We first saw THQ's upcoming Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 game a few months ago at its media event during Wrestlemania XXIV. At the time, though, very little was shown of the new tag team experience or of the new match types that would debut in this year's game. During a private showing here at E3, however, we were able to see the improvements to the popular wrestling series in practice and chat with the THQ team on what we can expect to see this fall.
Fighter intros and music is one element that the THQ/Yukes team has always captured well, and this year's game is no different. All of the 60-plus wrestlers included in the game will feature their authentic intros, even down to the lighting effects and pyrotechnics. Each wrestler will showcase his signature mannerisms during his stroll down to ringside. The THQ team has made some progress in improving the prematch load times that have plagued the series in the past. Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 has only one roughly six-second loading period after selecting the wrestlers for the match (though there is a momentary pause right before action begins in the ring as well). This is an improvement from years past, and there is no longer any pause between player intros.
In addition to revamped commentary, the THQ team has made it a focus to improve the AI in this year's game. Though we couldn't see a definitive moments of the improved AI in action, the THQ developers did seem to have difficulty in showing off their gaming skills against their AI opponents.
Much of the gameplay shares similarities with prior iterations in the series. The game displays a meter indicating your wrestler's momentum. This meter will slowly fill as your wrestler chains together more attacks and also decrease your opponent's momentum. Once you've built up the meter, you will be able to execute your wrestler's most devastating finishing moves. In addition to the momentum meter, a damage indicator will become visible whenever a wrestler takes damage. The indicator is color-coated to show you the damage your wrestler has taken to various parts of his body.
The major addition to Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 is the return of tag team play. This year's game takes this tag team play to a new level, though with a variety of actions available to the tag team partner waiting on the ropes. He will have the option to roam up and down the apron, grab the active opponent while your partner beats him down, or even distract the ref letting your teammate get in some illegal blows. You will also be able to enter the ring as the illegal partner, but you need to be careful and make sure that the ref is engaged in some way before doing so (otherwise the ref will try to get you to leave the ring while you partner gets double teamed).
Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 will also introduce "hot tags" for the first time in a wrestling game. Although only available once per match and only after your wrestler has been getting smoked, the hot tag will offer you a chance at turning the match around. Provided you can get away from your opponent and are relatively close to your corner, the game will flash a cutscene of your wrestler diving to tag your eager partner. As is the case with wrestling on television, your partner will enter the ring primed to wreck havoc on your opponents. While powerful, hot tags are still balanced by the fact your partner's high-energy moves can still be countered with good timing (and a little luck). And because the momentum bar is shared by both wrestlers on a tag team, you partner will have to execute many attacks just to catch up. The other team can also simply prevent the hot tag-enabled wrestler from getting to his corner. THQ also suggested that blind tags (where the illegal partner tags his partner without his consent) may also be an option this year in case your partner is a glory hog. The game features 28 total tag team finishers, though unfortunately, you will not be able to create custom tag teams; you will only be able to select from those available in the game.
Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 will feature a campaign mode called Road to Wrestlemania that can be played either as a single-player campaign or as a tag team campaign. To add further to the mode replayability, Road to Wrestlemania will offer a unique storyline depending on which wrestler (or wrestlers for tag teams) you choose. Tag team campaigns can be played with a friend locally or online.
Speaking of online, THQ also revealed that downloadable content would be available in the game. Details are still scarce, but THQ did suggest that downloadable content would help keep the game current and allow it to introduce special events in-game based on what's happening on the show. Based on all the winks and nudges, it seems THQ still has a few surprises on the online front it isn't ready to share yet.
This year's game will also feature a new inferno match for the first time where flames form a border around the ring. A temperature reading is displayed at the bottom of the screen, initially reading 375 degrees. As wrestlers get slammed to the mat, the flames will continue to build up to 500 degrees. At this point, wrestlers will be able to burn their opponents by tossing them against the ropes causing immediate damage from the flames. This period will continue for about 15 to 20 seconds before the flames die down back to endurable levels. Once either wrestler is flung outside of the ring, the match will end and you'll be treated with a scene of the wrestler getting sprayed with a fire extinguisher (though they do seem to take their time before doing so).
Finally, Smackdown vs. Raw's create-a-finisher feature deserves a mention. Although we already spoke about this feature in our first look a few months back, this was our first opportunity to get our hands on it to try it for ourselves. The feature allows you to string together various moves (up to 10) to create an entirely unique finisher for your wrestler. The list of moves is vast and definitely includes moves not currently in use by any other wrestler. After selecting the first move, you will be presented with another list of context-sensitive moves for your subsequent action (this way each moves flows to the next smoothly). In addition, each move animation can be slowed or sped up to your liking. While putting together your string of moves, two sample wrestlers will display your finisher in action, making it easy to gauge how your creation will turn out.
Once you're happy with your finisher, you can name it yourself or choose from a list of preset names if you want the announcers to actually refer to it by name. Each wrestler can have up to two finishers, so you may have to replace an existing finisher to add your custom one. The only drawback to the create-a-finisher feature is that it won't be situationally based in this year's game; all moves are triggered while you are standing in front of your opponent when he is stunned. THQ did suggest that this would be added in future iterations.
While the game looks solid, it's not without its share of flaws. The game still plays very fast and animation transitions are very abrupt. Like previous games in the series, collision detection issues continue to be a factor. Wrestlers will react to their opponents in seemingly canned ways even if the opponents barely make contact (I suppose you could consider that realistic though). Finally, the camera is zoomed-in very close to the action, so you won't have a good perspective of the area outside the ring in case you need to make a quick getaway. The game is still a work in progress though, so it is possible that these elements are still being tweaked.
We will continue to bring you all the news on Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 as we learn more. The game is scheduled for release in late October to early November on the Xbox 360 but will also be released on the Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo DS, Sony PSP, and on mobile.