Last year's SmackDown! vs. Raw 2006 was one of the better received wrestling games of this console generation. It's blend of high intensity with surprising depth delighted critics and wrestling fans alike. The Yuke's development team is aiming to make this next game in the series, SmackDown! vs. Raw 2007, even better. Today, THQ unveiled the game at a press conference in Chicago, just ahead of WrestleMania 22, which is being held in the Windy City.
The biggest news for SmackDown! vs. Raw 2007, even if it isn't that much of a surprise, is that it will be the series' debut on next-generation consoles. In addition to making expected appearances on the PlayStation 2 and the PlayStation Portable, the game will be available on the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 when it's released close to the holiday season. Of course, THQ folks were most interested in talking about the next-gen versions of the game which, as you might expect, boast some truly amazing-looking graphics.
Considering the quality of player models found in the previous game--which seemed to push the PS2 to its upper graphical limits--SmackDown! vs. Raw 2007 ups the ante even more, with player models that seem to be virtually indistinguishable from their real-life counterparts. Several in-game screenshots were shown during the THQ-guided demo (unfortunately, the game won't be playable until E3), which showcased big-name WWE stars such as Rey Mysterio Jr. and John Cena. The amount of detail visible in these screens was amazing--from the fine lines that comprise Mysterio's intricate back tattoo, to the veins and muscles that bulge from Cena's biceps it's clear to see that the Yuke's folks have invested major effort into making the game take full advantage of next-gen platform power.
If you're looking for numbers, consider this: The wrestler models here will be made up of more than 20,000 polygons apiece--several times more than those found in SmackDown! vs. Raw 2006. Other details, such as more-detailed facial animations and even a realistic sweat system--something no next-gen sports game can do without, it seems--make for a great-looking package all the way around even if, as one Yuke's developer told us, it's been no easy task to get the wrestlers looking as good as they do. Shortcuts that the graphics team could take in the previous generation simply won't do on the Xbox 360 or the PS3. Consider a simple T-shirt, for example. In the previous game, placing a T-shirt on a wrestler was a much simpler task than it is now. The increased graphical power means the art team has to be much more mindful of how the shirt interacts with the player's body, because otherwise it just won't look right.
It's not just the wrestlers that are getting the royal graphical treatment. The crowd also looks markedly improved, with full 3D models that showcase a good deal of variety in animations when they are cheering the action in the ring. One THQ producer told us that a typical crowd will consist of around 1,000 3D models, and that sense of excitement and movement makes the action on the screen that much more palpable.
While the graphics are getting an upgrade, it certainly isn't the only aspect of the game that's going to change this time around. While the game will still differentiate between strong and weak grapples, these moves have been mapped to the right analog stick. Now, when you want to grab ahold of your opponent and execute a move such as a suplex or a slam, you'll do so by pressing the analog stick in any direction. Presumably, your position relative to the position of your opponent will determine which moves are available to you at any given moment. What's even better is that when using the right analog, you'll have greater control over the execution of that move than ever before.
For example, by pushing up on the right analog, you can pick up your opponent and set him up for a suplex. By holding the stick forward, you can keep your opponent up in the air and even walk with him around the ring for a little showboating. Only when you let go of the stick will you drop your opponent back down on the mat. Similarly, you can use the right analog stick to perform airplane spins on opponents you've picked up, or even interact with various interactive hot spots found in the wrestling environment, such as pushing back and forth on the stick to ram your opponent's head into the ring post. Good, painful stuff.
Another new twist on the gameplay formula is more interaction than ever with the crowd. We've all seen WWE matches where the wrestlers leave the squared circle and take the action into the crowd. And this time you'll be able to do that very thing. Once the fight is outside of the ring, you can toss your opponent over the wall or into the front row of the crowd. The crowd is more interactive as well--they'll pat you on the back or loudly cheer for you as you duke it out. One of the more boisterous fans might even hand you a weapon that you can swat your opponent with. In all, the team wants to add more interactivity to any environment in which you're fighting--be it in the ring, amid the crowd, or backstage.
It wouldn't be a SmackDown! vs. Raw game without plenty of different game modes, and the 2007 version certainly won't disappoint there. Popular features, such as the season mode, create a wrestler, and general manager mode will return, though details are still sketchy. We do know the season mode will have more branching paths than the previous game, making it a slightly less linear experience. And we can expect to see plenty of WWE superstars make appearances (and lend their voice talent as well). Speaking of the superstars, no official roster has been announced yet other than mainstays like Kurt Angle, John Cena, and Rey Mysterio Jr., but you can expect to see a full slate of members from both the Raw and SmackDown! television brands. If you like, you can even create your own character using the game's improved create-a-wrestler feature, which will include more than 250 customizable items to choose from when designing your virtual grappler.
Last year's general manager mode was a new addition, and it let you take control of either Raw or SmackDown!, draft a roster of WWE stars, and book your own shows in an effort to create the best promotion possible. We know that GM mode is making a return in SmackDown! vs. Raw 2007, and THQ reps told us you will have more control over your respective brand, but that was the only information available. Since it was one of our favorite modes in the previous game, we'll be curious to see how it's changing in this game.
Online play has been around for two SmackDown! vs. Raw entries, so of course it will be returning for this game as well. Of special note will be the ability to use voice chat during online sessions (a requirement, since the game will be online for the Xbox 360, of course), and more than 50 available match types will all be playable online. Other details--such as the number and type of Xbox Live achievements--were not released.
In all, SmackDown! vs. Raw 2007 looks like it will make an auspicious next-gen debut, with impressive graphics, a richer and more varied sound palette, and control tweaks that look to put more control than ever before into the players' hands. The game is currently scheduled for release during the holiday season of 2006, but we'll be bringing you much more in the coming months.
Note: All screenshots and video are from the Xbox 360 version.