OK, let's be honest. The WWE has seen better days. Between the Chris Benoit tragedy, the suspension of various WWE roster members because of alleged substance abuse, and the whole Hornswoggle/Mr. McMahon debacle, the biggest wrestling brand in the land is struggling. It's a good thing, then, that the WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW series continues to hum right along with a series of quality games that have highlighted what's fun about pro wrestling--namely, great characters getting into the ring and mixing things up. Producers for THQ's latest grappling effort--WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2008--recently visited GameSpot HQ to give us a hands-on look at how this year's game is shaping up.
During our hands-on session, we saw three distinct versions of SmackDown! 2008, one each for the Xbox 360, Wii, and DS. All three versions of the game have their similarities, but producers were quick to point out that each will offer an experience unlike the other. That's certainly true from a control standpoint; as you might imagine, the Wii and DS versions both have their own unique control mechanics.
We started with the Xbox 360 version. THQ had talked about the ECW presence in the game when showing the game previously but, beyond some generalities, we didn't know exactly how the hardcore brand of the WWE would be portrayed in the game. With the newly introduced ECW extreme rules match, now we know. These matches differ from your standard hardcore matches both in the number and availability of weapons in a match, as well as the interaction with the ringside crowd. Before beginning an extreme rules match, you'll be able to choose from a number of weapons you want to have available to you. Examples include chairs, sledgehammers, crutches, guitars, championship belts... and the always-lethal mops. You can choose up to four of these weapons for your wrestler before the match begins.
At any time during an extreme rules match, you can guide your wrestler to the floor and then, with a press of the A button (or X on the PlayStation 3 version), you can reach under the ring apron to grab a weapon. A radial menu will appear, and you can choose from any weapon available to bring into the ring. In a nod to the game's new superstar abilities feature--whereby everyone on the roster has a primary and secondary ability--wrestlers with the "hardcore" primary ability will have extra options when using a weapon against an opponent, such as using weapons as part of grapple moves.
Inevitably in an extreme rules match, the fight will move from the ring down onto the floor. Here, you'll find much more interaction with the crowd than in a typical match. The crowd will taunt and interact with your wrestler, and will even occasionally hand you weapons to wail on your opponent with. Unlike in last year's game, which featured only one area where you could interact with the crowd, the entire ringside crowd in SmackDown! 2008 will be more interactive than ever before. During one match we saw, someone offered Tommy Dreamer a can of soda, which he proceeded to dump on a down-and-out CM Punk lying defenseless on the ground. In keeping with the ECW's hardcore style, there will also much more blood in these matches, plenty of cool hardcore bumps, and fire. Oh yes, there will be fire, as in flaming 2x4s, flaming tables, even flaming tables stacked on flaming tables. Add to this mixture ECW legends such as Terry Funk and Sabu, and you've got a recipe for some entertaining bloodletting.
Another new control tweak worthy of mention in SmackDown! 2008 is the ability to punch your way out of both normal and ultimate-control grapples. If you find your wrestler caught in an ultimate-control hold, you first soften your opponent up with a few blows to the head or gut, which will momentarily stun the would-be grappler and give you an opportunity to wiggle your way out of the hold by moving the right stick back and forth.
Of the different primary abilities available to both the WWE superstars and your created wrestler, the submission style seems like it's going to be a lot of fun. A new interface will give you an idea of both when to apply pressure on a hold by wrenching with the analog stick, as well as when to give it a rest by returning the hold to a neutral position (and thus giving the opponent an opportunity to break the hold). Handy onscreen icons will help out here, but submission specialists will have a special ability that will let them apply unfettered pressure for a certain amount of time without having to worry about their opponent breaking the hold. In fact, each primary ability will include special moves like this, and THQ and Yuke's development team have been working hard to ensure that all wrestler abilities are as balanced as possible.
If you think of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of SmackDown! 2008 as the "sim" wrestlers, then the Wii version is certainly the arcade version. And that is by no means a bad thing. Unlike the slightly slower-paced and more methodical versions on the other consoles, SmackDown! 2008 on the Wii is a nonstop, punchin', kickin', slobberknocker of a wrestling game. The gameplay has been intentionally sped up to keep the action moving and, as a result, the in-ring action rarely (at least in our experience) lasts more than a few minutes. It's "get in the ring, slap your opponent around, get the pin, and get out."
The controls for the Wii version are a breeze. Your basic strikes are done by simply waving the Wii Remote in any direction. Basic grapples are controlled by pressing the A button and then moving the Wii Remote. To do interactive grapples, you press the B button and then move the Wii Remote in the directions given onscreen. Countering the moves of your opponent is a guessing game, which requires you to guess the kind of move your opponent will try on you and then execute it before he or she does. It's definitely not the easiest countering system we've seen, but considering the pure, manic pace of the matches in the first place, it probably fits.
So far, the Nintendo DS version of SmackDown! 2008 has been the biggest enigma of all. We saw an extremely early version of the game at E3 2007 that looked, well, extremely early. That said, having played an updated version of the game, we're happy to report that the DS version has made some strides. It still uses the touch screen and stylus combo as the main method of interacting with the wrestlers; in fact, as producers pointed out, you rarely have to lift your stylus off the touch screen to pull off moves. During a match, hot spots pop up on screen indicating different moves you can try on your opponent, but only if you correctly draw figures with the stylus based on an onscreen prompt. The updated version was much more responsive to stylus input than the E3 build, which is promising. All things considered, the graphics hold their own for a handheld system.
The DS version will include a full 50-week season mode with separate storylines for ECW, SmackDown!, and RAW, as well as backstage environments and locker rooms, where you'll be able to train your wrestler on a number of different touch-screen-based minigames. The game will also let you collect items you can use for attribute improvement, form allies that you can call for assistance in matches, and feature 21 playable characters, as well as four WWE Divas who will be part of the action (but not playable). We'll be bringing you more on all versions of SmackDown! vs. RAW 2008 in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.