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Remember the 24/7 mode in last year’s SmackDown? It applied exactly the same storyline, whichever character you chose to play as, and there was as much emphasis on events away from the ring – from practicing your mic skills to attending autograph sessions – as there was on the wrestling itself. It lost sight of the fact that SmackDown vs Raw is, at its core, a fighting game.
All of which is addressed in the much improved Road to WrestleMania option in this year’s installment, which replaces the bloated 24/7 experiment. It focuses on just the three month period leading up to WrestleMania and offers only a limited choice of grapplers: Triple H, The Undertaker, CM Punk, John Cena, Chris Jericho and the team of former tag champs Batista and Rey Mysterio, which allows two people to play the mode cooperatively. Each WWE ‘superstar’ has their own specific storyline, which includes alternate endings and TV-style presentation (at the end of each week’s Raw or SmackDown, there’s even an authentic WWE copyright notice).
In practice, each Road to WrestleMania involves around 15 matches or confrontations, with cutscenes between bouts. In addition to standard one-on-one contests, you’ll get involved in a variety of tag team and gimmick matches. Complete optional goals (such as winning a match in under 2min 30sec or gaining victory by submission) and you’ll be rewarded with unlockable content, including extra characters and create-a-wrestler move sets. Although you’ll be able to complete each character’s strand in two or three hours, it’s a much more focused experience. What you lose in choice compared to 24/7 is made up for by it being far more tightly scripted and engaging.
For single-player action that allows you to play as any of the game’s characters (including created wrestlers), there’s a Career mode in which you have to face progressively tougher opponents en route to title shots and winning the various championship belts. The Create options have been expanded to include a new create-a-finisher mode, a brilliantly executed system that does exactly what it says. Up to 10 animations can be linked to invent brand new match-enders. You can either give the new move a name or, if you pick from the pre-set monikers, it’ll be supported by the commentary. Some of the names – such as Kenta Kobashi’s Burning Hammer – will be familiar to die-hard fans, although we’ve no idea what a Beldigo is.
The fighting styles of SmackDown 2008 have been replaced by enhanced fighting abilities, which is a far less intrusive system. Unfortunately, the commentary still irritates more than it adds to the atmosphere, with a lot of repetition and moves often being called long after they take place. The pre-draft teams are featured, so Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler still commentate on the Raw matches, for instance. And a lot of the usual SvR niggles are still there. For the huge range of moves available, the interface still means that you often feel as if you’re simply stringing together a set of animations (some of which have been in the series for years) as opposed to actually controlling your character. And the AI goes haywire at times: during one match, our opponent tried to pin the referee!
Once again, SmackDown vs Raw 2009 is an example of evolution not revolution. It’s an improvement over its predecessor and, as ever, the sheer wealth of content is staggering. For anyone who already loves or loathes the series, this won’t be enough to change their mind either way. But SmackDown hangs on to its title of king of the ring.
Oct 31, 2008