Last year's SmackDown! vs. Raw was the first game that featured both of the big WWE television brands; it was also the first American wrestling game to feature online play. This year, THQ is bringing us a brand-new entry in the series, WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw 2006, a game that looks to shake up some of the in-ring aspects that fans of the SmackDown! series have come to depend on. We sat down with the game's producers to get a feel for exactly what will be new for SVR 2006 when the game is released later this year.
One of the biggest new additions to SVR 2006 is the momentum system. As anyone who's watched a WWE match can tell you, the peaks and valleys of any well-executed wrestling match are all fueled by momentum; the developers at Yuke's are looking to reflect this phenomenon in their new approach. Each wrestler will have a momentum meter that, when filled up, will let you pull off that wrestler's finishing move. The difference here is that the momentum meter is dynamic; just as a real wrestler's energy may ebb and flow in a WWE match, so too will a virtual grappler's momentum shift in SVR 2006. Pull off a string of successful moves, play to the crowd, or execute some well-timed reversals, and your momentum meter will fill up; start screwing things up, and it will deplete at a rapid clip--and you'll be starting from ground zero once again.
Running concurrently with the momentum feature is a stamina system, a feature first introduced in that other upcoming THQ/Yuke's joint effort, Day of Reckoning 2 on the GameCube. As you might expect, stamina also plays into the tempo of a match, as a tired wrestler isn't a very effective one. You'll want to watch your stamina meter carefully when playing the game--start off the match with too many high-impact moves, and you might burn yourself out just as your opponent is getting started. The stamina feature ties directly to the stamina attribute each wrestler has; some of the heavy hitters, like Kane, will have relatively low stamina ratings--a fact balanced by their incredible strength ratings. The quicker you can end a match, the better, and if the match lasts too long, the big guys are at a distinct disadvantage.
One of the main reasons for implementing the stamina system in SVR 2006 was for online matches, where players would execute a few moves, then run around the ring for extended periods of time, avoiding contact with each other all the while. The implementation of a stamina meter means this cheap technique won't be available, as your wrestler will eventually tire out if you spend too much time jogging around the squared circle. If you manage to knock down your opponent and have a few moments to spare, you can regain your stamina by holding the "select" button. Regaining stamina will also mend limb damage, but only to a certain degree. So, as you can see, there will be definite tactical benefits to keeping track of your stamina.
Despite the introduction of momentum and stamina, the heads-up display for SVR 2006 is cleaner than ever, offering you just enough pertinent information to be successful in the ring. Your stamina gauge, for example, is normally invisible, popping up only when your stamina reaches a dangerously low point (or when you hit "select" to take a breather). All in all, the developers are looking to put you in the ring as much as possible, without the distracting HUD meters getting in your way.
The original SmackDown! vs. Raw included some fun minigames, such as chop battles, stare-downs, and shoving matches. In that same vein, SVR 2006 has a lock-up battle, generally seen at the very beginning of a match, when two WWE wrestlers lock up for the first time. Two strength meters appear--one for each grappler--with an icon moving back and forth. The player who manages to stop the meter at the highest point wins the lock-up battle and will gain an early advantage in the match.
There are still more control tweaks, such as a power Irish whip, a new and improved control system for climbing the ring during cage matches (you can also choose to escape from the ring door this year), and an improved reversal control that allows for double and triple reverses. There's also a double-knockdown minigame, in which the first wrestler up off the mat gains the advantage.
There's even a sleeper-hold system that appears to come straight out of the WWE script books. If you find yourself in a sleeper hold, a meter will appear that is tied directly to your arm, which the referee lifts to see if you're out cold. As your arm falls when the ref drops it, so too does the cursor drop in the meter; you'll have three opportunities, just as in real matches, to stop the cursor at just the right point. If your timing is right, you'll escape the hold; if you've got a flair for the dramatic, you can wait until the third and final arm drop to make your move. If you succeed, you'll get a dramatic boost in momentum as you pull out from the move at the very last split second.
Game Set of Matches
So there's a lot to talk about with controls, but what about match types? The Yuke's folks seem to be delivering big in this area as well. SmackDown! vs. Raw 2006 will include your requisite matches, such as singles, tag, triple threat, and so on, but a trio of new match types will also find their way into the game. The first, and perhaps the most requested by WWE fans, is the casket match, made famous by The Undertaker. Even though you start out in the ring, your ultimate goal in a casket match is to wear your opponent down to a nub--thus building up your "rest in peace" meter--and to eventually toss him into a coffin. The first player to bury his foe alive (or at least get him into the casket) wins, and the match type includes a few match-specific button-mashing minigames to make that happen. Should you find yourself on the wrong end of the casket, you can pull off a last-ditch effort to block the coffin lid from shutting.
Sorry, fellas, there's no bra and panties match in SVR 2006. That doesn't mean, however, that the WWE Divas won't be prominently featured in their own match type. SVR 2006 features a brand-new mode: the fulfill your fantasy match. Here, not only will you be able to pick your diva's outfit (from three choices: nurse, schoolgirl, or French maid), but once you're in the ring, you'll have several new options. You can pull off standard slapping and grappling moves (come to think of it, that would be a great name for a future diva match type: slapping and grappling), and you can also pull off "devastating" fantasy moves, like hitting one another with pillows, tossing your opponent on a bed conveniently laid out in the middle of the ring, and *gulp* even tossing your opponent over your knee and giving her a good spanking.
Moving on from that dubious territory, the final match type that's new for SVR 2006 is backstage brawls. We got to see one of these brawls in particular, which took place in a barroom environment that hearkened back to the old APA skits on Raw. During the match, we saw WWE superstars tossed onto the pool table, against the wall, and directly onto the bar itself. If you wrangle your opponent up against the bar, be sure to ask for a bottle of booze from the bartender, which you can subsequently smash against your foe's dome--a pretty satisfying little touch.
Though the roster has not yet been finalized for SVR 2006, we do know the game will feature more than 60 WWE wrestlers from the current lineup, including a currently unspecified list of WWE legends. It's hard not to be impressed by the grapplers we saw in the preview--wrestler models continue the high level of graphical quality seen in the last game, from the accurate ring entrances to the smooth animations in the ring. When things get messy in the ring, as they often tend to do, there will be three levels of blood to contend with, including blood spatters on the mat, a detail sure to please the gore hounds in the audience. Jim Ross, Jerry Lawler, Tazz, and Michael Cole will all return for ringside announcing duties, though the build we saw of the game did not have their commentary in place yet.
Though we're still awaiting details on the season mode and the online play details, we can share a few bare-bones tidbits that we managed to glean. Season mode will take place over two full WWE seasons, without repetition. Online play will be available for up to four people, and you will be able to challenge one another in order to gain prestige in a virtual WWE Championship--though exactly how that will play out remains to be seen. There's also title match mode, which will let you save any belts you win in the game's season mode to a profile on your memory card. You can then put those belts up for contention in an entirely separate set of matches.
At this point, there are still more questions than answers when it comes to WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw 2006. We're eagerly awaiting our chance to get a controller in our hands, sit down for an extended period of time with the game, and really test out the new control tweaks introduced this year. Maybe we can even get into a pillow fight or two. Stay tuned for more coverage of the game as we get closer to its release later this year.