E3 06: WWE SmackDown! vs RAW hands-on

SmackDown! has gone next-gen - and we've already played it. GamesRadar has just been given early access to the Xbox 360 version of the game at E3 and, even a mere five months into development, it's already looking extremely polished.

The demo consists of a single one-on-one match, with the choice of characters from the previously-announced line-up of Triple H, Rey Mysterio, John Cena and Kurt Angle.

We chose to play as Mysterio while a THQ representive took control of Triple H. After the suitably impressive ring intros took place (the fully 3D crowd looks far more impressive than the audiences of previous games in the series), we began to - quite literally - grapple with one another.

We were intrigued to find out for ourselves exactly how good the new analogue-based interface is - and, the good news is, early impressions are very positive. The key to the new control system is a range of 'user controlled' moves. So rather than just tapping a button and your character being sent straight into, say, a powerbomb animation, you now control what takes place between picking up your opponent and executing the move.

This allows you to wander around the ring with your opponent held aloft, in order to garner a better position, taunt your opponent, and then decide exactly where to dump them. Lift them up for a Razor's Edge style move, and you can even throw your hapless adversary over the top rope to the concrete floor below.

Our other favourite example of this in action was in bashing Triple H's face into the steel ring steps. It's possible to control exactly how many times you do it and even from what height you drop his outsize head. The only limit on how many times you can repeat the manouevre is in how much stamina you have left.

While last year's stamina system felt clumsily executed, we're told it's being tweaked for the new game. Certainly it doesn't break up the flow of the gameplay as much as it did in SmackDown! 2006, but having to just hold down B in the middle of a match to catch your breath isn't entirely fun. Fortunately, you now have the option to turn off the stamina function entirely.

We also has the opportunity to brawl through the crowd - or at least the area set aside within the audience for players to fight in. It basically feels like a small backstage area but just placed at ringside. There's a ton of objects available - including walking sticks, bottles and brollys - plus tables to fling at your opponent.

The best aspect of this area is being able to place your foe on a table, clamber up some nearby scaffolding, and then leap off with a huge elbow drop or splash as the camera pans out to dramatic effect.

As for other new features, THQ is keeping quiet for now, although they did confirm that all the old favourites will return - from Season and General Manager modes, to improved ladder and table bouts - in addition to any debuting content.

The early verdict? The new control system isn't quite as intuitive as we might have hoped - THQ reckons seasoned players will take about an hour to pick it up - although it does make the whole grappling experience feel more visceral. The moves look far smoother and the increased level of control you have over your character is hugely encouraging. And, as we mentioned earlier, it's already looking fantastic. You've never seen such pretty sweat.

May 10, 2006