The Undertaker is stalking Triple H around the ring. The Game has had a rough go of it so far, and the Dead Man has no intention of letting up on the former WWE champ. Since the beginning of the match, Undertaker has been taking it to Triple H with a variety of suplexes, choke slams, and pile drivers--at times, it feels like he's just toying with Triple H, holding him up in the air, dragging him across the ring, and only slamming him back to the mat after he's humiliated him a bit. At one point, 'Taker has Triple H out of the ring and in the crowd, tossing him into monitors or up against gigantic stadium speakers. The crowd loves it; one old lady even tosses her cane to The Undertaker so he can bash Triple H over the head with it. These are just a few examples of the kinds of interactivity that THQ's WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007 will feature. We had a chance to see the game in action and get a hands-on look at the new controls, and we came away impressed with what we've seen so far.
With SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007, the Yuke's development team behind the game has taken a step forward in the game's control, moving the vast majority of the grapple moves to the right analog stick for easier access by players. Last week we took a look at exactly how these new moves are controlled, and now that we've had time to play the game for an extended period of time, we can safely say that the analog controls do add something to the gameplay. For one thing, the moves seem that much easier to access--a quick flick of the thumbstick is measurably easier on the fingers than holding down combinations of buttons. For another, the game seems to be pretty responsive to your input when compared to the old button system from previous versions of the game.
So how do the controls work in practice? For the purpose of explanation, we'll use a virtual version of Kurt Angle and his default moves to discuss the different grapples you can pull off. The first set of moves, quick grapples, is pulled off by moving the right analog stick while in the vicinity of your opponent. When standing in front of your opponent, pushing the right stick left or right has Angle perform a simple knee takedown. Push up on the controller and Angle will flip his opponent over his body and onto his back. Finally, pushing down on the right analog has Angle wrap his opponent up and deliver a quick knee to the stomach. The quick grapple move set is different when you are standing behind your opponent. Pressing left results in a slam, pressing right executes a reverse suplex, pressing down results in several strikes to the lower back, and pressing up puts Angel's opponent in a choke hold.
Strong grapples are executed by combining the right bumper and the right analog stick. In Angle's case, pressing RB and down will make Angle twist his opponent's arm, RB and up will have Angle lock up with his foe in a traditional manner, left and RB will have Angle grab his opponent's head and give him a kick to the gut for good measure, and RB and right will put his opponent in a front face-lock. When you are behind an opponent and try a strong grapple move, you will simply turn your opponent around to face you, setting you up to be in a proper strong-grapple position.
The strong grapple is really just a setup for the subset of moves that you can pull off once you have your foe locked up. In the case of Angle (or any of the other WWE superstars that will appear in the game), that can range from a variety of suplexes and slams to painful-looking submission moves. Which moves are available to your wrestler depends on his or her style, though it's important to know that not only can you set up your move sets from scratch for your created wrestler, you can also edit the moves of any of the current superstars to your liking.
The variety doesn't stop at the strong grapples and its associated move sets. From any strong-grappling position, you can access a host of specially designed interactive holds by clicking on the right analog stick (pressing the R3 button, as it's known). Depending on where you are located inside (or outside) the ring, you'll pull off a specially designed move that you will be able to control yourself. Let's take a look at some of Angle's special interactive moves.
From a standard lockup position, Angle's interactive grapple move is the fireman's carry, which has Angle place his opponent up on his shoulders. Once he's up there, you can move the right analog stick in a circle, and Angle will begin to spin around; the faster you turn the stick, the faster Angle will spin. Once you set down your opponent, he will be dizzy and stumble around the ring, giving you the perfect opportunity to really lay into him. If you have your opponent in an arm twist and press the R3 button, Angle will scoop up his opponent and then slam him down on his knee repeatedly. Here, you control exactly how many times Angle slams his foe by pressing up and down on the right analog stick. As a variation on that move, you can first push down on the controller, then up, and Angle will toss his foe over his head.
The interactive moves available to you depend not only on your strong-grapple choice, but also on your position in the ring. If you're close to the ropes, you might be able to toss your opponent crotch first onto the top ropes, then violently shake the ropes up and down to give him a truly painful ride. Another move lets you rake your opponent's face across the middle or bottom rope. With your opponent in a vertical suplex position, you can push him up and down, demonstrating your raw power for the crowd, before letting your opponent crash to the ground. If you've got your opponent prepped for a power slam, you can walk him over to the edge of the ropes and then slam him outside of the ring, a truly devastating move. In cage matches, you'll have the ability to drag your foe's face back and forth across the steel grating of the cage itself. The scope of the different moves and the variety for each makes this feature pretty impressive right from the outset.
All of these interactive moves have one thing in common--they drain your wrestler's stamina. That makes perfect sense for power moves such as choke slams and suplexes, but the same system is in place for relatively low-effort interactive moves, as well. It's a bit strange to see your stamina meter quickly petering out when you're doing little more than standing on the back of your opponent's head as he chokes on the bottom rope, but it makes sense; the system needs some sort of limitation, otherwise matches might consist of nothing but a cycle of endless airplane spins.
Beyond the right analog controls, gameplay in SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007 will feel familiar to vets of the series. Strike and grapple reversals are tied to the triggers on the controller, and many of the button controls for things like exiting and entering the ring, throwing punches and kicks, picking up weapons, and Irish whips are unchanged, as are many of the timing-based minigames for escaping submission holds. The game includes a number of different weapons to fight with, and many of these are seen outside the ring in the specially designed interactive crowd areas. Here, wrestlers can take the fight to an entirely new area of the stadium, one rife with objects to crash into, tables to set up, and crowd members to offer their assistance. Most of that assistance comes in the form of weapons they will hand you. We already mentioned the old lady's cane, but crowd members will also offer bottles and even replica WWE championship belts, which can be used as weapons. The ubiquitous fan-made signs are there for the taking, too--you can snatch a sign from a crowd member and use it to taunt your opponent, or if you don't like what it says, rip it up and throw it away.
In terms of match types, one brand-new match style makes its way to the game: money in the bank. For those who aren't familiar, the money-in-the-bank match is basically a six-man ladder match that has competitors attempting to snag a briefcase that is hoisted above the center of the ring. Inside the briefcase is a contract for a match against the current WWE title holder, which the winner can choose to "spend" at any time. With that many wrestlers, that many ladders, and that sweet a prize on the line, money-in-the-bank matches rarely lack for excitement, and Yuke's hopes to bring that vitality to the matches in the game.
Because money in the bank is essentially a ladder match, it makes sense that ladder matches in the game have received something of an overhaul this year. You can do more with the ladders than ever before, such as stack them in different configurations, run up them to take out opponents near the top rung (think Shelton Benjamin at WrestleMania), or stack them sideways in the corner and toss your opponents into them. Another particularly devastating move will let you place your opponent in between the two sides of a ladder and repeatedly slam one side of the ladder down on his body. Ouch.
When it comes to ladder matches or the newly introduced money-in-the-bank match, one other important control tweak has to do with how you'll grab after the hanging prize (be it a championship belt or the money-in-the-bank briefcase). At the top rung of the ladder, you can reach with either your left or right hand by pressing up with the left or right analog stick. You can even reach up with both hands if you want to make a desperate grab. A grip meter will let you know how much of a hold you have on the object, and you'll only be able to yank it down once you've found the "sweet spot." In addition to ladder matches, table matches have also received a makeover of sorts. You'll only be able to put your opponent through a table if you have a finisher stored, for example, which is different from last year's game.
Though we still don't know much about the game's other modes, we do know that fan favorites such as general-manager mode and season mode will be returning for another go-round. Season mode, in particular, will be less linear in approach this time around--in SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007, you'll be able to jump back and forth between a number of different season mode "tiers," including champion (for those times when you have the belt), contender (when you're looking to earn a belt), and a general storyline. The game will also include online play, though no details have been announced as of yet. For those WWE nuts who are waiting for a full announcement on the game's roster, here are the names we have confirmed are in the game so far: John Cena, Rey Mysterio Jr., Triple H, Kurt Angle, Shelton Benjamin, Chris Benoit, Booker T, The Undertaker, and Johnny Nitro.
Graphically, the Xbox 360 version of the game is obviously the most impressive looking, with wrestler models that are formidable for not only their sheer size, but also their accuracy. Triple H's familiar scowl and muscular physique were particularly impressive in the game (even if the real Trips isn't quite as ripped these days). We also have to say that the skin textures in the game were some of the best we've seen in a next-gen game so far--whereas so many games feature characters whose skin looks vaguely plasticized, SmackDown's wrestlers are wonderfully lifelike, even when they are sweating buckets. The build we played of the game was missing the vast majority of the audio that will end up in the final game--such as the roaring crowd and the match commentary--but we look forward to hearing the game's entire soundtrack later on down the road.
In all, we're excited by what we've seen so far of SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007. The game's new control twists seem to make the game more accessible right out of the gate and few are going to argue with the game's next-gen graphics. We'll be keeping a close eye on the game in the coming months as we approach its release later this year, and we'll be bringing you plenty more information in the meantime.