THQ's WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW wrestling game franchise may have taken one chair shot too many. As much as this series has always been about piling new features on top of existing features, the pile is starting to teeter and is in danger of falling over entirely. Once again, this year's game adds several new components to the existing game engine that's been piled upon since the series was a PS2 exclusive, but the difference this year is that few, if any, of the changes really feel like they impact the overall experience for the better. In fact, some of the changes impact the game negatively. The gameplay is still basically fun, but all the various little problems that have built up over the years remain unaddressed, and some of the surrounding components of the game are really starting to show their age.
This year's SmackDown! doesn't do an awful lot to improve the franchise in any meaningful way.
By far the biggest change to this year's game is the addition of fighting styles. This is a sort of classification of each wrestler type that gives wrestlers under each type specific abilities. For instance, powerhouse types like Batista can effectively "hulk up" when they fill up their energy meter and store a fighting style icon, which renders them impervious to strikes and makes all their grapple moves irreversible. Secondary abilities are also available. For instance, a powerhouse can also pull off stronger Irish whips that send opponents over the ropes. There are several different types of these styles, including technical wrestlers, high-flyers, brawlers, submission specialists, dirty fighters, showmen, and hardcore types.
For the most part, each of the abilities assigned to these different archetypes fit nicely into each wrestler's general moveset, but some have a tendency to appear overmuch over the course of a match, and in some cases, they also feel a little overpowered. The powerhouse's ability to just grapple at will tends to be a lot more effective at ending a match quickly than the high-flyer's ability to do surprise pins. Granted, there's always been that difference in effectiveness between wrestlers of this type, but these fighting styles just make those differences all the more pronounced. Not to suggest that you can't win with smaller, less powerful guys, but if you get caught in a flurry of punches from a brawler or a series of hard slams from a powerhouse, you're down for the count.
Beyond that significant change, the gameplay hasn't seen much alteration from last year's game. The same right analog stick-based grappling system is on offer, though the number of buttons you have to press to pull off a total-control grapple move has been lessened. The submissions system has seen a slight change, where both players use the right analog stick to respectively apply pressure or escape, but this doesn't add much dynamism to that particular component. This year's game does also add ECW into the mix, along with all the various hardcore-isms that go along with that. The ECW extreme rules match is available in all its glory, and weapons have been given a bit of an overhaul, specifically how you go about getting them from under the ring. There's a nifty little weapon wheel that pops up, letting you select among several different weapons, like tables, chairs, 2x4s wrapped in barbed wire--you know, the usual stuff. Also, you can set weapons on fire now, which is undeniably awesome.
Still, apart from this ECW-centric stuff, there's not much else to marvel at with the gameplay this year, especially considering all the holdover problems from previous games that plague this sequel. The artificial intelligence continues its downward spiral into utter boobdom, especially in any kind of gimmick match where weapons are prevalent. They'll constantly stand around, periodically flailing at another wrestler with a weapon and hoping for the best. Any match that has a ladder involved but nothing hanging above the ring to collect still results in a number of wrestlers constantly scaling ladders in the middle of the ring over and over again. Tag partners still sometimes forget that they're supposed to help you when you're in trouble, too. And now, with this new fighting style system, the AI has taken to relying on these various special moves to an almost irritating degree. How many times can one guy use the ref as a shield, or "hulk up" in a match? Apparently the answer is "too many."
Collision detection is still terrible as well. Body parts warp through one another and the ring regularly, and you'll often see wrestlers simply warp from one side of the ring to the other in place of certain transition animations, primarily during weapon-centric matches. All told, the animation engine really looks like it needs an overhaul. Even the general moveset is looking a bit stiff and flat these days. The good news is that the animation and clipping issues are really the only major blight on an otherwise sharp-looking game. The wrestler models are still some of the very best character modeling you'll see in a game, save perhaps for the still-hideous haircuts. You can tell that this game is still running on the engine built for the PS2, especially if you look and see the surprisingly small dip in overall visual quality in the PS2 version versus its current-gen counterparts, but even so, the lighting effects, crowd graphics, and just the overall sheen of the 360 and PS3 games shine through. The 360 version ultimately looks the best, as the PS3 iteration's frame rate isn't quite as steady, and the lighting looks a bit funny in spots. Interestingly, the PS2 version actually runs smoother as a whole than the PS3 version, though obviously the dip in overall visual quality in that version is pretty significant, as well.
In terms of content, SmackDown! vs. RAW 2008 offers roughly the same roster of match types and modes as last year, with a few small additions and a few significant downgrades. The biggest downgrade is the 24/7 mode, which actually now wraps the single-player story mode and the general manager mode up into one haphazard package. In an effort to combine the two, the story mode has lost all its punch and ability to deliver something even closely resembling a real storyline. Sure, you still get the yearlong title hunt with one of the main superstars in the game or a created grappler, but the story barely rears its head beyond the scope of a series of voicemails you get from other wrestlers and the general manager of the brand. The few cutscenes you do get are pretty generic, and sometimes they don't even fit the context of what's going on. Sometimes wrestlers you supposedly are fighting with will give you a handshake backstage. Couple that with some of the voicemails sometimes identifying the wrong person as your rival, and even identifying the wrestler you're controlling as someone you're supposed to fight, and the story aspects of this mode feel more than a bit hacked together.
Yes, this is much better than a decent storyline.
In place of story is a bunch of lame statistical data and achievements that your wrestler is supposed to hit over the course of the season. You earn respect and eventual title shots by increasing your skill and your popularity with the fans, and you increase that stuff by doing all these little challenges and ventures between shows. Is your strength rating lacking? Go wrestle a guy for two minutes and do as many strong grappling moves as possible. Need to improve on the mic? Spend some cash for a nonplayable training exercise and get a boost to that statistic. Need to rest up? Take some R&R at the expense of your wrestler's fatigue rating, as well as a bit of his popularity. The trick to this whole aspect of the mode is keeping a balance between all the various things you're doing. Overexert yourself and you'll be much more prone to injury, which forces you to wrestle with damage already taken (even though the doctor always tells you to rest up, you can't skip shows), and if you just rest constantly, your popularity rating will plummet.