Thursday, December 1, 2005

Smackdown v. RAW 2006

by THQ and Yukes
for Playstation 2
PS2 version reviewed

So it’s official, the Smackdown game series is wrestling’s Madden. A yearly update, each with game tweaks and new features and the latest roster. Even some of the changes this year feel like direct rips on football game features. Not that it’s a bad thing. For comparison’s sake, here’s my review of last year’s game. With that in mind, let’s dip into the ins and outs of the changes to this year’s game, “Smackdown vs. RAW 2006!”

The actual in-game play has been turned on its ear again with the new devices of momentum and stamina. Instead of the same build-up-to-a-finisher system of the past six games (wow, six?), there’s a throwback to the “attitude” or “spirit” system from the popular series of wrestling titles on N64. You build momentum through the match, something that will go up with every new move (repeats are a no-no) and go down as you get attacked. When you reach full momentum, you can do your finisher as long as it is full, or choose to store it. A stored finisher comes in handy in many instances which we’ll get to later.

The other new system in place is stamina. As you go through the match, running and jumping about, you’ll notice your character walking or running slower and holding his chest doubled over. That’s because of stamina. When you have a free second in the ring, holding the select button will recharge your stamina. Sounds like a good idea, but I find it to run out way too easily. Hopefully next year this will be improved upon. Running along two sides of the ring basically drains your stamina. If your guy has very few moves that’ll keep an opponent down, expect to have a low stamina meter as you struggle to keep him away AND recharge it. It needs to be beefed up next update.

Speaking of keeping ‘em down, there’s a weird annoyance this year with guys not lying down long enough for you to pounce on them off the top rope. I’ve never been able to properly execute Benoit’s headbutt or RVD’s frog splash – instead hitting them on a guy halfway through a “getting up” animation. And I mean, we’re talking red body damage, already did a finisher on him twice sort of thing. Ridiculous.

Clean and dirty tactics are back from last year. The change – they factor in to your momentum directly instead of a tactics meter. Plus, playing dirty or clean determines what you can do when you have full momentum with a stored finisher. If you’re dirty, you do a dirty finisher ala last year’s game. If you’re clean, you can steal the opponent’s finisher. Other things that can be done with a stored finisher: immediate ends to toss attempts in a Royal Rumble (handy if your ringout meter is low) and playing possum. What? Yeah, if you have a stored finisher and press the correct buttons, you can spring out of a lying state and get your man in a small package or other tricky pin sequence. This is cool, BUT the game shows your character smirking on the mat via closeup and plays a sound effect when you do it. It’s kind of like saying “HEY, THIS MOVE’S BEING BLOCKED” before it actually happens, making it less cool.

The clean & dirty also factors into grappling. Instead of a single press of circle being an Irish whip, this year it’s a clean or dirty grapple. Irish whip has been moved to circle+triangle. Holding the two performs a strong whip, which can send your foe flying over the top, or into the turnbuckle really hard. And now instead of four types of grapples, there are about 8 or 9. Submission is always your “down and circle” grapple, but the other three are your choice. This sounds good again on paper, but the moves available between each grapple choice are odd to say the least. Last year, my guy had a spinebuster and piledriver under his power moves. This year, they can’t be found in a combination together. You’ll notice a lot of the guys do the same backbreaker or side slam or whatever because of the way moves are categorized this year. They have to sacrifice originality in a lot of spots to get the one move they need for that category.

For some weird reason this year, perhaps the overly long grapple animations, the game feels less move heavy and more hit-and-move, evade-and-counter. It’s a weird dynamic, one everybody I’ve played with has noticed between this release and last years.

Now that I’ve killed a lot of your hard earned time with that, let’s move on. Season mode is pretty much the same as last year, but at least the cutscenes are better. It’s fun to participate in, even if it’s mostly the same each time through. An improved version of last year’s model – take that for what you will.

What helps the cutscenes there are the improved voiceovers. More of the guys sound like themselves and even some legends participated to spice up the proceedings. Legends get involved in pointless nostalgia trips, so at least it’s the same as on television. Commentary has been improved this year, but like any sports game, it gets repetitive because there’s only so much you can do. Both teams go on tangents, have arguments between each other and talk about how their show is better than the other. Once again, not focusing on the match means it’s indicative of real life. Sometimes when you actually want to hear what they have to say, the new system of breaking in to count a pin, mark an elimination, countered move, etc. gets in the way. So, while it’s better, commentary is still a shutoff. Tony Chimmel and Lilian Garcia’s VO’s are just as improved, and stay on despite having commentary off. Give THQ props for correcting a bunch of these little issues each year.

Another single player feature back this year is the challenges. The first 30 challenges are largely in-match things such as “reverse ten grapples” or “kick out of a possum pin.” The second 30 recreate famous matches or make dream match-ups. One of the Legend challenges for example is Andre v. Hogan. In the way of legends, you got Bret Hart, Hogan from the 80s, Hogan from the nWo, Junkyard Dog, Ted Dibiase, Andre, Mankind, Rock, Austin…Jake Roberts. I say that separately, because the only way to get him is to have SvR for your PSP and copy him to the console. Yeah, that made me forget about the new grapple system pretty quick. Hope you don’t do that again, THQ. There are also arenas, like ECW One Night Stand and the biggest, coolest surprise – WrestleMania IX!! Sweet! THQ keep stuff like this up each year, please.

You also have unlockables to furnish your locker room. Just like “The Crib” in ESPN NFL 2k5, you have a locker room that you can paint, light, furnish, etc. The game function of it is a place to shop and manage stats in season mode. For purchase there are collectable items such as Bret Hart’s glasses, Carlito’s apple, Regal’s brass knucks, posters, jerseys, etc. You also have a trophy case for all the trophies you can win. Among them are a “Tough Enough” trophy for winning 10 matches with a create-a-wrestler, a trophy for each set of challenges, a “Royal Rumble” trophy for winning it in season, etc, etc. These trophies unlock more things to buy.

Another football-game-esque change is GM Mode. You can choose to do the matches you book yourself, or have the game sim them. Basically, you use $10,000,000 to buy wrestlers in the draft, and book weekly TV and PPVs. This is one of the best parts of the game. It’s very intuitive. Just like they should be doing more, you have to make new stars in order to be successful. As you run feuds, the audience cheers and ratings for their matches rise. As they keep feuding for eight…then ten…then twelve weeks, the crowds turn on the feud, rabid for something new. One fun thing I did: I was able to take Paul London from SD, challenge my IC champ on RAW and through smart booking, was able to increase his popularity score from 29 to 51. He won the title and went on to bring up the score of other guys I had who had poor heat. Also, putting the guys in hardcore match after hardcore match will get them injured. I had to deal with a world champ being out of action 10 weeks. Not good. I could do a whole long review of this part I’ve had so much fun with it. Very cool stuff, and I can’t wait to see an even better version of it in 2007’s game.

There’s a few new match types this year. Buried Alive is okay, but as a game feature has little to say. You throw the guy into the casket, go into a tug-of-war to put him in, then hope he can’t counter your shutting of the door to “bury” him. There’s also fulfill your fantasy, where you and a diva go at it in nurse outfits or schoolgirl uniforms, all the while spanking and pillow fighting your way to a full “fantasy meter.” Yeah…anyway. There’s also a bar brawl and the legends cage match. What’s that? By finishing the third set of challenges, you get to play in the blue-bar style cage used in cage matches from 1986 to about the late 90s. Tres cool.

The meters and stuff this year are about the same. New to the mix is a meter recreating the sleeper hold cliché of raise an arm, it drops…raise an arm, it stays up, babyface makes the comeback. I think the game provides the wrong button for it. I believe it’s a right trigger, not X. That’s one of those things where they added it in to further recreate the matches on TV, but it’s awkward in practice. Cage matches have two revamps. To climb the cage, you now try to stop a meter closest to full to make the biggest step up the cage. The same mechanism is used in the new lock-up battle, and for when you choose to use the door in a cage match. Yes, you can now go out the door.

Tired yet? The game was made at a weird, weird period. Rob Conway and Sylvain are able to have their new music in this game, and they’re even billed as RAW and SD stars respectively. However, both have La Res tights and hold the tag belts by default when you get the game. Fwuh? Kurt is billed on RAW, but the commentators refer to him being on Smackdown. The list is pretty big, and you’ll see when you buy the game. They have bad luck with the rosters, and with Eddie’s death and Christian’s departure, there are already two blemishes on it.

Speaking of titles, you can now play for them in exhibition. Create-a-belt is also back for that sort of craziness. Create-a-wrestler is a bit improved, as the attire no longer looks so fake. There’s create-an-entrance now where you can detail what your guy does at each stage of his entrance and how it looks – from the pyro to the cameras to when his name appears, etc. The moves are a bit different this year, with a few new ones, some newly animated and others totally removed. It hasn’t affected me just yet, but we’ll see.

Online is improved this year to accommodate more match types and four instead of two players. I don’t have an online capability, so reports of lag and stuff are up to you to search.

Oh, how could I forget? Just like the football games, this year everybody has a “profile” on the save file. It keeps track of wins and losses versus each character, whether they were a CPU or a human and all of that stuff. Bad part is, you have to unlock things individually under each. Meaning I can use the Legends in a match against my brother who can't, because his profile exists just to have his own W-L record. Lame. Good thing though this year: you can use the option to play tag matches just like you did on the 16-bit systems – you control the legal man. THQ again showing they listen to their fanbase.

Wow! SO, after all of that, how does the game score? Out of five, SvR 2006 gets…


…the same as last year. I can’t raise it in good conscience because of the wonky new game changes, but I can’t downgrade it because of GM Mode and fun, fun unlockables. If you’ve played a previous game, then this is a buy. If you’re just going to start with the SD series, try a few of the older games first, because this has a learning curve. If next year’s game is a refined version of this title, expect a higher score in ’07.

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