The WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW franchise, from THQ and developer Yuke's, may have finally hit a wall. Granted, we're on the eighth iteration of the series, which dates back all the way to the PlayStation era, and the series has steadily evolved with each sequel, with only a few missteps here and there. But with WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007, it's tough not to harp on some of the major issues that have gone uncorrected year after year. The collision detection is still suspect. The artificial intelligence is still unreliable. Clipping problems still plague the graphics engine. Now, that's not to suggest that 2007 is devoid of merit. An all-new grappling system does a bit to give the game a fresh feel, and with the series' debut on the Xbox 360, you'll be treated to a glimpse of the visual treats you'll get to experience as SmackDown! inevitably moves from the older consoles to the current crop of hardware. It's another great entry in the SmackDown! lineage that suffers only because what it fixes and improves isn't necessarily what is wrong with this aging game engine. Fans will undoubtedly enjoy it for what it is, but they'll also certainly be wondering if a true overhaul of the series is on the horizon.
A Microsoft console finally gets a wrestling game that's actually fun to play in SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007.
For what it's worth, Yuke's has completely reworked the game's grappling engine, even if that isn't something that really needed reworking. Whereas wrestling games have relied entirely on the notion of a grapple button to start up grappling moves in the past, SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007 maps all grappling functions to the right control stick. Simply flicking the stick up, down, or to either side while facing your opponent will pull off one of your wrestler's quick grapple moves, and by holding down the right bumper on the Xbox 360, or the R1 button on the PlayStation 2, then flicking the stick, you'll go into a stronger grapple, one that depends on the direction you pressed the stick (animations are different for luchadore moves, submissions, power moves, and the like). With the opponent locked into a grapple, you then press a direction on the stick once again to pull off a move.
The idea with this new grappling system seems to be to give you more of a sense of freedom in your moves, though it doesn't entirely succeed. Being able to pull off quick grappling maneuvers simply by flicking the stick definitely feels more natural than the old methodology, but with strong moves, you still end up having to hold a wrestler in a grappled state for at least a second or two before pulling the move off, and flicking the stick doesn't give you any greater sense of freedom in this case than pushing a button. Basically, the system isn't better than what was there before, but it's not any worse, either. It's just different.
One cool addition, however, is the new ultimate control move system. When you first put an opponent into a strong grapple, instead of pressing a direction on the control stick, press down on the control stick button and you'll pick up your opponent in one of several different ways. For example, you might pick him up like you're about to suplex him to the mat, but instead you'll suspend him in midair and have a few different options of how to dispose of him. By walking over to the ropes and pressing up on the right stick, you'll drop him midsection-first right onto the ropes. Pressing down will perform a normal suplex. There's a number of variations of typical wrestling moves to use with this feature, like the DDT, Samoan drop, choke slam, and pile driver, to name a few. You can also drag opponents over to environmental hot spots like the ring steps, announcer tables, and the like, and use the same sort of right-stick-based attack methodology, with these areas acting as weapons. It's an extremely cool idea that's only hampered by the limited number of ultimate control moves you have access to. It makes sense that each wrestler would have access to only a few of these individual moves, but there's only a dozen or so of them overall. A little more variety would have gone a long way here.
Ultimate control moves are an interesting and fun addition, though the variety of moves available could be better.
Speaking of environmental hot spots, SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007 includes a whole new section of the ring area that is littered with weaponry and other objects to slam your opponents into. Just drag your opponent over to the right section of the crowd and throw him over the ring barrier. Once you're there, there's a multitude of objects to use to decimate your opponent. Apart from the usual tables and chairs, you'll find extension cords, fire extinguishers, racks of speakers, fans' signs, and a huge production rig to jump off of. Very little of what's over here operates much differently than the usual menagerie of weapons you find in a hardcore match, but having an out-of-the-ring area to brawl in is a nice touch.
While the new touches on the gameplay system range from decent to great, few of these changes are aspects of the game that really needed updating. Instead of new grappling systems and added hot spots, some updates to the wrestler AI system or improvements to the collision detection would have been nice. For what it is, the opponent AI is OK, though it's periodically incapable of dealing a final blow in some of the more weapon-heavy gimmick matches. Partner AI in tag matches is still mostly broken. Sometimes they'll come running to your rescue when you're trapped in a submission hold or about to be pinned, and sometimes they'll just stand there twiddling their thumbs. Oddly enough, opponent partners in tag matches never seem to have an issue rescuing their comrades. AI opponents in general still rely very heavily on perfectly timed reversals that happen to be significantly tougher to time on your end, and it's not terribly hard to get stuck in an unbreakable string of attacks from your opponent if you aren't deft with the reversal timing. Considering the only way to get up off the mat is to mash buttons like a lunatic, it's tough to balance that with timing your reversals. That's something else that could stand to be improved.
Collision detection is as it's been in the last few SmackDown! games. Generally, it works well, though there are a number of spots where you'll miss with strikes inexplicably, and flying attacks are always a total gamble as to where you'll land and if you'll even hit anything. It's also annoying that putting wrestlers through tables or smacking them off downed ladders isn't more dynamic. You still have to treat these weapons as hot spots more often than not, and doing moves like powerbombs or suplexes near them isn't typically enough to make them break. Perhaps this is just a limitation associated with the fact that, even on the Xbox 360, this game is still running on the engine designed for the PlayStation 2. Still, with a 360 game, you'd hope for some improvement in the dynamics of these types of weapons and attacks.
The new battle zone outside the ring is rife with things to pummel your opponent with.
What you simply can't complain about in any of the recent SmackDown! games is the breadth of content, and 2007 is no different. Every single match type, game mode, and feature found in last year's game is on hand again, and many have been extended or adjusted to give them even more lasting value. The only new match in the game is the money in the bank match, a six-man free-for-all ladder match that, admittedly, isn't terribly fun unless you're playing against friends. But with so many other matches available, from the usual table, TLC, and hardcore matches to big-time gimmick matches like buried alive, elimination chamber, and backstage brawls that take place either in a parking lot or a bar, you're unlikely to run out of ways to pummel opponents any time soon.
Xbox 360 owners will also be able to whittle away the hours picking up the game's 29 achievements. Some of them are pretty standard, like beating the season mode on varying difficulty levels, completing a year of the GM mode, and winning certain types of matches. There are also some more involved achievement types, like defeating every single superstar in the game on the hardest difficulty, winning 50 online matches, and defending your created belt online 20 times.
The season mode has improved a bit on the basic story-driven formula found last year. There's around 40 different individual storylines in the game, each of which centers around some kind of feud or situation leading up to a Pay-Per-View battle. Which storylines you end up experiencing depend mostly on which wrestler you bring into the season mode (created wrestlers and a few of the legends can be brought in, along with the main roster), though there are a couple of specific spots in a few of the storylines where you'll get to make a specific choice and branch the story one way or the other. The storylines themselves are basically on par with what you'd find on the show, with feuds centering around title shots, Royal Rumble slots, various divas, and such. The only thing that's a bummer in this year's storylines is that the dialogue and commentary don't seem to form fit around whichever wrestler you're using quite as well. The commentators refer to you generically as a "superstar" in most cases, and the cutscenes often go out of their way to make it so you don't talk much, save for when it's most necessary. Still, there's plenty of wrestler dialogue to be found, and most of it is good. Sometimes it's real stiff, but not necessarily any more so than what you'd see on TV. And certain wrestlers, such as Mr. Kennedy, do a masterful job bringing their personas to the game.