Last year's Smackdown! was all about refining the physicality of the pseudo-sport. Yukes succeeded in defining a more realistic version of the strength differences between wrestlers and also delivered a limb specific fatigue indicator. This meant that slight wrestlers like Rey Mysterio couldn't body slam heavyweights such as Big Show, but could concentrate on an area of his huge frame to wear down. This was a real step forward for the series and wrestling fans have been salivating over the future of the franchise ever since. Unfortunately, Smackdown! Vs Raw's action hasn't advanced as significantly as the leap it made from Know Your Role to Here Comes The Pain. It seems Yukes have chosen to simply overhaul the game's presentation. But fight fans needn't worry - they've thrown in a bucketload of indulgent extras to appease their loyal army even if they can't make the game actually better.
Y'see the core brawling has remained largely the same, with the exception of a new seated grapple manoeuvre where you prop up your foe in a sitting position and then choke the life out of them. Or you could kick him mercilessly in the temple. A more rational emphasis has also been placed on weapon attacks. You can't continuously beat your foe about the head with an object any more because they now disappear after four strikes. Unfortunately one area which seems to have skipped the error radar is the lack of variety in attack strength. This wasn't a problem last year, because HCTP was in a brawling league of it's own. But, since the arrival of EA's Def Jam: Fight For New York, there's now a new benchmark for what a hefty beat-'em-up should play like, and Smackdown! Vs Raw feels fluffy in comparison. Whacking an opponent in the face by pressing q still offers a lightweight effect, whereas Def Jam felt considerably more brutal all round.
What else is new? Well, there's the huge increase in customisable content within the already bulging bag of character editing options. From being able to age the appearance of your character to finely adjusting the angle of your lugholes, Smackdown! Vs Raw's got the lot. As well as offering the most diverse create-a-character mode in any title on PS2, it also sets the standard for life-like muscle graphics on PS2. Gone are the mannequins of old and their place we're treated to a realistic digital person, complete with wrinkling skin and functioning limbs.
The seemingly endless list of moves has also been increased. One godsend of an addition lets you shortlist your possible choices by pressing i. So, rather than trawling back through hundreds of potential slams and grapples, you can add them to a quick 'n' easy 'maybe list'. Brilliant. Sticking with the theme of creation, Smackdown! Vs Raw also allows you devise your own Pay Per View event. You can select who participates, what sort of match you want (ie. Cage, Hardcore, Hell in a Cell, etc) and even which two commentators you want to survey the action. And guess what? The commentators actually speak. OK, it's quite repetitive, but at least they're there.
There's now dialogue from not only the commentators, but every one of the superstars as well. So, rather than recalling scripts of text during conversations, you can now hear wooden voice acting... The gloss is further stripped away because you have to keep pressing q to get to the next section of the banter. Oh, and there's the annoyance of being unable to perform any kind of audible response no matter which superstar you're playing as. How much effort would it have taken to get them to say a few more lines? While we're on the subject of the Season mode, you no longer get the chance to wander around backstage, which means no more random battles. Definitely a case of less, rather than more.
Despite our minor gripes with Smackdown! Vs Raw, it's still the strongest wrestler around. Though its been put firmly in the shade by Def Jam in terms of fighting mechanics, the action's flawed, but solid, and although it's a slightly streamlined roster, Smackdown! Vs Raw still manages to include most of our favourite grapplers from past and present. So, there it is: the Smackdown! series has delivered the goods again and that's definitely a small step forward.
WWE Smackdown vs Raw is out now for PS2