Professional wrestling gets a lot of crap thrown at it. To its detractors, it's too violent, sexist, immature and – above all – fake. And while there are grown fans who still think the predetermined results are "real," the smart fans of the sport (yes, we called it a sport) appreciate it for the amazing stunts, the colorful characters, and the rare times when two wrestlers in one ring tell such an engrossing story that you forget, if only briefly, that what you're watching is false.
Above: It's still real to us, damn it!
The annually released Smackdown series has long tried to give something to hardcore and casual fans alike, with varying results. Ever since its PS2 days, the series has had incremental improvements that kept it on top of an admittedly shrinking genre, and while the last couple years have been fun, they lacked any big changes or advancements. But with Smackdown vs Raw 2010, the series finally delivers many of the big changes fans have desired, along with some we didn't expect.
Tonight, in this very ring...
Starting with the ring work at the heart of the game, most of the still-satisfying system from previous games is intact. Grapples, strikes and taunts all work the same way, and getting around the ring feels familiar. Some fixes were added, with reversals for strikes and grapples both moved to a single shoulder button, making it easier to reverse your opponent’s moves and keeping the matches more interesting. We can routinely get into hold-reversal-hold chains now that there isn't a 50/50 chance that – after carefully timing a reversal button press – we’ll accidentally hit the left shoulder button instead of the right.
Other, smaller fixes are in, too, the most appreciated being the improved flow of signature moves to finishers. For the uninitiated, both of these are cool attacks, unique to your wrestler, that are usable only once you’ve built up enough “momentum” by pulling off normal moves and taunts. In previous years, building up enough momentum enabled you to either execute a finisher or pocket a signature move for later use. Now, however, signature opportunities appear as your momentum builds to a finisher, and completing a signature gets you instantly ready for a finisher. It makes more sense for the psychology of a match; for example, the real Undertaker is more likely to chokeslam a wrestler and then pick them up for a finishing Tombstone piledriver, instead of maybe doing a Tombstone and waiting until later to pull off a chokeslam. It makes the matches seem more natural to experienced fans, but the simplified reversals – which now apply to special moves as well – keep the easier-to-earn specials from breaking the game..
Continuing the improved simulation of actual matches, the product looks much closer to TV as well. The HUD at the top of the screen has at long last been dropped, with the wrestler's health/momentum displayed in a semicircle around their feet. The camera is placed in a more natural standard position, and the cuts and close-ups have been improved as well, with dynamic angles that mimic the look of televised matches. And while most of the wrestlers don't look exactly like the real thing, the gap is closing, with more natural-looking cuts and bruises on the wrestlers’ bodies as each match progresses.
For new players or those that have missed the series’ last couple years, the deeper aspects of the battle system might be a little confusing. But this year, developer Yuke’s took a page from its other title, UFC 2009, and included a very friendly training area that’s immediately accessible from the title screen. Start it up, and you can warm up against the computer, with plenty of clear hints and move listings to guide you. It's been needed for awhile, and SvR2010 implements in a way that’s both helpful and unobtrusive for those who want to (very quickly and easily) skip it.
If you’re just looking for a single-player experience, the Road to Wrestlemania story mode is back, with six new storylines written specifically for the game. All of these are at least good enough to be on Raw or Smackdown, with our favorite being Shawn Michaels' story, based around the maturing star battling his forced retirement. And there's now a Diva story and one especially for your created wrestlers, whose narrative is easily the funniest. To play through all six takes some time and unlocks some nice stuff, like new wrestlers and alternate costumes, making the campaigns worthwhile.
All the previous match types are back, too, including Hell in the Cell, Tables and the Elimination Chamber, though almost none of them come with any real changes (important to know if you didn’t enjoy them before). New for 2010 is the Championship Scramble event, which was introduced last year on TV and is a timed match in which the last person to get a pin or submission before the bell rings is champ. And while not new, the Royal Rumble has been improved so much it feels refreshingly new.
For years, the over-the-top rope-elimination classic was just about button mashing and frustration. Now there are multiple ways to eliminate opponents, such as the first-ever use of RR finishers, which instantly toss the enemy (for an added touch of strategy, you can also save up three finishers to give you an instant escape from being tossed). And the old method of elimination – pushing someone over the ropes to the ring apron – now mixes the quick button-tapping of earlier iterations with a minigame in which you quickly tap a sequence of face buttons in a sequence. Plus, it doesn't feel like a lost cause anymore if the computer is trying to push you out, as its formerly inhuman button-mashing skills have been scaled back to more reasonable levels. It isn't perfect, but it is the first Rumble match we can recall actually wanting to play outside of the story mode in years.
Be Vince MacMahon, minus the billionaire part
The creator modes for Smackdown have, over the years, become so deep that they are practically a game unto themselves. And for fans who can't be satisfied with even a 60-character-deep roster, it’s become a great way to shoehorn in favorite wrestlers that were left out of the game for whatever reason. The system only gets deeper this year, with one major addition that‘s been needed for a long time.
When making a wrestler, there are two main things to consider: how they look and how they fight. When building your wrestler’s body, there are so many customizing options that it’s easy to be paralyzed by choice. Just how much should the eyebrows arch? On which side does this wrestler wear an elbow pad? Does that scar placement look right? Still, if you really put in the time to learn the ins and outs, it can be rewarding (though it might turn off more casual players).
While improvements have been made to the overall quality of how guys and gals from create-a-wrestler modes look, in a match it's still not that hard to tell the differences between, say, your created Rob Van Dam and the game's John Cena. But it's getting closer. The newly added paint tool helps for creating logos, but for those who can't draw a straight line – like us – it can be daunting at first, and we never really got a hang of it, though we've seen proof of what the really skilled can do (more on that later).
Making a custom move set can also be intimidatingly deep, especially for new players. Hell, even we have trouble keeping the difference between a Shining Wizard and a Diamond Dust straight, let alone the many different types of elbow drops. And when you have a specific wrestler in mind that you just perfectly recreated the look for, it can be a huge downer to start their first match and see that the simply titled "Elbow Drop 5" is completely wrong for them. It takes a bit of trial and error before you’ll really be able to understand the vast collection of moves here.
On the plus side, Create-A-Finisher returns this year, with even more options than before. Sure, we still have trouble creating just the right Evenflow DDT, but SvR2010 brings it closer to our grasp. You can also now create top rope finishers, which can be as real or as silly as you like. Want to do four somersaults in the air before landing on the guy? Go right ahead and give it to whatever insane wrestler you just made. Again, not perfect, but significantly improved.
The grandest addition by far is the Story Designer mode. Avid creators have long desired something to actually do with all the wrestlers they made. Sure, you could plan a Pay-Per-View or a tournament before, but the stories were only in your head. Now you can take any wrestler in the game, or any created character, and put them in a story of your design. You could have it unfold over one week of Raw and Smackdown, or you could expand it to up to TEN YEARS of thrice-weekly shows. The possibilities are almost limitless.
Setting up the matches is the relatively easy part. Just pick the competitors, the setting, style and smaller things, like how injured each wrestler will be at the start of the match. It’s what goes on between the matches that has the real depth. When creating scenes that lead to and follow matches, you pick the setting, characters, actions and reactions, preset events and dialogue. It wouldn’t have hurt to throw in a few more places to be or events in which to participate, but the sheer volume of potential combinations make it deeper than it seems at first.
If anything, the depth and possibilities of the stories you can create, multiplied by the possibilities of created characters to include, leaves an almost frightening level of customizability that will be daunting to even old hands. Sure, plugging in a USB keyboard to type away dialogue makes it easier, but just making a five-minute scene you’re satisfied with can sometimes take an hour or more, even for the experienced. And when playing through a story, particularly complicated scenes can take seemingly forever to load. The truly devoted out there will make some really great stuff, but for much of the audience, it may be too intense to be worth the time.
Oh brave new world! That has such wrestlers in it!
Say you’re the type of player who appreciates that creator modes exist, but you just don’t have the time needed to make the characters or stories you desire. Or maybe you’re one of the very devoted, and have long made intricate created wrestlers that you could only share via complicated guides. That’s where the truly revolutionary part of the game comes in: the new community aspect. Thanks to the ability to share tons of created content, those two types of players can meet and share with one another, enjoying the game in brand-new ways.
The new community system is where players can upload any stories, characters, finishers, screenshots or highlight reels they created. Did you make the best early 1998-era Mankind right before he added Socko to his move set? Then put him up there for all to see. Did you remake the John Cusack film High Fidelity nearly scene for scene (we actually saw this online, by the way)? Let everyone enjoy it. And the user rating system helps a bit with separating the good stuff from the crap, so the lazy or less dedicated can finally enjoy the work of more promising creators.
Still, we can’t see into the future and know for sure that the community will really support it with anything worth downloading. It could become a virtual ghost town, but we highly doubt that. After seeing for years the dedication players have shown to making wrestlers that aren’t all that easy to share, we’re almost guaranteed to at least see that same amount of work put into filling out a much easier-to-navigate system. There’s one downside, though: content is locked to the type of console on which it was created, meaning 360 creators won’t be sharing anything with PS3 fans, and vice versa. So it’s possible one could end up being better than the other.
Is it better than…
WWE Legends of Wrestlemania? Yes. While filled with lovely nostalgia and a nice pacifier for those waiting for SvR2010, this was a slightly fuller expansion pack to Smackdown 2009 marred by overly simple controls. It wasn’t the full sequel that 2010 is.
UFC 2009 Undisputed? Sort of. It really depends on whether you prefer pure brawling and grappling to the much more dramatic elements of wrestling. Plus, the Smackdown series has more than a decade of annual releases and updates under its belt, making it much fuller than publisher THQ’s inaugural UFC game.
TNA iMPACT!? Oh hell yeah. This also-ran tried its best to keep up with WWE, but it came nowhere close. Leave it in the bargain bin where it belongs.
Just for you, Metacritic!
With the long-overdue additions of a story-creation mode and an online community, SvR2010 is a massive step forward for the series’ already-rich feature set, while still continuing the steady improvement of its in-ring fundamentals.
Oct 16, 2009