In the WWE, it's not uncommon for seemingly vanquished superstars to return at random, handing out fresh beatdowns and earning back their former glory. After a disappointing showing last year, THQ's long-running SmackDown vs. Raw series has returned to the ring, having spent the year slimming down and focusing on its core strengths. The work has paid off: A lot of extraneous elements have been removed, the creation toolset is better than ever, and there are two new single-player modes that complement the multiplayer fun nicely. Though it's still hampered by a number of lingering issues, WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 manages to recapture some of the glory of its younger years.
Hint: Don't let the muscle-bound man with 'The Animal' written across his briefs get on top of you.
The most notable improvements are in the single-player realm. The lackluster 24/7 mode has been ditched in favor of a lengthy Career mode and the scripted Road to Wrestlemania. In the Career mode, you choose a superstar (existing or created) and enter a bracket to make a bid for the title belt. Each bracket has five opponents, including the current champion, and you'll have to earn stars by winning matches to get a shot at the title. You win up to five stars for each match by earning points in three areas: match results, technical, and excitement. These categories encourage you to get into the WWE superstar mindset by rewarding you for both pummeling and mocking your opponent. At the end of each match, your attributes will increase, and your health will replenish automatically based on how the match went--no micromanagement here. You'll also earn amusing awards for things such as striking your opponent 35 times or breaking a barbed-wire-wrapped plank over his or her back. It takes only a handful of successful matches to earn you a title shot, which is great because it keeps your career moving along at a good clip. This action-packed Career mode is the perfect complement to the Create a Superstar mode, and winning belt after belt as you bulk up your created character is satisfying and fun.
The other single-player mode, Road to Wrestlemania, features six unique story arcs that let you play as various WWE superstars (including Chris Jericho and Triple H) and defeat numerous foes (and a few nemeses) on your quest for Wrestlemania glory. Matches are interspersed with story scenes packed with typical WWE action and voiced by actual WWE superstars, so fans of outrageous melodrama will be pleased. In keeping with traditional SmackDown vs. Raw strengths, the superstar models and entrances are excellent. Although the character animations are good (despite occasional clipping problems), the wrestlers still lack fluidity when maneuvering around the ring. This feels like a result of staying too true to the source material; though WWE wrestlers do often move slowly, it's not very exciting to actually plod around the ring in a video game. The muted audio only further detracts from the excitement factor. It dampens the supposedly hard-hitting action, and though the once-dismal announcers from years past have been improved, the sound design is in serious need of a shot in the arm.
Despite how it may sound, the action is indeed hard-hitting. It's easy to perform powerful moves using the analog stick and a few buttons, and the breadth of things you can do in and out of the ring is impressive. From removing the turnbuckle cover to slamming your opponent through a burning table, there's no shortage of satisfying ways to deal damage. Specific match types have their own nasty additions, from rubbing your opponent's face against the elimination chamber to the powerful hot tag, which allows a tag team partner to build up momentum so that, when tagged in, he or she will get the quick-time chance to unleash two unblockable attacks followed by a finisher. Enabling such a wide variety of moves is one of SmackDown vs. Raw 2009's chief strengths. Like previous games in the series, it too relies on relative position to increase your repertoire, and your wrestler is still prone to miscues as a result. However, missing a move because you aren't quite in the correct position is less frustrating than missing one because your opponent is in an uninterruptible animation. This usually crops up in matches with three or more players when one player is performing a move on another. In these realistic-to-a-fault situations, you get a good feeling for just how exciting it is to stand passively aside while other wrestlers battle it out.