Monday, February 12, 2007

Smackdown vs. RAW 2007

by THQ and Yukes
for Playstation 2
, PSP & Xbox 360
PS2 version reviewed

Well, it took me long enough, but I'm here. I finally got a hold of the newest Smackdown game for the PS2 to continue my little legacy of giving the rundown on the latest WWE video game software. I’ll be talking about some things matter of factly, so if you need to catch up, here is a link to last year’s review. I feel like I have to say “the gameplay's been turned on its ear” every time I do this, and as you might already know, this year is no exception.

In fact, the new system is so daunting, that the first start up on a fresh save file is accompanied with a warning that the game is so different, you'd be smart to view the on-board tutorial videos. Player movement has shifted to the left analog, while grappling is done with the right. The d-pad now works the taunts. When I played the X-Box 360 version, I had no problem adjusting to dual analog. On PlayStation 2, my mindset was so stuck from the previous games, I had to put movement back on the d-pad. Four moves are available as “quick grapples” just by moving the right stick. Holding the right trigger while pushing the analog in a direction enacts a power grapple. Striking has been moved to square, stamina recharging to circle. X takes on all the general functions like exiting, entering, climbing and weapon pickup. The game boasts unlimited counters, and suffice to say, the AI is really good at reversals, even on a modest difficulty - I guess to encourage you to “practice the timing,” as the videos implore you to leave the button mashing “to your little sister.” On an easier difficulty, the computer uses the same tactics at the same exact time, every time. When you up the ante, they’re less predictable.

Either something in the nature of analog, or poor programming, forces you to be very precise and deliberate in the course of a heated match. Pressing in the control stick (known to gamers as “R3” or “L3” depending on which stick you’re using) picks up the opponent; pressing it in and holding it drags the opponent in the direction you’re walking. Several times I found myself pinning when trying to drag, and so on.

The other thing pressing in the control stick does is enact the new Ultimate Control Moves, herein referred to as UCMs. When in a strong grapple, pressing R3 puts your opponent in a common set up. This may be the prelude to a DDT, piledriver, samoan drop, etc. From there, using a small pop-up menu, you can do a variety of moves to an opponent. For example, you put somebody up in a vertical suplex and can choose to drop them on their face, or fall back. You can also walk around with an opponent, meaning you can hold a little cruiserweight in a chokeslam ‘til you position him over the floor, dropping him with a thud. These would be cooler if they didn’t have to cut out so many moves from the game to fit ‘em in.

Ultimate control also effects the new “hot spots.” In a strong grapple, you can drag your opponent towards one and start a UCM sequence. They’re located along the guardrail, ring ropes, ring posts, stairs, etc. For example, on the buckle, you control the drawback and forward force of your fist in the “10 punch” spot. If the pad is taken off, then you control the drawback and forward force of your foe’s head into the steel. At the announce table outside, you control the pull of a monitor cable around an adversary’s throat. Just like the actual ultimate control wrestling moves, these are more a novelty than anything else, but not really offensive to the game experience.

There’s also a new “fighting in the crowd” area. You can slide over the rail into this zone, or clothesline an opponent in and follow him. On X-Box, polygonal crowd members move out of the way when you climb in, but in this PS2 title, it’s free of fans, and sticks out like a sore thumb. The area is full of weapons and more hot spots. It adds a bit more flavor to no-DQ matches, and almost reminds you of the days when they included a backstage to brawl in.

Mechanics out of the way now, let’s get to the game itself. Season mode is the same thing, structurally. It doesn't have the humor and charm of last year, but it’s serviceable. The cutscenes and storylines are still hokey, but the production is superb – from the “camera work” to the v/o. Oddly enough, there are 10 wrestlers you plain can’t use in season. The locker room profile system from last year is integrated into the process, as you use your computer to receive e-mails and voice messages that further storylines. You also get the aid of bulletins and WWE magazine articles. Most of the .com stories, and every one of the magazine articles are useless, but it’s kind of nice to relieve yourself of cutscenes that do no more than tell you who you’re wrestling.

That, and the load times are pretty ridiculous. From the main menu, it takes just over 20 seconds to load the locker room. There are a number of loading screens pre and post-match, so I turn off entrances just to keep game time reasonable. I’ve played the X-Box 360 version as I’ve mentioned, and while there are a number of screens, they don’t bog down things quite as bad as they do here. Also, for the first time I can remember since the N64 days, there’s slowdown when you have six wrestlers on screen.

I think there’s been maybe a game or two in the entire SD series that has had a decent roster. SvR ‘07 was made just before ECW debuted, so the now-departed Kurt Angle is available for play, but there’s no Jeff Hardy. We get Umaga and Paul Birchell, but no Spirit Squad. DX’s theme music and entrance are here, but that’s all. The commentary is very odd too, as Lawler picks on Smackdown and Jim Ross tells him not to make fun of guys like “Kurt Angle and the Undertaker.” In the same match as I heard that comment, the King goes off on Kurt for jumping to lesser promotions like ECW. Fwuh?

On the legend side of things you get Piper, Bret, Eddie, Anvil, Dusty Rhodes, Bam Bam Bigelow, Mr. Perfect (yeah!!), the many faces of Mick Foley (ugh), Rock, Hogan, Austin, Lawler, Tazz…and Shane McMahon?! Not a bad character, but a legend? But hey, any excuse to hear Dusty’s old WWF theme music on a regular basis is a-okay with me.

Character models are neither here nor there. They got JBL's weight gain right, but made Dusty Rhodes look svelte. And since when do Carlito and Ric Flair have six packs?

But alas, there is something for me to praise! GM mode has seen some improvement since last year. They backed off on guys demanding title shots, as well as lessened injuries, for a more realistic experience. JR and Tazz still implore you to “interfere with the other show” but it never does you any good. They also added a visible fatigue meter for each wrestler so you know when to back off on the hardcore matches. The biggest change is in the rivalries. Instead of a feud starting by just matching up two guys in the ring, you now buy storyline writers for specific angles. Some are meant for two guys and a diva to participate in, others are legend specific, some are tag team. You set the length, based on the PPV schedule. Be wary of who belongs in each storyline. I found myself having to use an FAQ for this part, since once they’re bought, angles no longer come with a description. A storyline called “No Respect” laid dormant for a year until I read the guide and found out it was a tag team angle. They certainly made it worth your while to beat GM mode this year – winning the GM of the Year trophy means you get unlimited experience for your create-a-wrestlers. Without this bonus, you’d have to do a season with each CAW and earn points that way. Trust me, no matter what your reservations about GM mode, it’s better than a year of Tully Blanchard as world champion to be make him playable.

As far as matches go, you don’t have really anything in the way of new stuff. They slightly redid the parking lot for the Parking Lot Brawl and the bar setting for the Barroom Brawl. They added Money in the Bank, which is just a 6-way ladder match. However, ladder match mechanics have changed this year. When you climb to the top, you push up one of the analog sticks. If it’s the right one, you continue the sequence, if not, you stumble and waste precious time in the air waiting to press the other. The next part finds you wiggling the correct analog to find a sweet spot. Holding it in place depletes a title belt meter, which when emptied, puts the strap in your hands and makes you the winner. The caveat? You’re all working off the same meter. So you just drained 98% of it, got knocked off, and Loser Von Suckyson nabbed the last 2%. They did add cool stuff like the ability to do Shelton’s “run up the ladder” spot from Wrestle Mania 21. There’s also the really cool “feature” of a computer player being able to transport himself to the top of the ladder just as you try to grab something. “Neat.” Playing as HHH against Super Crazy, Psicosis, Rey-Rey and that ilk, it still took two tries to beat the Money in the Bank on Legend difficulty challenge. The first try lasted over 47 minutes, the second and winning try 66 even. A little excessive?

Create-a-wrestler this year was ruined. The interface is a bit confusing, they changed the names of options that have been the same for years, over-simplified the color system, and removed a lot of clothing. There is no way I could find (as of this writing) to get traditional style wrestling tights on my CAW that weren’t black. There goes making an accurate Razor Ramon.

Create-an-entrance however, has improved. Your entrance constantly runs in back of the menus, which feature fireworks you can time, and all of the camera customization from the past game.

Challenges are back, although they’re all in the form of matches rather than the goal-based ones you could double or triple up on in the past. This brings us to the arenas – there’s no big Wrestle Mania IX surprise like last year, but you can earn One Night Stand in exhibition and the ultra cool set from Saturday Night’s Main Event for completing the first set of challenges. That holds a special place in my heart, as I was at the return of SNME, and the version of it included here is indeed from that show. It incorporates the unique design of Cobo Arena, where it was held.

In the sound department, the commentary still sucks. Some of the audience reaction sounds awful. And what's with this weird phenomenon of music running out before an entrance is finished? Were there separate departments at the developer for the music sampling and animation that just didn't communicate? That's ridiculous.

I’m also still not going online with this, but everything I ever hear makes it sound as fun as playing Yahtzee against a guy with 4 rigged dice.


Despite the fact its drawbacks outweigh its improvements for a single player, multiplayer is as fun as ever. Any problems with the core game mechanics when playing against the AI vanish. Matches no longer have to be a battle of quick grapples and UCMs against friends, but rather something resembling the Smackdowns of old.

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