In the WWE, it's not uncommon for upstart new wrestlers to suffer a few humiliating losses before they earn their first victory. After a severely disappointing Wii debut last year, THQ's venerable SmackDown vs. Raw series has returned to the ring, having spent the year bulking up and working on the fundamentals. The work has paid off: There are more match types, the controls feel more responsive, and there are two new single-player modes that complement the multiplayer fun nicely. Though it's still hampered by a number of lingering issues, WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 shows that the series can be a contender on the Wii.
The most notable improvements are in the single-player realm. The lackluster Main Event mode has been ditched in favor of a lengthy Career mode and the scripted Road to Wrestlemania. In the Career mode, you choose a superstar (existing or created) and enter a bracket to make a bid for the title belt. Each bracket has five opponents, including the current champion, and you'll have to earn stars by winning matches to get a shot at the title. You win up to five stars for each match by earning points in three areas: match results, technical, and excitement. These categories encourage you to get into the WWE superstar mindset by rewarding you for both pummeling and mocking your opponent. At the end of each match, your attributes will increase, and your health will replenish automatically based on how the match went--no micromanagement here. You'll also earn amusing awards for things such as striking your opponent 35 times or breaking a barbed-wire-wrapped plank over his or her back. It takes only a handful of successful matches to earn you a title shot, which is great because it keeps your career moving along at a good clip. This action-packed Career mode is the perfect complement to the Create a Superstar mode, and winning belt after belt as you bulk up your created character is satisfying and fun.
The other single-player mode, Road to Wrestlemania, features six unique story arcs that let you play as various WWE superstars (including The Undertaker and Triple H) and defeat numerous foes (and a few nemeses) on your quest for Wrestlemania glory. Matches are interspersed with story scenes packed with typical WWE action, so fans of outrageous melodrama will be pleased. In keeping with traditional SmackDown vs. RAW strengths, the superstar models and entrances are impressive, but these stand in stark contrast to the crowds that, though fine from a distance, look like Nintendo 64 rejects up close. Character animations are quite good, though they are prone to clipping and still lack fluidity when maneuvering around the ring. The audio remains a weak point, dampening the hard-hitting action, and though the dismal announcers from years past have been improved quite a bit, the sound design is still in need of an upgrade.
Despite how it may sound, the action is indeed hard-hitting. Flicking the remote executes punches, kicks, and the like, and doing so while holding A will trigger a simple grapple. Holding B and flicking the remote results in a strong grapple, one that requires you to move the remote when prompted to fully execute the move. Usually this can be accomplished by merely flailing the remote briefly (or sometimes doing nothing at all), but if you're more technically inclined, you can follow the onscreen prompts to do specific moves. These prompts also crop up when you perform a signature or finishing move. The camera adjusts to a cinematic angle and the action slows down as you grab, punch, elbow, kick, or slam your opponent by swinging the remote. Giving your foe Triple H's Pedigree is so much more satisfying when you can swing the remote up to lift him or her into the air, and then swing it down to send him or her crashing to the floor. The motion-sensitive controls also generate some extra excitement during character entrances, which are now interactive and let you throw up your arms in triumph or gesture to the crowd. There is still some imprecision to deal with, especially during uninterruptible animations, but overall the control scheme feels much improved and the motion controls spice things up nicely.
The wide variety of new match types range from ladder and table contests to a 30-man Royal Rumble, and cover everything in between. The under-the-mat arsenal is much improved, offering such implements as kendo sticks, sledgehammers, and fire extinguishers. Larger matches can get a bit tricky because the camera sometimes seems confused as to how to frame the action, and it's possible to walk off the screen in tag-team battles. Regardless, these improvements are a welcome change from last year's barren offering.
In addition to the Career and Road to Wrestlemania modes, the competent AI and unique wrestler abilities make playing single-player much more appealing in SmackDown vs. Raw 2009. No longer content to stand around drooling, computer opponents will actively attack you, tag their partners (you included), and use environmental elements reasonably well. Though the Road to Wrestlemania and early stages of the Career mode will seem easy to experienced players, it won't feel like you're playing against brainless apes. There are also new, unique wrestler abilities that existing superstars have and created superstars can earn. The effects range from attribute boosts (the ability to remove the belt in a ladder match more quickly) to enhanced abilities (the ability to regenerate a small amount of health). Although these abilities aren't particularly powerful, they can come in handy during tight matches.
You might not have tight matches against the computer, but you are sure to find tough competition online. You can use SmackDown, Raw, ECW, or created superstars as you face off against friends or strangers in any of the match types that support one to four players. (Six-man matches and Royal Rumbles are available locally only.) Against tougher players, any miscues due to bad position or odd animation are likely to cost you dearly, and once your opponent has you on the ropes, you'll be hard-pressed to reverse your way out of them. You'll also find yourself frantically spinning the analog stick a lot; it's the ill-conceived and thumb-fatiguing way to make you recover quickly. Impressively, the matches are generally lag-free, though you might have trouble filling a four-man match during odd hours.
Of course, SmackDown vs. Raw wouldn't be itself without the still-impressive Create a Superstar tool. Once again, with a little time and patience, you can create almost anyone you like, from famous celebrities to hideous abominations. You can then customize your character's move set to craft a fighting style and choreograph your ring entrance to truly strut your stuff.
WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 benefits greatly by increasing its scope. You can now participate in almost any type of match your heart desires, and even pull a wider variety of weapons from under the mat. The new single-player modes offer hours of entertainment, and online play further extends replayability. The tweaked motion controls add an extra bit of excitement to the proceedings, and though some elements still need improvement, SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 is ultimately successful because it embraces the dramatic fights and outrageous showmanship that are the heart and soul of the WWE.