It might only begin to sink in when you start playing, but the distinct possibility exists that WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2006 will be the last Yuke's-developed wrestler for the PlayStation 2. With the PlayStation 3 somewhere on the horizon and the PlayStation 2's life expectancy dwindling, it probably would have been easy for longtime wrestling game developer Yuke's to ease off the gas pedal when working on SmackDown! vs. RAW 2006. However, this latest and possibly last PS2 game in the series turns out to be much, much more than just a typical yearly update. Rather, SmackDown! vs. RAW 2006 cobbles together a veritable smorgasbord of new features and concepts for wrestling fans to smack their collective lips at. Without a doubt, this is the deepest that a SmackDown! game has ever been, and while not every single thing that this game tries works completely, the sheer breadth of content makes it an easy choice for any wrestling enthusiast, and quite possibly the best wrestling game available for the system.
THQ and Yuke's rebound from last year's somewhat disappointing outing with the thoroughly enjoyable WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2006.
WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2006 is very much a Yuke's PlayStation 2 wrestling game. That is to say, if you played any of the developer's earlier games, this one isn't going to throw you for a loop. What it will do is show you a number of key refinements to the gameplay that help it emulate real-life wrestling (we use the term loosely, of course) better than any game before. For one thing, SmackDown! vs. RAW 2006 introduces a measure of ring psychology to the proceedings. Don't worry; you don't have to plan your spots or your finishes or anything. What's been introduced here is a pair of systems that track your wrestler's stamina, as well as his or her momentum, in the match. Stamina drains a number of ways, though mostly through pulling off and being on the butt end of big moves. Momentum is built by playing a more interesting match, one that will get the crowd thoroughly behind your wrestler.
The combination of these two systems leads to more logical and slightly more methodical matches. You can't get away with just pulling off lengthy strings of weak moves to survive, but you also can't just toss power move after power move at your opponent without draining your stamina. Therefore, you have to be smart, switching up between weaker and stronger moves, taking occasional breaks to regain stamina (which is done simply by holding down the select button) and playing to the crowd as much as you can. Both factors are visible throughout a match. When your wrestler's stamina is drained, he or she will double over in exhaustion. Likewise, if your momentum's low and the crowd isn't behind you, you might find yourself getting booed; you'll even hear chants of "Booo-ring!" from the audience. Your ability to pull off a finishing move is also directly tied in to the momentum meter. Building it up to its peak will let you pull one off or even store one for later--though finishers delivered at any momentum level other than the peak one won't do as much damage.
SmackDown! vs. RAW 2006 also manages to differentiate the unique styles (or lack thereof, in some cases) of the many WWE superstars. Whereas in the past, grappling attacks were relegated to the same four categories for every single wrestler, now each wrestler is assigned four of seven available categories. From within the game's move editor, you can assign them power, speed, technical, luchadore, brawler, martial arts, and old school categories. The one constant for all wrestlers is submission grapples, which is always assigned no matter what. But the remaining three categories can be divvied up however you like. There's also a fifth grapple category that determines what kind of wrestler you are, a heel or a face (in lay terms, a bad guy or a good guy). The moves are appropriately different, with the heel moves involving a lot of cheating and cheap shots, and the heroic moves staying well within the rules. Apart from the categorical changes though, this is very much the same type of grapple system the series has used over the last couple of games--so while things like trying to figure out who has what types of moves might take a bit of getting used to, fundamentally it should be familiar to you.
Believe it or not, the list of crazy additions to the gameplay engine does not end there. There are lots of little ancillary additions too, similar to some of the stuff Yuke's added last year, such as the prematch minigame. A couple of wrinkles have been tossed into the specials system. For instance, you can now steal an opponent's taunt by pressing the special button and hitting a taunt at the same time. Doing so completely drains your opponent's momentum. There's also an ability to play possum by countering a ground attack in combination with pressing the special attack button. This rolls your opponent up into a particularly sneaky pin.
SmackDown! vs. RAW even includes a deeper array of match types to keep you busy, on top of everything else. All the usual suspects are front and center once again, including cage matches, hell-in-a-cell matches, table matches, TLC matches, elimination chamber matches, first blood matches, and all the rest. New to the roster are fulfill-your-fantasy and buried alive matches. Fulfill your fantasy is the effective replacement to the always-lame yet always-included bra-and-panties matches, featuring exclusively the WWE divas. This one is equally silly, letting you choose outfits for the ladies to wear and asking you to pull off these goofy fantasy moves (most of which involve pillow fights, spanking, and other forms of titillation).
The buried alive match is an interesting addition; the whole strategy of the match is to drag your opponent out of the ring, down the aisle, and to a mound of dirt near the stage area, where a coffin is set up. Any wrestling fan worth his salt will know where this goes from here, and the mechanics of getting your opponent into that coffin and the lid shut aren't half bad (though somewhat frustrating at times). Ultimately, the buried alive match is a worthwhile addition, though the fulfill your fantasy match probably could have been bypassed altogether. But more interesting than these are the improvements to existing matches, like the cage match, for example, which now features an exit door and a much better method for emulating the struggle of climbing out of that cage. Ladder matches are better too, with multiple ladders available and a new brawling system that lets you duke it out with your opponent while both of you are on the ladder. Great stuff.
While all these fantastic additions might make SmackDown! vs. RAW 2006's gameplay sound like the most mind-blowing thing ever, it's ultimately what hasn't changed about the game that keeps it from perfection. For starters, the hit detection is still spotty. It's a far cry from the days when strikes would inexplicably miss and aerial moves would hit from bizarre distances, but it's still not quite right. You'll sometimes whiff on ground strikes while a guy is in transition between his getting-up animation and actually standing up, and it's not overly hard to miss a running strike if you don't have your opponent lined up just perfect. Aerial moves sometimes register oddly, too, missing at random times and, occasionally, hitting when it looks like you've missed. Again, the frequency of these hiccups is far less than it's been in the past, but when it happens, it definitely comes off as a problem.
The artificial intelligence of your opponents also has its flaws. There are four difficulty levels in the game, and the balance between them all is generally imperfect, with the easiest turning opposing wrestlers into brain-dead idiots who stand around for half a match without a clue of what to do, and the hardest turning the game into a festival of reversals that leaves you on the losing side far more often than not. The middle two levels are the most enjoyable, with the second-highest difficulty likely to be your eventual sweet spot once you master the game's mechanics. Still, on this level you'll run into a lot of reversals of your attacks. The fortunate thing is that it's easier this year for you to reverse attacks yourself, because the window for hitting a reversal button has been extended. It's not a guarantee, mind you, but you always feel like you at least have a decent shot of reversing attacks as much as your opponents do.
Of course, it wouldn't be much of a wrestling game if SmackDown! vs. RAW 2006 didn't offer up plenty of things to do other than just wrestling. As in past years, you'll likely spend much of your initial time with the game playing through the season mode. The season mode is a lot like last year's game, with a more structured storyline that doesn't involve many branching paths or choices, but features the voice talent of the WWE superstars. The good news is that unlike last year's game, the voice talent isn't completely horrible. The recording quality of the dialogue sounds right, and the vast majority of the wrestlers pull off their lines just as well as they would on TV. Sure, there are a few dead reads among the bunch, but this year they're in the vast minority. The writing is also really solid, with angles that play out as you'd expect a TV storyline to.