What's also cool about the season mode is that there are multiple unique storylines to play through. There's one for RAW superstars, one for SmackDown! superstars, and a third storyline that we only managed to get once, while playing as John Cena. So unlike in past years, there's good reason to go back and play through the season mode multiple times, other than just to earn more cash for unlockables. Another great thing is that every single wrestler in the game is voice acted, including the one you play as. You can use any wrestler from a specific show (save for a couple of omissions, like Eugene) as well as your created wrestlers (you can choose from five different voices in the create-a-wrestler mode), and the dialogue will change to match the wrestler you're playing with. Text menus be damned--this is the way to go. Sure, it would be nice if there were more branching paths that the story could take, but if it's between that and fully voice-acted storylines that are actually pretty good, then we'll take the latter.
GM mode is an interesting concept that doesn't quite have all the pieces to make it a resounding success.
After you're done with the season mode, there's an all-new mode to play around with called the GM mode. Because general managers have played an increasingly key role in the way the WWE presents its storylines, it's not altogether surprising that a mode in which you yourself play that role would find its way into a wrestling game. The GM mode is basically the equivalent of a franchise mode in a sports game. You begin by drafting from the roster of available WWE superstars (or just sticking with whatever your chosen show's current roster is), and signing them each to contracts of varying length. You're working with a budget, so you can't just sign all the top guys to expensive long-term deals; so you'll find yourself trying to space out your deals as much as possible, and sometimes working with more rookies than perhaps you'd like.
The whole crux of the mode is that you're competing with the other WWE brand. You're judged by how many fans your show has, and whichever brand has the most fans at the end of the yearlong period in which the mode takes place is the winner. You earn fans by putting on good shows. Good shows have good matches. Good matches are measured by star ratings, awarded by the fans themselves. The fans like big names, and matches featuring wrestlers with higher popularity levels naturally get higher ratings. It also helps when the wrestlers involved in a match have an ongoing feud. You can check to see who has a feud going via a menu in the mode, and basically, to keep a feud going, you have to involve your wrestler in a match every week, or at least in a promo. Promos can be inserted for advertising purposes, resting popular wrestlers, building hype for pay-per-views and main events, and even raiding the opposing show.
All of this sounds great, but it's not all put together quite as well as it could have been. Again, this is a purely menu-based mode, so it can be tough to really get a handle on how well your shows are going. You certainly have the option to play through any of the matches you have on a card, but it's tough to gauge whether doing so actually has any bearing on the rating at the end. You also don't ever get to watch any promos happen, so they're purely transparent. Another problem is that it's exceedingly tough to build up rookie wrestlers to an acceptable popularity level. There's no farm system or B-grade show like Velocity to send them down to for seasoning purposes. So you'll have at least a few one-star matches on every card, simply because you have wrestlers that just can't get over with the crowd. Popularity seems to come from wins, but putting rookies in against popular wrestlers for the purposes of getting them some wins just takes too long, and ultimately this drops the popularity of your already-popular wrestlers.
If you say you can find better-looking character models than these in a wrestling game, you're a liar.
But even with all that said, the GM mode is a fun distraction, and it seems like it could be the groundwork for far more spectacular things in the future. The concept of being able to manage shows from the GM level and book your own cards is great. If that can be built upon, giving players more control over feuds and angles, making promos visible, and so on and so forth, that could be something really special. We'll just have to wait and see where Yuke's goes with this in the future.
Perhaps the biggest and simultaneously most disappointing part of last year's game was the debut of online play. Last year's online mode was barren, slightly laggy, and altogether dull. In this year's game, the online is a different animal. Up to four players can wrestle at once in a host of different match types, including practically every type of gimmick match, and even title matches. The titles you'll be vying for are the ones you create, and you can even make wagers with money you've won offline. On top of the match variety, there's also a feature that lets you trade created wrestlers between players. It's just a separate lobby section you can jump into, and it's pretty easy to do. Wins, losses, title defenses, and the like are tracked via the online scoreboards, too. Disappointingly, there's no real friends list to speak of, and the online community has already found obnoxious things to do to one another--things that the system probably could have prevented with a little more forethought. The game does track the number of disconnections an opponent might have, so you can at least try to avoid irritating players that way. Also, the online performance can vary wildly depending on connection speed. We had matches that were badly bogged down with lag, where actions were well behind button presses, and others that were practically lag-free. Just be aware that your mileage may vary.
There's also the usual array of creation modes to play with. The create-a-wrestler is pretty much as good as it's ever been, as is the create-a-belt mode from last year. The one major addition to the pack is the create-an-entrance mode, letting you specifically design the crazy pyrotechnics and camera angles that come with a superstar's entrance. It's the same concept that the Day of Reckoning franchise has used on the GameCube over the last couple of years, though it's not as good. There's no easy way to see exactly where each labeled camera angle is set up, nor what each pyro type looks like, so you'll have to go through each and every one, viewing the complete entrance preview each time, which can be time consuming. This is one case in which Yuke's probably would have been better served just making a carbon copy of what they'd already created, rather than trying to toss something new in.
Graphically, SmackDown! vs. RAW 2006 features easily the most refined and attractive-looking character models ever put into a wrestling game. The detail in each and every character is phenomenal. Facial animations look realistic, skins and costumes are supremely detailed, and the various cutscenes presented throughout the game, be they during the season mode or simply a quick cut of a particularly devastating move during a match, are wonderful. Amazingly enough, the frame rate holds up extremely well, even during matches with the maximum number of wrestlers in the ring, and the only time you might notice a bit of slowdown is during some entrance sequences with particularly elaborate pyrotechnics. Even the created wrestlers look just about on par with the models that Yuke's itself designed, making their inclusion in a match all the more seamless. Were it not for the collision issues, this would be graphical perfection for a wrestling game on the PS2.
The audio is also much improved from last year. Apart from the mostly great voice acting, commentary is better this year. Both the teams of Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler and Michael Cole and Tazz are on hand for their respective shows, and while the lines of commentary are mostly innocuous and don't get into much depth within the matches themselves, the lines are somewhat less repetitive than they've been in previous years. The season mode also makes good use of the commentators during cutscenes to set the stage for the storyline. More licensed music is on hand for soundtrack purposes, though it's a weird list of artists, ranging from the Dillinger Escape Plan to Bumpy Knuckles. There's even a remix of Megadeth's "Symphony of Destruction" for some reason. Sadly, none of John Cena's album is used for the soundtrack for some reason.
Not every single thing that WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2006 tries to do completely works, but the sheer amount of crazy new stuff in this game more than makes it worth the while of any wrestling fan. The gameplay is the best it's ever been, the presentation is top-notch, and the plethora of available modes is more than enough to keep any WWE enthusiast busy for hours and hours. Maybe Yuke's will surprise everyone and put together another SmackDown! vs. RAW game for the PlayStation 2 next year; but if this does turn out to be the last one for the system, then it will have gone out with a bang.