches, which have been translated here very nicely. As well, you'll encounter a new spanking contest (strictly for the divas, of course). These little games can be turned on or off in the game's options menu, but we didn't find them to be intrusive, and instead thought they added a little more flair to the matches. That's flair meaning "style," not flair meaning Ric Flair. If you want to add a little more Ric Flair to your matches, yes, he is a selectable character.
There are also a couple of new meter systems. The first is a new way to reward players for playing characters according to their personalities. The wrestler will have a meter that sits beneath his special move meter that will signify what he is--either a good guy or a bad guy. If you're a good guy, you can build this meter up by playing to the crowd, taunting and performing high-risk maneuvers and such. On the flip side, heels are boosted by using weapons, complaining to the ref, using cheap tactics, and just about anything else you can think of to make the crowd hate you. The boon for filling up your meter depends on your personality. Good guys are rewarded with a manner of invincibility that causes your attacks to do more damage and prevents you from being attacked. Heels, on the other hand, are given a special low-blow move that actually does as much damage as your typical finisher. This is an absolutely great way to represent how different types of wrestlers play to the crowd, and it also provides an additional boost of authenticity to the in-ring action.
The other new meter is specific to the Royal Rumble match. Essentially, Yuke's has reworked how you throw opponents over the top rope during this match, which is to provide each participant with yet another onscreen meter that displays how close that wrestler is to being tossed. You still pretty much toss opponents over the rope the same way (by Irish whipping them near the ropes), but they won't go out that easy; they'll instead hit the outside apron and you'll have to immediately start striking or grappling with them to push them out. An additional wrestler can even come over and help you try to knock the other one over. Fundamentally, this is a cool idea, but the implementation isn't quite right. For starters, the animation while you're grappling with the guy doesn't look like anything you'd ever see during a real rumble match. Furthermore, with up to six guys in the ring at once, the combination of the life meter and ring-out meter ultimately equates to too many meters on the screen at once, and it becomes very distracting.
Things like chop battles, stare downs, and shoving contests have been translated into SmackDown! vs. Raw via several little minigames.
While SmackDown! vs. Raw does a great job of providing you with all sorts of minigames and meters to play with, it doesn't really change the core gameplay in any major way. There's nothing here as earth shattering as the new grappling system, which was implemented last year. Certain changes that were made in Yuke's GameCube wrestling title, WWE Day of Reckoning, didn't make it over into this game, like, for example, that excellent weight-balancing system (though this game does feature its own new weight system--albeit not as impressive of one). Generally speaking, the game plays just like its predecessors during matches, save for the few new additions and one very notable flaw--the artificial intelligence. The AI is downright brain-dead in certain situations. Scenarios involving weapons tend to be the worst; on more than one occasion, an opponent delivered a wicked chair shot to our superstar, only to end up idly standing over our downed wrester, seemingly incapable of following up until we stood back up. Opponents will also frequently botch Irish whip moves badly, and they just don't seem to be capable of properly taking advantage of situations that would seem to be in their best interest. Cranking up the difficulty does fix some of this, but overall, the game just feels easier than it ought to, and you can thank the AI for most of that.
When it comes to features, no one feature has been more touted than SmackDown! vs. Raw's online functionality. Ever since the proliferation of online console gaming, wrestling fans have been chomping at the bit for the chance to go at it in the broadband-based squared circle. Now, three years after the first online game for the PS2, THQ and Yuke's have produced an online wrestler--albeit one that features an online mode so bare bones that you'd think you had traveled back in time to 2001 when online first hit the console. To call this online mode disappointing would be a hefty understatement, as there's barely enough here to qualify as an afterthought let alone a real feature.
Essentially, once you select the online mode from the main menu and then connect, you can opt to create an online profile or just go in as an anonymous default user. From there, you can select from assorted game lobbies based on varying skill levels, from amateur to expert. In these lobbies, you can create either a one-on-one match or a bra-and-panties match, or you can join someone else's one-on-one or bra-and-panties match. And that's it. There's no chat beyond basic keyboard support; you can only choose from these two match types and only from the Raw and SmackDown! arenas, and there is no ranking system or win-loss tracking whatsoever. You just go in, play, and voila, you've seen it all. In fact, the only thing of note in this mode is that you can take created wrestlers online, although that really should be pretty much a given. At the very least, the game does perform pretty well when playing. Lag does manifest itself from time to time, and when it does, it really cripples the game. Thankfully, it seems to be rare over consumer-grade broadband connections, but as with anything relating to online play, your mileage may vary. When you consider how far online gaming has progressed in the last few years, it seems almost inexcusable for an online game to lack so many features. Needless to say, the online mode is definitely not the first reason to pick up this game.
Yes, SmackDown! vs. Raw features online play. No, it isn't very good.
Fortunately, apart from lacking online functionality, SmackDown! vs. Raw still manages to provide you with all the usual ways to entertain yourself in a wrestling game. The season mode, for instance, is back yet again, and it features an all-new set of scenarios to put in the path of your chosen superstar while you wrestle your way through a full year in the WWE. The key difference in this year's season mode is that it does away with a lot of the open-endedness of its predecessors. You can't move around an arena anymore--you are actually strictly relegated to your locker room in between shows. The storyline itself is usually quite good, although you won't see as many branching-off points in the plot. The story actually only starts off and ends one of two ways, and this depends on what caliber of superstar you pick and how you perform in very specific matches.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the season mode is the way in which you interact with the many personalities of the WWE. You can say mostly goodbye to sifting through a gang of text boxes, as now the game features fully implemented voice work from every superstar in the game. You'll still see some text, because whatever wrestler you choose to play as speaks strictly through the screen; all dialogue from commentators, backstage personalities, and other wrestlers is represented by their real-life counterparts. Sounds great, right? Well, not quite. It's certainly awesome that the developers were able to gather all the wrestlers and have them speak their lines, but the problem is that a lot of it sounds horribly rushed. About half the dialogue is badly recorded in what sounds like an echoey chamberlike warehouse, and some of the line delivery is unbelievably bad, and not even in a typical wrestling kind of bad either. There are some moments where it is plainly obvious that lines are simply being read off of a script by someone with no previous knowledge of the dialogue. To be fair, some of the dialogue is also really good. Big-time personalities like Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerrero, and Vincent K. McMahon all do solid justice to their TV roles. But wrestlers like Edge, Shelton Benjamin, and Rene Dupree are all terrible. More often than not, the voice work is just mediocre at best, and it only serves to make the cutscenes drag on in many cases.