It’s hard being a wrestling fan. Part of me is extremely embarrassed to admit it publicly, I am thirty years old after all and shouldn’t I have grown out of this by now? The other part of me cannot help but deny the fascination that I have had with the wrestling industry since I was a kid. Wrestling has always been a part of my life; some of my fondest childhood memories involve watching the Survivor Series with all of my cousins back when it was held on Thanksgiving every year. Seeing as how I also share the same love and fascination with the video game industry, it is pretty much a no brainer that wrestling games appeal to me. The problem is I cannot say that there have been too many wrestling video games that I have liked in recent years. The genre was in its heyday during the Nintendo 64 era but I have found the quality of the games as a whole to be on the decline since then.
The past couple of years, the Smackdown vs. Raw games have caught my eye. THQ and Yuke’s have gone to great lengths with the past couple of games to reinvent the series in order to appeal to wrestling fans of all ages. It has been working and thanks to this year’s installment in the series, they have converted at least one gamer into being a diehard fan. Although I did get a chance to take an early look at the game earlier this month during a trip to Dalls (provided by THQ), I was barely able to scratch the surface with all that the development team has packed into this year’s game. Now that I have had the chance to explore everything that the game has to offer at my own pacing, I can say without hesitation that this is the best wrestling games to hit the market since WWE No Mercy on the Nintendo 64.
THQ has gone to great lengths to throw everything that a wrestling fan could want into Smackdown vs. Raw 2011. That isn’t to say that the game isn’t without its flaws; it certainly has some glaring issues which we will discuss throughout this review. One of the things that THQ has tried to do this year is make the game more appealing and playable, from a gameplay standpoint, to new players to the series. This has been done with a few changes to the gameplay and control mechanics of the game to mixed results. First and foremost, the development team has removed what has traditionally been referred to as the grapple modifier. In the past, players have always had the option of manually choosing whether or not to engage in a weak or strong grapple with the simple press of an extra button. Each “strength of grapple” could then be transitioned into a varying list of moves. Players do not have the ability to do that as easily in this year’s game. The strength of the standard grapple that player engages in is determined by the stamina of your opponent. Whether you like it or not, the first few minutes of your matches will be filled with arm bars and chest-slaps unless you find a means to make your opponent groggy ahead of time. This change makes sense in theory but ultimately produces a lack of gameplay variety to those who may not think things through, as I did early on. One of the ways around this is to kick your opponent with a gut kick (downfoward + strike) and then engage them in a grapple as they are bent over. This adds to the realism of the game immensely in my opinion.
Some of the other gameplay changes that help to drastically improve the experience are the new pinning and “pick up” controls. The new method used in these controls help the flow of the game immensely. One of my biggest complaints with the previous games was that it was often difficult to pin and / or lift your opponent up from a fallen position at will. I often found myself doing one when I intended to do the other, which broke up the flow and ultimately created unnecessary frustration. That isn’t the case now as both commands are now completed using a simple flick of the right analog stick. Flicking the stick upwards will lift the opponent off of the mat, regardless of their position (face up or face down), and flicking it downwards will initiate a pin maneuver (again, regardless of position). This new scheme feels very natural and has completely eliminated the mishaps that I encountered with previous Smackdown vs. Raw games. The same control mechanic has been instituted with opponents that have been placed into the corner; opponents can now be hoisted up to the top rope for punishment with a simple upward flick of the stick or turned upside down in a dreaded tree of woe with a downward one.
Another major complaint with the previous games that was held by not only myself, but many gamers, was the awkwardness of the pinning combination maneuvers. It is now up to the player to initiate a transition into a pinning combination from a given maneuver. You will no longer have to worry about the game forcing you into a pinning situation just because you utilized a certain move in your arsenal. Any and all moves that can be transitioned into a pin now feature a button prompt that allows the player(s) to choose either to complete the move normally or flow into a pin. Nothing interrupts the gameplay of a wrestling game worse than an unwarranted pin but those are now a thing of the past in this series.Overall, the gameplay changes that have been instituted in the game make the game both easier to play and improve the flow of the matches to something more reminiscent of an actual wrestling match. Newcomers to the series will find their selves better capable of standing a chance against the higher level difficulty settings and opponents while wrestling purists will the overall experience a lot more reminiscent of the matches they see on television. Hopefully THQ and Yukes will fine-tune this system in next year’s game because they have laid the groundwork for an impressive control system which could finally dethrone the classic Aki-grappling system many wrestling game fans know and love.
In addition to the gameplay tweaks that this year’s game has received, there has also been a healthy dose of customization added the game. I find this particularly amazing considered the series is already known for its in-depth customization options. All of the series staples returns including create-a-superstar, story designer, create a finisher, editable My WWE options, all of which can be shared online with the game’s community on both systems. The game even features an all-new match designer. Any and all options regarding a match can be altered and even saved for future usage, all within the confines of the base match type. For example, you cannot edit pin options in a ladder match as the goal of the match doesn’t take pins into account. However, if you want to make a 60-minute, Iron Man, submissions only, Inferno Match… go right ahead. Players are now able to edit nearly every aspect of their game in order to mold it to their likings. As customizable as the game is as a whole, there is one glaring issue with the games create-a-superstar mode that will surely cause some complaints from the diehard fans: lack of transparency. Transparency is an option that many players who frequent the game’s create-a-superstar mode rely heavily on in order to construct highly accurate depictions of classic characters. The option is used in conjunction with the games, layering system in order to help create custom characters that often rival the original in-game models in terms of their quality… or at least they used to. Thus far, the game seems to lack the ability to make layers and objects transparent to differing degrees, which will limit the ability to achieve some desired effects that many creators rely on. Hopefully, for the sake of the diehard fans, this is something that THQ can address in a future patch of the game because many message boards across the internet are already bursting with complaints regarding the feature’s absence.
Speaking of molding things to your likings, the new WWE Universe Mode allow players to truly create their own wrestling world. This new mode allows players to pretty much run their own WWE promotion. The game’s AI monitors how gamers play the game and the environment within the game changes accordingly; this goes for everything from alliances and feuds, stables, and even championship rankings. Considering that this is the first year for this mode, I think that THQ is off to a great start and this could easily evolve into a full-fledged promotion simulator with a few tweaks in subsequent years. The mode does lack some truly desired flexibility though, such as the ability to put titles up for grabs when and where you want; title matches are held, for the most part, based on the ranking system which is tracked by the game. If you want a certain wrestler to contend for a title, it will be up to you to put them to work in your individual game. You will need to play with them repeatedly and put them up against and over some top tier competition. If you manage to do that, they will surely climb the in-game ranking s and get the opportunity for a title shot at upcoming PPV events on the game’s internal schedule.
All of the online aspects of the previous game(s) return with 2011 including a very welcome new addition: Online Royal Rumble. The online aspect of the game, including the new Royal Rumble, works better than any wrestling game that I have seen previously. There are still some issues that exist with the netcode, but the title continues to get better and better each year. Players are still destined to experience some lag instances and graphical clipping when playing online, but the matches are more than playable and immensely enjoyable. In addition to simply playing online, PlayStation 3 users also get an extra feature that is lacking from the Xbox 360 version which allows them to share some of their created content online through YouTube. Players can directly upload edited highlight reels that the construct from within the game directly to their YouTube account(s). The same can be done with custom designed Titantron videos as well.When it comes to content, THQ has thrown in everything AND the kitchen sink. The roster out of the box is close to 70 characters, including current superstars as well as a strong lineup of WWE Legends. If you combine that with the 50 create-a-superstar slots as well as already announced DLC characters, it is easily the largest roster THQ has ever assembled for a wrestling game. A large portion of the included roster is locked from the start, giving players a ton to work towards. In addition to the locked characters, players will also have to work to unlock a wide variety of additional championships, arenas, and even brands to which they can assign players.
I really, really enjoyed Smackdown vs Raw 2011 and look forward to playing a lot more of it as the online community grows after the retail launch. As great as I find the game to be, I think that there are still plenty of areas that future installments in the series can improve on. First off, customization options (amazingly) still have room to grow, especially as they relate to the new WWE Universe mode. If THQ can open up this mode a little more, and give players the ability to alter settings and cards in a direct manner, we could have an awesome simulator on our hands for running our own promotions. In addition to that, if they manage to add some online functionality to the mode, then these promotions could be taken online and online leagues could grow out of it. I really hope that they take a hard look at furthering their work on the grapple system they instituted in this year’s game. I get what they were trying to accomplish, and they achieved their goal(s) for the most part, but they sort of shot their selves in the foot at the same time. If they can find a means to opening up the variety of move choices with the new stamina based system, it could turn into the best wrestling engine to date. Even with those opportunities available to the series in the future, Smackdown vs Raw 2011 in itself is an amazing package that is sure to please wrestling fans all across the globe.