We recently checked out a build of WWE SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain for the PlayStation 2 and had a chance to explore some of the new features and options in this year's game--most of which come in the form of new match types and refinements made to preexisting modes. The exhibition mode still has the standard assortment of match options, including single, tag, six-man tag, handicap, hardcore, royal rumble, and survival matches, but there's a new option, called main events, where all of the gimmick matches are located. There are three stages of hell, bra and panties, cage, elimination chamber, elimination tag, first blood (yes, there's blood in the game), hell in a cell, ironman, ladder, last man standing, lumberjack, slobber knocker, special referee, submission, table, and TLC (tables, ladders, and chairs) matches.
As you can see, SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain has the most match types of any previous SmackDown! game, but the changes don't stop there. THQ and Yuke's have also made some relatively slight refinements to the story mode as well. At the beginning of this mode, you can create stables for wrestlers, so if you want to create the Evolution stable, which features Triple H, Ric Flair, and Randy Orton, then you can go ahead and do that. In addition, it's also possible to change the Raw and SmackDown rosters just in case you're tired of seeing certain wrestlers on specific WWE shows or if you'd like to stage a potential Goldberg versus Brock Lesnar dream match. Once you're all done with that, you can then determine which wrestlers are faces (good) and which are heels (bad). Since the game roster is derived from a fairly recent period in WWE programming, you won't have to worry too much about changing these around--unless you just feel like turning normally good guys into bad guys.
After selecting a wrestler you want to use, you'll get a brief introduction sequence and have an equally short conversation with the general manager (GM) of whichever program your wrestler belongs to. So, if you're a member of Raw, then you'll speak with Eric Bischoff; if you're on the SmackDown side, you'll have a chat with Stephanie McMahon. The next portion of the story mode is where most of the changes have taken place. Instead of having a free roaming environment, where you could literally walk around an arena to get to different portions of the story mode, you're now presented with a locker that contains an assortment of options. One of these options is called "move." Move lets you visit locations around the arena so you can talk with other wrestlers. Some of these conversations can even end up in matches. Interestingly, some of these conversations can affect your wrestler's superstar point level or his or her overall rating. We witnessed this in a conversation with The Rock, who ended up using one of his trademark lines on us. This is also where you can officially ask your respective GM for a title match, but much of that depends on the superstar rating of the wrestler. If it's low, then he or she can only go after some of the lower-tiered belts.
But there's more you can do in the story mode. In the locker area, you can access the shopzone. This area has unlockable items for sale; they range from moves and classic wrestlers (such as "The Million Dollar Man" Ted Dibiase and Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka) to clothing and additional moves. You can purchase these items with SmackDown dollars, which are earned by winning and participating in matches; however, it'll take a while before you can unlock some of the good stuff, since it tends to be quite a bit more expensive
While unlocking special features is already a great incentive for playing through the story mode, there's also added motivation to play through it in order to increase your character's abilities. Like SmackDown dollars, you can earn experience points at the end of matches that can be used to upgrade different facets of your wrestler, such as strength, submission skill, endurance, technique, and speed. Obviously, wrestlers like Ric Flair will have low speed but high submission skills, while someone like Rob Van Dam will have a high level of speed but may have lower submission abilities. If you're ever curious to see what the individual stats are for other wrestlers in SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain, you can simply click on the magazine icon in the locker to look at wrestler profiles. Finally, SmackDown! allows stables to be viewed and edited.
As for the gameplay in Here Comes the Pain, much of what made last year's game so great has been left intact, but a number of key features have also been integrated. First and foremost, the smooth transition between moves is still there, so it looks and feels natural when you move from a collar-and-elbow tie-up, into a standing switch, and then into a suplex--or any other similar combination move. Interestingly, a greater emphasis seems to have been placed on softening opponents before moving into any of the powerful grapple moves. If you try to constantly grapple an opponent, early on in the match, then the AI will mercilessly beat you down--almost to the point where it becomes impossible to launch any sort of offense for a good two or three minutes. The grappling system has also been enhanced so you can transition into different types of moves--such as strong moves or submissions--when you're locked up with an opponent.
What makes the latest SmackDown even more representative of the WWE spectacle are the injury and damage models. Not only is there location damage that lets you target the head, chest, or legs of an opponent to soften them up for a submission maneuver, but this damage also has an actual effect on stamina. For example, if your torso has been badly damaged and you attempt to perform a move that involves that area, then your wrestler will clinch that part of his or her body and take a few seconds to recover before going on to the next move. This adds a nice little element to the game in that it makes it feel as though you've just been through a grueling match.
The SmackDown finisher system has been kept the same. As you perform moves, you charge up the SmackDown meter. When it gets full, you're given the chance to perform a finisher. For the most part, finishers are executed the same way that they've been done in previous SmackDown games, but it seems to be a little bit harder to set up an opponent for certain types of finishers.
In any case, all of the finishing moves--along with most of the other moves in the game--are animated incredibly well. Also, many of the character models from the last SmackDown games have received somewhat minor touch-ups. In fact, it's pretty easy to point out which characters are new to Here Comes the Pain, even if you weren't familiar with the roster from the last game, simply because they tend to look better than the rest. Regardless, all of the character models still look excellent--even down to the individual facial expressions. It's also worth pointing out that the first few rows in the crowd are fully polygonal and are much more convincing than the horrible sprites that have been used in so many previous wrestling games.
At the moment, it seems like there's only some last-minute polishing and tweaking to do before the game is finally done. Otherwise, all of the modes, including the excellent create-a-wrestler mode, seem to be fully intact. SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain is scheduled for release on the PlayStation 2 on October 21.