THQ's WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW wrestling game franchise may have taken one chair shot too many. As much as this series has always been about piling new features on top of existing features, the pile is starting to teeter and is in danger of falling over entirely. Once again, this year's game adds several new components to the existing game engine that's been piled upon since the series was a PS2 exclusive, but the difference this year is that few, if any, of the changes really feel like they impact the overall experience for the better. In fact, some of the changes impact the game negatively. The gameplay is still basically fun, but all the various little problems that have built up over the years remain unaddressed, and some of the surrounding components of the game are really starting to show their age.
By far the biggest change to this year's game is the addition of fighting styles. This is a sort of classification of each wrestler type that gives wrestlers under each type specific abilities. For instance, powerhouse types like Batista can effectively "hulk up" when they fill up their energy meter and store a fighting style icon, which renders them impervious to strikes and makes all their grapple moves irreversible. Secondary abilities are also available. For instance, a powerhouse can also pull off stronger Irish whips that send opponents over the ropes. There are several different types of these styles, including technical wrestlers, high-flyers, brawlers, submission specialists, dirty fighters, showmen, and hardcore types.
For the most part, each of the abilities assigned to these different archetypes fit nicely into each wrestler's general moveset, but some have a tendency to appear overmuch over the course of a match, and in some cases, they also feel a little overpowered. The powerhouse's ability to just grapple at will tends to be a lot more effective at ending a match quickly than the high-flyer's ability to do surprise pins. Granted, there's always been that difference in effectiveness between wrestlers of this type, but these fighting styles just make those differences all the more pronounced. Not to suggest that you can't win with smaller, less powerful guys, but if you get caught in a flurry of punches from a brawler or a series of hard slams from a powerhouse, you're down for the count.
Beyond that significant change, the gameplay hasn't seen much alteration from last year's game. The same right analog stick-based grappling system is on offer, though the number of buttons you have to press to pull off a total-control grapple move has been lessened. The submissions system has seen a slight change, where both players use the right analog stick to respectively apply pressure or escape, but this doesn't add much dynamism to that particular component. This year's game does also add ECW into the mix, along with all the various hardcore-isms that go along with that. The ECW extreme rules match is available in all its glory, and weapons have been given a bit of an overhaul, specifically how you go about getting them from under the ring. There's a nifty little weapon wheel that pops up, letting you select among several different weapons, like tables, chairs, 2x4s wrapped in barbed wire--you know, the usual stuff. Also, you can set weapons on fire now, which is undeniably awesome.
Still, apart from this ECW-centric stuff, there's not much else to marvel at with the gameplay this year, especially considering all the holdover problems from previous games that plague this sequel. The artificial intelligence continues its downward spiral into utter boobdom, especially in any kind of gimmick match where weapons are prevalent. They'll constantly stand around, periodically flailing at another wrestler with a weapon and hoping for the best. Any match that has a ladder involved but nothing hanging above the ring to collect still results in a number of wrestlers constantly scaling ladders in the middle of the ring over and over again. Tag partners still sometimes forget that they're supposed to help you when you're in trouble, too. And now, with this new fighting style system, the AI has taken to relying on these various special moves to an almost irritating degree. How many times can one guy use the ref as a shield, or "hulk up" in a match? Apparently the answer is "too many."
Collision detection is still terrible as well. Body parts warp through one another and the ring regularly, and you'll often see wrestlers simply warp from one side of the ring to the other in place of certain transition animations, primarily during weapon-centric matches. All told, the animation engine really looks like it needs an overhaul. Even the general moveset is looking a bit stiff and flat these days. The good news is that the animation and clipping issues are really the only major blight on an otherwise sharp-looking game. The wrestler models are still some of the very best character modeling you'll see in a game, save perhaps for the still-hideous haircuts. You can tell that this game is still running on the engine built for the PS2, especially if you look and see the surprisingly small dip in overall visual quality in the PS2 version versus its current-gen counterparts, but even so, the lighting effects, crowd graphics, and just the overall sheen of the 360 and PS3 games shine through. The 360 version ultimately looks the best, as the PS3 iteration's frame rate isn't quite as steady, and the lighting looks a bit funny in spots. Interestingly, the PS2 version actually runs smoother as a whole than the PS3 version, though obviously the dip in overall visual quality in that version is pretty significant, as well.
In terms of content, SmackDown! vs. RAW 2008 offers roughly the same roster of match types and modes as last year, with a few small additions and a few significant downgrades. The biggest downgrade is the 24/7 mode, which now wraps the single-player story mode and the general manager mode up into one haphazard package. In an effort to combine the two, the story mode has lost all its punch and ability to deliver something even closely resembling a real storyline. Sure, you still get the yearlong title hunt with one of the main superstars in the game or a created grappler, but the story barely rears its head beyond the scope of a series of voicemails you get from other wrestlers and the general manager of the brand. The few cutscenes you do get are pretty generic, and sometimes they don't even fit the context of what's going on. Sometimes wrestlers you supposedly are fighting with will give you a handshake backstage. Couple that with some of the voicemails sometimes identifying the wrong person as your rival, and even identifying the wrestler you're controlling as someone you're supposed to fight, and the story aspects of this mode feel more than a bit hacked together.
In place of story is a bunch of lame statistical data and achievements that your wrestler is supposed to hit over the course of the season. You earn respect and eventual title shots by increasing your skill and your popularity with the fans, and you increase that stuff by doing all these little challenges and ventures between shows. Is your strength rating lacking? Go wrestle a guy for two minutes and do as many strong grappling moves as possible. Need to improve on the mic? Spend some cash for a nonplayable training exercise and get a boost to that statistic. Need to rest up? Take some R&R at the expense of your wrestler's fatigue rating, as well as a bit of his popularity. The trick to this whole aspect of the mode is keeping a balance between all the various things you're doing. Overexert yourself and you'll be much more prone to injury, which forces you to wrestle with damage already taken (even though the doctor always tells you to rest up, you can't skip shows), and if you just rest constantly, your popularity rating will plummet.
It's a very strange balance to keep, and one that really isn't much fun. Since you can't actually see your wrestler do much on the mic, or take part in any of these film roles, or interviews, or autograph signings that he's supposedly doing, it all feels more than a little meaningless. And while injuries might be realistic to how wrestling tends to go these days, they don't make the mode any more fun. Why anyone thought these silly additions would make a good replacement for actual, unique storylines is anyone's guess, but they aren't, and ultimately this year's story mode is a real downer.
The interesting thing is that all these various training bits can be done in the GM mode as well, though obviously you can apply them to any wrestler on your roster, not just one guy. Apart from that stuff as well as a greater frequency of injuries, GM mode is practically untouched from last year. You still draft rosters or pick existing ones, you still book matches, you still try to get more fans than the other two brands (ECW has been added to the mix this year), and it all still feels like a piece of a good idea rather than a fully fleshed-out good idea. Booking the matches just isn't that exciting unless you're playing all the matches yourself (and sometimes, not even then). Another big problem is the truncated roster this year. Despite the addition of a new brand, there are actually fewer wrestlers to pick from in this year's game than last, and that severely limits the kind of roster you can have in the GM mode. If you choose to draft, you only get something like 13 or 14 wrestlers before everyone's been taken, so unless you feel like creating a gaggle of guys in the create-a-wrestler mode, you're not going to have a lot to work with.
On top of that, the roster itself is rather severely out of date. Notably released wrestlers who are in the game's roster include Sandman, King Booker, Cryme Time, Marcus Cor Von, Chris Masters, and Sabu (who is admittedly in the game as a "legend" wrestler for some reason). Couple that with a few names who are currently out with extended injuries, and the roster is looking a little ragged. It might not feel so off if it weren't for the fact that there are less wrestlers overall than last year. It's not Yuke's fault that this is the case, considering the development cycle and how far ahead the rosters have to be locked for this thing before the game is finished, but maybe this speaks to a greater issue about the game's development cycle that this problem keeps popping up again and again, and with greater notability each year.
Elsewhere in the game, there are a few tournament modes you can play around with, as well as a hall of fame mode that puts you into some classic matches and tasks you with winning them (Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels in an iron man match; a TLC match against the Hardy Boyz; an extreme-rules fatal four-way match between yourself, Tommy Dreamer, Sabu, and the Sandman; and so on and so forth). Beyond that, you're looking at the same basic exhibition, online, and create-a-wrestler modes as last year. Online has seen almost no alteration whatsoever. You just get into either a ranked or unranked match against up to five other opponents (depending on the match type), and you can trade created wrestlers with other players. The online basically works fine, with little lag that we could see. However, the PS3 version lacks voice chat, and the PS2 version actually lacks any kind of online component whatsoever. It's also $10 cheaper than the 360 or PS3 versions, so take that for what it's worth.
The create modes are similarly unaltered. You can design belts, movesets, stables, entrances, and finally, a superstar. This is still a very deep mode with lots of options to play with, but it doesn't feel like it really adds much to the equation from last year's game, and elements of the interface still feel clumsy. The one really nice addition is the ability to use custom soundtracks for your created entrances on the 360 version. It's a pretty simple process. Just throw whatever songs you have on your hard drive into a playlist, and the game recognizes any playlist you have in the create an entrance mode. Unfortunately, the 360 version is the only one to have this feature.
That one element is about the best thing you can say for the game's audio, which is exceptionally underwhelming. It's mostly the fault of the voice acting (though the recycled sound effects don't help, either). The 24/7 mode dialogue bits are badly delivered, and the commentary is the same recycled nonsense we've been getting from this series for the last few iterations. You've heard practically every one of these lines, and you've heard them be just as inaccurate as they are in this game. Something has seriously got to give in next year's game, because at this point it serves more to ruin the presentation of the matches than help it.
You can count the number of things SmackDown! vs. RAW 2008 does to improve the series on one hand, and the number of things that it does wrong on the digits remaining on the rest of your limbs. It's not that it's an awful game. The gameplay still has plenty of life in it and in multiplayer, the matches can be quite fun. But everything else about the game--the few middling changes to the gameplay, the major gameplay issues that remain unfixed, the lackluster 24/7 mode, and the thoroughly rehashed create and online modes--just makes you wonder if it isn't time for this series to finally start over from scratch. Every year these games include a greater breadth of content, but rarely a greater depth. SmackDown! vs. RAW 2008 is perhaps the greatest example of that. It's a solid wrestler, but not one that's worth spending $50 to $60 for if you already own last year's game. While this might be the series' first installment on the PlayStation 3, it's hardly an auspicious one.