WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2006 Hands-On

We get our first taste of the new control tweaks in Yuke's latest WWE grappler.

In the real world of professional wrestling, changes are in store for WWE television brands. WWE RAW is set to move to a new network, the USA Network (the network on which RAW was broadcast before moving to Spike); while SmackDown! is set to move to Friday nights on UPN, a switch from its traditional Thursday-night slot. Similarly, changes are in store for the latest wrestling game from THQ, SmackDown! vs. RAW 2006, which is due in mid-November. We got a chance to check out some of those changes at tonight's THQ press event.

Now, before panic sets in: No, SVR 2006 isn't undergoing some sort of radical platform change. You'll still be playing the game on the PS2, and there will still be plenty of grapplers to contend with. In fact, the game is set to feature 63 WWE superstars, the list of which includes present-day superstars, WWE divas, and, of course, WWE Legends. Beyond these numbers, we still don't have any official word on the complete roster for the game, and THQ reps were unwilling to let loose with any inside information here, no matter how hard we applied our patented hammerlock. Too bad.

Where things have changed are with some of the controls. The basic mechanics of grappling are still the same, and those familiar with the grapple system in the SmackDown! series will be right at home here. Instead, many of the tweaks to SVR 2006's mechanics come on the periphery of the controls, but all of them add some much-needed depth to the action in the ring.

Take the newly implemented stamina system in the game, for example. Unlike the system found in the GameCube's Day of Reckoning 2, the system in SVR 2006 lets you have control over when you choose to regain stamina. By holding down the select button, you can choose to regenerate your stamina, which is an important tactical move that will play into matches early and often. No longer will you be able to simply run around the ring to avoid your opponent or pour on the offense with no repercussions. You'll always need to keep your grappler's stamina in mind, because if it gets too low, your attacks will be about as feeble as Michael Cole in an arm-wrestling match. Each wrestler will have a unique stamina rating too, and the better the rating, the slower the stamina drains over time and the quicker it increases when you take a breather.

We got a chance to take the stamina system for a test-drive, pitting Batista against another player's Chris Benoit, and we found out pretty quickly that coming out strong early in the match isn't always the best tactic, as it wears you out quickly and, if your opponent is deft with the reverses, those attacks might be futile anyway; which means you end up with a wrestler who's not only slightly injured, but worn out to boot. Not exactly a winning combination.

Another thing we noticed in our hands-on time with the game was the game's cleaned-up HUD interface. Instead of having multiple meters onscreen, things have been simplified, resulting in a much cleaner look to the game's interface. The momentum meter and the clean and dirty tactics gauge have been combined into a single all-encompassing meter. Should you max out your momentum meter, you'll earn a finishing move that you can choose to use immediately or store away for later use. There are pros and cons to storing finishers, however. For one thing, it's nice to have your signature move at your disposal for those times in the match when you're getting pounded. On the other hand, should you execute a stored finisher, it won't be as powerful as a finishing move that's executed as soon as you earn it. Another advantage to storing a finisher is that it lets you steal your opponent's taunt move. Here's how it works: Assuming you have a finisher stored, you can press the L1 button and use the taunt stick. Your wrestler will then mockingly perform his opponent's taunt, thus completely depleting your foe's momentum in the process. The catch is that you'll need to pull off the entire taunt move without being interrupted in order for it to work properly, so choose your spot wisely.

We really liked the "possum pin" move we saw in the game for the first time tonight. This is a move any fan of televised wrestling games will be familiar with--where an injured opponent plays "possum" on the mat, lying in wait until just the right moment when, if you can time your reversal to just the precise moment when your opponent attacks, you can roll him up for a quick and devastating pin. It's a move straight out of WWE pay-per-views and looks to add that extra bit of challenge to the game's in-ring tactics. Another change deals with submissions. In last year's game, only a few submission holds had button-mashing escape meters attached to them. Here, every submission hold, no matter how seemingly minor, brings up a meter--which means you can expect to be rapidly tapping buttons a lot more this go around.

We still don't know much about SVR 2006's season mode beyond a few tidbits. First, just as in the last game, there will be voice acting galore from real WWE talent. Even better, you'll be able to choose one of five voices for your created wrestler, which is a significant upgrade from the previous game that saw only one voice (and a pretty weak one at that) available. And while we don't have any plot details to share with you at this point, the producers for the game did say that SVR 2006's plot won't be strictly linear; there will be some branching paths to choose from when going through the game.

One thing we can tell you about is the quality of the game's wrestler models, which to a man (and diva, for that matter) look fantastic. The upped polygon count and improved lighting the producers bragged about were easily seen in our time with the game--we haven't seen wrestlers look this good since the Day of Reckoning games for the GameCube. New this year are motion-captured ring entrances, which look just as smooth as ever. A fortunate consequence of using motion capture is that it gives the developers the ability to play one entrance while the previously announced wrestler is already in the ring. We watched one match between Undertaker and Kurt Angle that showed a triumphant Angle walking down the aisle as both Undertaker and ring announcer Lillian Garcia stood in the squared circle awaiting his arrival. It may sound like a minor detail, but for the hardcore WWE contingent, this is good news. Because of the din at the press event, we didn't get a good idea of the announcing audio tracks, but we do know that the JR/King and Michael Cole/Tazz combinations do return for ringside duties.

Just as the HUD has been streamlined, so too have the create-a-wrestler menus, which, THQ producers told us, have been simplified to make them easier to use, but not at the expense of flexibility or depth. All of the attributes of a created wrestler will be accessible through tabs on the main screen, which you can flip through using the shoulder buttons--hopefully resulting in quicker creation times when it comes to customizing your virtual persona.

We certainly enjoyed our time with SVR 2006, though we're still left with some important questions about the game's features. For example, what is the new locker-room feature that was alluded to by the producers, and how will it play into the game? What new online goodies does the Yuke's team have up its sleeves? And, of course, when are we going to see a finalized roster? With just about two months to go before SVR 2006's release, we expect we'll have answers to these questions and more in the near future, so stay tuned.

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