WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw 2006 Hands-On

We enter the squared circle to check out THQ's latest PS2 wrestling game.

WWE's two brands, SmackDown! and Raw, have been split for a couple of years now, and regardless of what you might think this has done for the television product, it's been a pretty good move for THQ's line of wrestling games. While the SmackDown! series has been going strong for years now, other WWE-themed games, such as the Raw franchise, didn't enjoy the same level of success during their brief runs. Because of this, the merging of the two wrestling brands into last year's debut, WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw, made a lot of sense and resulted in a pretty good game of wrestling. Here we are, roughly a year later, and the next game in the series is set to debut on PS2 in a scant few weeks. We got our hands on a recent build of the game to check out what's new this year.

The Legend Killer simply has never looked better on the PS2.

We've written before about the new controls tweaks in SVR 2006, but until now, we hadn't had much of a chance to put these controls through their paces. First and foremost is the new stamina system, which looks to play a big part in your match strategy this year. Each wrestler has a different stamina rating that will determine how long he can last in the ring before getting winded. Smaller guys will typically enjoy a higher stamina rating than the big bruisers, but at the same time, they won't be able to deal as much damage when their blows land. Your character's stamina wears down as you perform moves in and out of the ring, and the more high-impact the move, the more stamina will drain from your grappler. Aerial moves, for example, take more of a toll than simple headlocks. Similarly, pulling off a long string of moves will drain your stamina quickly, as will running around the ring apron when outside of the ring.

If your stamina gets too low, your wrestler will be unresponsive and doubled over as he attempts to regain his breath. To regenerate your stamina, simply hold the Select button down--though you'll want to pick your spots carefully; catching your breath leaves you wide open to attack from your opponent. The stamina system is an interesting twist, but we found that as long as you're smart with your moves and consistently aware of your stamina level, you won't have much trouble keeping up the pressure on an opponent.

Strike and grapple reversals are still a big part of the SVR series this year, though they seem just a bit easier to pull off this time around. It's not uncommon to see multiple reversals happen in a row during times when grapplers are trading blows in the center of the ring. The grapple animations are varied and authentic-looking as well, such as when one grappler reverses an atomic-drop attempt into a back slam onto the canvas. The length of the reversal windows differ depending on the move being attempted, but it's nice to see that if you're on your toes, you have a good shot at reversing nearly any move thrown at you.

The main game features and modes in SVR 2006 include exhibition, season, pay per view, a number of create modes, your personal locker room, and, of course, online play. Exhibition matches are just that--an easy way to get straight to the action in the squared circle. There are lots of match types to choose from, including singles, tag, triple threat, fatal 4-way, handicap, and a number of main event-type matches such as ironman, TLC, steel cage, and special referee. New main event match types for this year are the backstage brawls (actually, backstage brawls aren't new to the series, but the barroom setting in SVR 2006 is), the buried alive match, and the fulfill your fantasy (which you can read about in detail in our previous preview). Then there's the title match, where you can play against any current WWE champion to try and take his or her belt, or go up against any current holder of a created belt in the game.

Strike and grapple reversals will once again play a huge part in this year's SmackDown! vs. Raw.

Another feature new for 2006 is the interactive locker room, your personal headquarters where you can check out your progress in the game, unlock new items in the WWE shop area, choose from different costumes for your created character, customize your character attributes, view a number of trophies and belts you can win in the game, and more.

A Season On the Brink

Season mode will be the heart of the single-player game in SVR 2006 and just like the previous game, it will consist of the standard elements that make up every Raw and SmackDown! storyline--misguided loyalties, double crosses, run-ins, and, naturally, the heavyweight championship belt.

The story-driven season mode returns in SVR 2006. Could this guy be your next WWE champion?

Without giving away too much, here's the gist of the first section of the plot in SVR 2006's season mode. The good news is, you start off big here, with a match against perennial WWE champ Triple H. The bad news is, win or lose, Triple H and his good buddy Ric Flair are going to treat you to a post-match beat-down, the likes of which you've rarely seen. Backstage, you get a visit from Shelton Benjamin, who tells you he's willing to back you up in a match against the two former members of Evolution. From there it's a series of matches that will couple you against Flair and Triple H in a quest to gain the heavyweight championship title, only to have it stripped from by you by Raw general manager Eric Bischoff.

It won't just be Triple H and the Nature Boy that you face off against, however. As you progress through the game, you'll have run-ins with the likes of William Regal, Eugene, Edge, Christian, and even SmackDown! roster stars like John Cena and the Big Show. You'll also have a limited degree of choice in the mostly linear storyline in SVR 2006--mostly you'll have the option of either participating in a certain match or not. It's not a lot, but it does add a smidge of variety, should you decide to play through the season mode a second or third time.

We've really enjoyed what we've seen of season mode's cutscenes so far. The voice acting by the host of WWE superstars in the game is well done, and when coupled with some pretty subtle model animations, it makes the scenes all the more effective. In one scene, for example, while your character speaks with William Regal, Eugene stands behind you and mocks you behind your back. Sure, it's a subtle touch, and it won't make or break the game in the long run, but we enjoyed it nonetheless.

A wrestling game wouldn't be complete without loads of customization options and, in addition to standard create-a-wrestler and create-a-move set options, SVR 2006 will also feature a create-an-entrance tool, a first for the series. When it comes time to create an entrance, you have two main options--using the easy creation mode, which gives you three basic options--motion (animation), Titantron movie, and background music--to choose from, or dive into the deep end of the pool and check out the advanced creation tool, which is much more in-depth. The advanced creation tool separates the ring entrance into four distinct sections--stage, ramp, ring-in, and ring. Each of these sections can be completely customized along six different options including motion, fireworks, screen effects, room lighting, name plate, camera, music, and movie.

The aforementioned motion is the animation that your wrestler will perform in that particular section of the entrance--and you can choose from currently existing WWE roster animations or a variety of canned animations such as cowboy, coward, or fan favorite. Fireworks, screen effects, and room lighting are pretty self-explanatory, and the name plate is the standard onscreen title showing off your wrestler's name. This is a pretty fun tool to mess around with--one that, thanks to a lot of different options, can result in some rather "unique" ring entrances. Not only can you create brand-new entrances for your created wrestler using this mode, you can also alter the entrance of any current WWE superstar found in the game--so if, like us, you wish Batista would stop doing that ridiculous dance routine at the beginning of his entrance, here's your chance to make a difference.

Guess not.

Other create tools in the game let you customize your move set all the way down to in-ring taunts, rope moves, and diving out of the ring attacks; or you can create an entirely new stable of wrestlers. We're eagerly awaiting the fan who takes the time and trouble to create each of the original Four Horsemen in the create-a-player mode and then goes ahead and reunites the famous foursome using the create-a-stable feature.

Though SVR 2006 is set to feature online play, we didn't get a chance to check it out in our preview time with the game. Nonetheless, we're optimistic about this year's SmackDown! vs. Raw game, a game that has made some key control tweaks that seem to improve the overall match flow (and make the game approachable for newbies as well). Will the game exceed last year's fine effort from the folks at THQ? We'll know in November, when the game is set to hit store shelves. Stay tuned for our full review.

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