WWE Smackdown! vs. Raw Hands-on

We go toe-to-toe with the new THQ wrestling title, which features rosters from both hit WWE shows.

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The battle between American wrestling's two biggest television brands, WWE Smackdown! and WWE Raw, has taken to the PS2 with THQ's WWE Smackdown! vs. Raw. We sat down with the latest version of the game in anticipation of its November release and were impressed to find a title that seems to be progressing toward championship gold.

Piper and Bubba Ray enjoy some backstage hors d'oeuvres.

For a couple of years now, the WWE has been attempting to create two entirely separate brands for its two big TV properties, WWE Smackdown! and WWE Raw, even going so far as to split the rosters between the two shows. WWE video games, however, haven't been nearly as stingy with their rosters, as you regularly see the most popular WWE superstars making their way into (and out of) each new release. WWE Smackdown! vs. Raw is no exception, as the very title of the game implies that the rosters will feature a nice mixture of talent from both shows. Some inclusions, particularly from the Smackdown! roster, may raise an eyebrow or two, such as Charlie Haas, Mark Jindrak, and the always frightening Rico, but the inclusion of big-name stars such as Kurt Angle, John Cena, and Eddie Guerrero more than makes up for it. Most of the beautiful WWE divas are present and accounted for as well, though notably missing is Gail Kim.

WWE Smackdown! vs. Raw's graphics, especially the player models, look great. Skin textures are especially cool and varied (a feature that really improves the create-a-wrestler mode), and there seems to be a lot of care taken in getting each wrestler's size and build down pat. In fact, during the opening movie of the game, you see brief glimpses of former entries in the Smackdown! series in action, showing just how far the franchise's player models have come on the PS2. On the whole, wrestlers' faces look great as well; in some cases, such as Tajiri and Ric Flair, the faces look extremely close to the real thing, down to the subtleties like the jawlines and hairstyles. In other cases, such as Chris Benoit and most of the WWE divas, the faces don't seem to match as well as their real-life counterparts. Long hair tends to be modeled strangely in the game, more closely resembling sections of hair rather than flowing strands. The player-model animations are on the whole very well done and specific to each WWE wrestler, especially during ring entrances.

The inclusion of such a huge roster of talent in WWE Smackdown! vs. Raw is boosted by the game's use of actual WWE voice talent. Joining the ringside commentary talents of Jerry Lawler and Jim Ross (on the Raw side) and Tazz and Michael Cole (from Smackdown!) are the voices of nearly every grappler found in the game. The use of voice is most evident in the game's season mode, which follows your favorite wrestler (or created wrestler) through his many interactions with the other cast members of WWE. The inclusion of voice talent really brings a lot of atmosphere to the game, especially in this story mode, which has traditionally depended on subtitled sequences to move the plot along. In-ring commentary is merely adequate, however, with King and Ross providing canned commentary that sometimes matches up with the in-ring action and sometimes doesn't. In short, at least in terms of commentary, it's not that different from previous Smackdown! games.

You can help drive the plot through dialogue choices made in the game's season mode.

Just as outrageous plots drive the modern-day WWE, storylines are the heart of Smackdown! vs. Raw's season mode. Bolstered by the aforementioned real WWE voice talent, the season mode pits your chosen superstar in a storyline that initially involves you battling it out with a rival for the heart (and managerial skills) of Torrie Wilson. This rivalry culminates with a match at the Backlash PPV, with Wilson's managerial contract on the line. Before that, however, you'll hone your wrestling skills and build up your created wrestler's attributes with a number of matches before the PPV. As you might expect, these beginning matches don't require a surplus of skill to win and they are simply meant to boost your confidence, attributes, and WWE cash stockpile. You can then turn in that bankroll in the game's WWE Shopzone to unlock items, such as classic wrestlers like the Legion of Doom and Andre the Giant, or new move sets for your created superstars.

If you're not into the soap opera aspect of today's wrestling scene, Smackdown! vs. Raw offers a good deal of match types that should keep you busy, including six-man tag, handicap, hardcore, royal rumble, and a variety of survival matches, including triple threat and fatal 4-way, all the way up to a six-man battle royale. But that's not all, as the main event category includes a list of events ranging from the rather pedestrian steel cage match to more exciting fare such as three stages of hell, TLC, and the ever-popular bra-and-panties match. The deep list of match types should please fans of the series looking for a variety of situations and PPV arena styles.

Inside the Squared Circle

As nice as many of these features are, they are really the icing on the wrestling cake. The real concern for video game wrestling fans is how well the grappling engine works, and we can safely say that, besides a few caveats, the game seems to be shaping up well in this respect. First of all, the tried-and-true strike/grapple mechanic is alive and well here in Smackdown! vs. Raw. You strike your opponent using the X button in combination with the D pad, and you can perform a variety of grappling moves using the O button in the same fashion. The style of grapple or move you perform is dependent both on the direction in which you press the D pad and the relative positions of your character and your rival. The type of moves you perform when your opponent is on his back is different than those available to you when he is standing. Finishing moves are also available once your finishing gauge has filled up. As you might expect, these moves are specific to each WWE superstar and are accompanied by some cool motion blur effects that add a sense of drama to the punishing move.

One example of in-ring minigames is the shoving match, which uses an NFL kicking meter-style interface to determine the strength and effectiveness of your shove.

Smackdown! vs. Raw also features a number of in-ring minigames designed around commonly seen match activities, such as shoving matches and Ric Flair-style chop battles. Competing in a shoving match, for example, is controlled by a meter that looks similar to the kicking meter found in NFL games. Each character takes a turn at shoving his or her opponent. When it's your turn, you set the meter in motion, hit the X button once it has reached its apex, and then hit it a final time to control accuracy of your shove (judged by a yellow accuracy indicator). Other minigames involve hitting the X button at just the right time while performing a hold (or in the grips of one) in order to escape or reverse the hold. These minigames are interesting, if not particularly intuitive, and, at the very least, add a bit more interactivity to the match itself.

What's your favorite wrestling style? Do you prefer to go the clean route and play the pretty boy to the crowd? Or are crotch shots and other such dirty tricks right up your alley? Whatever your preferred methods for getting the job done, Smackdown! vs. Raw can cater to it. Each wrestler has a preferred style: clean, dirty, or neutral, and there's a corresponding clean or dirty meter during a match. A dirty player might remove the turnbuckle cover or attack his opponent with a weapon, while Mr. Goody Two-shoes uses tactics such as diving moves or getting a rope break during a submission. Execute moves corresponding to your style of play and you'll fill up the corresponding meter, which then lets you access special moves, such as the "rush of invincibility" or special dirty attacks.

Momentum plays a big part in a Smackdown! vs. Raw wrestling matches, especially at the default skill level. Because of this, we spent long stretches in the clutches of our opponent, falling victim to his every cruel whim and creative hold. This isn't to say that counters and reversals aren't available for most offensive moves; it simply means that the artificial intelligence opponent, even on normal difficulty, is tenacious. That same tenacity can pay off for you as well. We found that, even in the beginning of a match, it was fairly easy to keep an opponent on the mat and use a single move on him (such as a string of toeholds) multiple times without being interrupted. In fact, in more than one match, you can quickly and easily draw blood on your opponent by simply choosing to execute a series of headlock punches, which the AI rarely if ever successfully escapes. To be fair, at higher difficulty ratings this problem was diminished, but it will be interesting to see if such obstinate tactics work in the final version of the game.

If you're bored of wrestling the computer AI, you might enjoy taking the game online. Using the PS2 broadband adapter, Smackdown! vs. Raw plays a very smooth match online, and there was virtually no lag detectable in our online test sessions. However, the online mode does seem a bit thin in comparison with the offline game, as you can only compete in singles matches when online. A tag mode would have certainly been a welcome addition. Nonetheless, the smooth performance and pick-up-and-play mechanics look to be shaping up to a solid online feature.

Tweaking nearly every aspect of your created wrestler can easily kill most of an afternoon.

As we've come to expect in WWE wrestling games, Smackdown! vs. Raw's create mode contains an absolutely staggering amount of attributes you can use to create the superstar of your dreams. Small touches, like the ability to use Japanese characters in your wrestler's name, extend the flexibility of this mode even further. Your tweaking options aren't limited to just the wrestlers, as similar options are available to create new championship belts (provided you have the WWE cash on hand to afford them).

The game's PPV mode lets you play out the cards of several recent WWE pay-per-views, such as SummerSlam or Wrestlemania XX. If you weren't happy with the results of Wrestlemania XX's Triple Threat match between Triple H, Shawn Michaels, and Chris Benoit, here's your chance to change wrestling history. Finally, if you're looking to book your own pay-per-view event, this mode also includes a create-a-PPV feature that lets you select up to eight different matches for your big showdown, controlling everything down to the roster types (Smackdown! or Raw exclusive, or a combination of both), the announcing team, and, of course, the matches themselves. Now is the time to create that "All Bra-and-Panties Matches " PPV you've been dreaming about. WWE Smackdown! vs. Raw is shaping up to be another solid wrestling title featuring an easy pick-up-and-play style for newbies, and a challenging AI for experienced fans. The inclusion of online play will certainly give the game some legs after the offline game has become stale. Be sure to check out our full review when the game arrives in stores in early November.

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