WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2006

If you've played any of the recent incarnations of the Smackdown series, Smackdown vs Raw 2006 will look instantly familiar, from its trademark graphical sheen to the huge catalogue of manoeuvres on offer. But, come its November release, will it include enough new material to warrant grapple-fans shelling out another 40 notes for the game?

Ostensibly, there are few major changes at first glance. Instead, the focus has been on "addressing the critics", as Smackdown creative director Nick Wlodyka puts it. The end result should be a more realistic grappling experience (well, as realistic as wrestling ever gets, anyway).

To this end, and while this wasn't immediately apparent during our hands-on session with the game, we're told that THQ has "ensured that all the annoying AI problems have been fixed", which will surely be reassuring for anyone who's ever spent any length of time in the previous games' season modes, only to uncover tedious niggles that really should have been addressed.

Perhaps more radical, though, is the inclusion of a new stamina stat. Here's the theory: a larger wrestler such as the Big Show can perform more damaging moves but, given the fact that he's somewhat on the porky side, he's liable to run out of steam more quickly. If he doesn't pace himself, he'll be knackered and will - hilariously - stagger around the centre of the ring in a bid to catch his breath.

"The more running around you do, the more big moves you do, the more your character tires," explains Wlodyka. "Throughout a match you get tired but by holding Select your stamina is refilled. If you watch a real wrestling match, after a big move you see both guys struggling to get up, so this is something that we wanted to introduce to the game."

The reality though - in the current version of the game, at least - is that your character becomes worn out within, literally, a couple of minutes, at which point he is pretty much useless. The only solution is to get as far away from your opponent as possible in a bid to give yourself time to tap Select and wait patiently while your stamina meter is powered up.

It's a tedious process and, while the idea is a sound one, the execution as it currently stands could be massively detrimental to the flow of the game. There's still time for this to be tweaked though before the game hits shelves - let's hope Yuke's does so.

Elsewhere, the momentum, adrenaline and clean/dirty meters of the last game have been consolidated into a single momentum meter which, when filled, allows you to execute your finishing move. Players are now given the option of performing it immediately or, by tapping L1 and R1, it's possible to save it for a later point in the match when your opponent is less likely to be expecting it. Cunning.

The reversal system has also been tweaked to allow for strings of up to three reversals in a row, which will enable advanced players to engage in the sort of chain wrestling for which Kurt Angle is famed.

At the less technical end of the grappling spectrum, a new 'hardcore' attribute determines your character's prowess with weapons such as chairs - so the amount of damage that Triple H can inflict with a piece of furniture will, quite sensibly, be significantly more than the degree of pain that Stacy Keibler could inflict with the same item.

So far, so ho-hum. It's what THQ currently isn't saying about the game that's of greater interest. We know that the total roster count is in the region of 70 current and retro wrestlers but beyond a handful of names (Triple H, Batista, Kurt Angle, the Undertaker, Randy Orton, Chris Benoit, Edge, John Cena), we're in the dark as to who is or isn't set to be included.

There are strong rumours that, in addition to the new Buried Alive gimmick match, there will be a Bar Brawl mode, but THQ is refusing to confirm its existence at present. And we're still none the wiser as to what the improved online function will entail - although there's talk of a league system, replete with virtual WWE champions.

And it's these yet-to-be-confirmed features that could make the difference between Smackdown 2006 being a solid if unremarkable update of an existing game, or a genuinely intriguing new take on a well-established genre.

WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2006 will be released for PS2 and PSP in November