The WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW franchise, from THQ and developer Yuke's, may have finally hit a wall. Granted, we're on the eighth iteration of the series, which dates back all the way to the PlayStation era, and the series has steadily evolved with each sequel, with only a few missteps here and there. But with WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007, it's tough not to harp on some of the major issues that have gone uncorrected year after year. The collision detection is still suspect. The artificial intelligence is still unreliable. Clipping problems still plague the graphics engine. Now, that's not to suggest that 2007 is devoid of merit. An all-new grappling system does a bit to give the game a fresh feel, and with the series' debut on the Xbox 360, you'll be treated to a glimpse of the visual treats you'll get to experience as SmackDown! inevitably moves from the older consoles to the current crop of hardware. With that said, this version will definitely feel familiar to PlayStation 2 owners. It's another great entry in the SmackDown! lineage that suffers only because what it fixes and improves isn't necessarily what is wrong with this aging game engine. Fans will undoubtedly enjoy it for what it is, but they'll also certainly be wondering if a true overhaul of the series is on the horizon.
For what it's worth, Yuke's has completely reworked the game's grappling engine, even if that isn't something that really needed reworking. Whereas wrestling games have relied entirely on the notion of a grapple button to start up grappling moves in the past, SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007 maps all grappling functions to the right control stick. Simply flicking the stick up, down, or to either side while facing your opponent will pull off one of your wrestler's quick grapple moves, and by holding down the right bumper on the Xbox 360, or the R1 button on the PlayStation 2, then flicking the stick, you'll go into a stronger grapple, one that depends on the direction you pressed the stick (animations are different for luchadore moves, submissions, power moves, and the like). With the opponent locked into a grapple, you then press a direction on the stick once again to pull off a move.
The idea with this new grappling system seems to be to give you more of a sense of freedom in your moves, though it doesn't entirely succeed. Being able to pull off quick grappling maneuvers simply by flicking the stick definitely feels more natural than the old methodology, but with strong moves, you still end up having to hold a wrestler in a grappled state for at least a second or two before pulling the move off, and flicking the stick doesn't give you any greater sense of freedom in this case than pushing a button. Basically, the system isn't better than what was there before, but it's not any worse, either. It's just different.
One cool addition, however, is the new ultimate control move system. When you first put an opponent into a strong grapple, instead of pressing a direction on the control stick, press down on the control stick button and you'll pick up your opponent in one of several different ways. For example, you might pick him up like you're about to suplex him to the mat, but instead you'll suspend him in midair and have a few different options of how to dispose of him. By walking over to the ropes and pressing up on the right stick, you'll drop him midsection-first right onto the ropes. Pressing down will perform a normal suplex. There's a number of variations of typical wrestling moves to use with this feature, like the DDT, Samoan drop, choke slam, and pile driver, to name a few. You can also drag opponents over to environmental hot spots like the ring steps, announcer tables, and the like, and use the same sort of right-stick-based attack methodology, with these areas acting as weapons. It's an extremely cool idea that's only hampered by the limited number of ultimate control moves you have access to. It makes sense that each wrestler would have access to only a few of these individual moves, but there's only a dozen or so of them overall. A little more variety would have gone a long way here.
Speaking of environmental hot spots, SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007 includes a whole new section of the ring area that is littered with weaponry and other objects to slam your opponents into. Just drag your opponent over to the right section of the crowd and throw him over the ring barrier. Once you're there, there's a multitude of objects to use to decimate your opponent. Apart from the usual tables and chairs, you'll find extension cords, fire extinguishers, racks of speakers, fans' signs, and a huge production rig to jump off of. Very little of what's over here operates much differently than the usual menagerie of weapons you find in a hardcore match, but having an out-of-the-ring area to brawl in is a nice touch.
While the new touches on the gameplay system range from decent to great, few of these changes are aspects of the game that really needed updating. Instead of new grappling systems and added hot spots, some updates to the wrestler AI system or improvements to the collision detection would have been nice. For what it is, the opponent AI is OK, though it's periodically incapable of dealing a final blow in some of the more weapon-heavy gimmick matches. Partner AI in tag matches is still mostly broken. Sometimes they'll come running to your rescue when you're trapped in a submission hold or about to be pinned, and sometimes they'll just stand there twiddling their thumbs. Oddly enough, opponent partners in tag matches never seem to have an issue rescuing their comrades. AI opponents in general still rely very heavily on perfectly timed reversals that happen to be significantly tougher to time on your end, and it's not terribly hard to get stuck in an unbreakable string of attacks from your opponent if you aren't deft with the reversal timing. Considering the only way to get up off the mat is to mash buttons like a lunatic, it's tough to balance that with timing your reversals. That's something else that could stand to be improved.
Collision detection is as it's been in the last few SmackDown! games. Generally, it works well, though there are a number of spots where you'll miss with strikes inexplicably, and flying attacks are always a total gamble as to where you'll land and if you'll even hit anything. It's also annoying that putting wrestlers through tables or smacking them off downed ladders isn't more dynamic. You still have to treat these weapons as hot spots more often than not, and doing moves like powerbombs or suplexes near them isn't typically enough to make them break. Perhaps this is just a limitation associated with the fact that, even on the Xbox 360, this game is still running on the engine designed for the PlayStation 2. Still, with a 360 game, you'd hope for some improvement in the dynamics of these types of weapons and attacks.
What you simply can't complain about in any of the recent SmackDown! games is the breadth of content, and 2007 is no different. Every single match type, game mode, and feature found in last year's game is on hand again, and many have been extended or adjusted to give them even more lasting value. The only new match in the game is the money in the bank match, a six-man free-for-all ladder match that, admittedly, isn't terribly fun unless you're playing against friends. But with so many other matches available, from the usual table, TLC, and hardcore matches to big-time gimmick matches like buried alive, elimination chamber, and backstage brawls that take place either in a parking lot or a bar, you're unlikely to run out of ways to pummel opponents any time soon.
The season mode has improved a bit on the basic story-driven formula found last year. There's around 40 different individual storylines in the game, each of which centers around some kind of feud or situation leading up to a Pay-Per-View battle. Which storylines you end up experiencing depend mostly on which wrestler you bring into the season mode (created wrestlers and a few of the legends can be brought in, along with the main roster), though there are a couple of specific spots in a few of the storylines where you'll get to make a specific choice and branch the story one way or the other. The storylines themselves are basically on par with what you'd find on the show, with feuds centering around title shots, Royal Rumble slots, various divas, and such. The only thing that's a bummer in this year's storylines is that the dialogue and commentary don't seem to form fit around whichever wrestler you're using quite as well. The commentators refer to you generically as a "superstar" in most cases, and the cutscenes often go out of their way to make it so you don't talk much, save for when it's most necessary. Still, there's plenty of wrestler dialogue to be found, and most of it is good. Sometimes it's real stiff, but not necessarily any more so than what you'd see on TV. And certain wrestlers, such as Mr. Kennedy, do a masterful job bringing their personas to the game.
The GM mode returns this year, as well. Making its debut last year, this mode introduced the concept of being able to book your own shows, setting up feuds, and trying to earn fans away from the rival brand. It's a purely menu-based mode, and it works similarly to some of the PC wrestling management sims floating around on the Internet, though without a ton of depth. This year's mode adds a few wrinkles to the formula, not the least of which is specific feud types and storyline writers. Along with having to hire an entire roster of superstars, you'll need to periodically hire writers. Each writer specializes in certain types of storylines. One writer might be adept at handling storylines revolving around factions, whereas another one might be good at pulling at the heartstrings of American fans via patriotic angles. Each storyline requires certain types of wrestlers, so you can't just shove anyone into an angle and have it work. The basic idea for setting up these rivalries is that matches between wrestlers in a rivalry get match-rating bonuses.
The addition of rivalry types and writers is a nice idea, but it doesn't fix the fundamental issue with the GM mode, in that you still feel totally disconnected from the experience. Though you can play through any of the matches you book for a card, doing so doesn't seem to have any more of an effect on the match rating at the end than simply simulating them. It's also impossible to book cards that are realistic in comparison to what the WWE actually books for its shows. For one, you can only have 20 wrestlers on a roster at any given time, which makes trying to create a variety of matches and feuds a touch difficult. Additionally, none of the promos you can book for a show play out visibly. They're just menu options on the card, and they give you varying types of bonuses, but that's it. The same can be said for rivalries, which seem to be there purely for bonus purposes and not much else. It might be asking a bit much at this point to be able to book full-on storylines and have them play out in some tangible capacity, but what the GM mode offers still feels a bit mundane. It's cool to be able to take control of one of the WWE brands, but what you end up doing with it ends up being repetitive and not very interesting.
All the create modes found in last year's game are back this year, and most of them work functionally the same. Create-a-wrestler, create-a-belt, and create-a-stable are mostly the same, though CAW has plenty of additional attires and customization options. Create-an-entrance has seen the biggest overhaul. You can now view previews of every single change you make to a wrestler's entrance on the fly, from basic camera angles to varying types of pyrotechnics. The load-up time for each preview is almost nonexistent, and in general, it's a much breezier process to create a good entrance this time around. The only real flaw is entrance music. For one, the entrance music you pick just plays on loop in the background, and it doesn't restart each time you load up a new preview, which might make timing pyrotechnics and entrance moves a bit off-kilter. Also, for some strange reason, the Xbox 360 version of the game doesn't support custom soundtracks as theme music. The game won't recognize any music you might have saved on your hard drive. While the SmackDown! games have never had this feature, all the previous wrestling games on the original Xbox had it, making its omission here very disappointing.
Online features are pretty much par for the course for the series, with every available match type playable online--or, at least, any match type that doesn't require more than four players. Like the Xbox 360 version, the PS2 game only supports four players online, which is a bit odd considering the game supports six players offline. But that quibble aside, the online plays well. Most of the matches we tried were basically lag-free--save for a few random bouts with players who had less-than-stellar ping times--and with the ability to challenge for opponents' created title belts, as well as trade created superstars among other players, you'll find plenty to do online.
The only thing decidedly missing from the online mode that seems like it ought to be added to this series eventually is the ability to download new wrestlers into the game. Although this may not be a reasonable request from a PlayStation 2 game, the roster issues are still prevalent. WWE rosters are constantly shifting, and every single year the roster is out of date well before the game ever makes it to store shelves. No year has this been more evident than with SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007. Plenty of highly pushed superstars like the Spirit Squad, Brian Kendrick, Paul London, and basically any ECW superstar not named Big Show or Rob Van Dam, are nowhere to be found in the game. In fact, the ECW brand isn't really acknowledged anywhere, nor do several of the wrestlers have their current gimmicks. Booker T is sans the King Booker gimmick, and though there's an unlockable DX entrance available, the gimmick isn't prevalent anywhere in the season mode. Also, you've got guys like Psicosis and Kid Kash in the game who haven't been on TV in quite some time, not to mention Kurt Angle, who ditched the WWE quite a while back for the rival NWA-TNA promotion. Though you can certainly create most of the omitted wrestlers, it's a hassle to do so, and you'll undoubtedly be disappointed with the overall makeup of this year's roster.
The SmackDown! games have consistently delivered some of the best graphics on the PlayStation 2, but like the gameplay, some of the nagging issues conspire to drag the experience down this year. This is especially true on the Xbox 360, where the overall graphical presentation might look better, but issues like frequent clipping and clunky animations stick out even more offensively. In both versions of the game, you still have wrestlers clipping through the mat and objects, move and reaction animations that don't quite line up, and poorly animated long hair that looks hideous on what are otherwise fantastic-looking character models. And make no mistake, they look amazing. You won't get the newly improved skin textures or sweat effects that are found on the 360 version when playing the PS2 game, but the core graphics engine still looks great. A number of the facial animations and reactions as the wrestlers get hurt are especially great. For the most part, the frame rate also stays steady.
The audio presentation is more scattered, unfortunately. We've already covered the solid voice acting, but the in-match commentary is very much its own animal, and a far more wounded one at that. The commentary that pops up during the season mode that's specific to the storylines you're involved in is quite good, since it actually covers something relevant. When you're just wrestling a match, however, you get the same recycled tripe that both the teams of Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler, and Michael Cole and Tazz have been spouting for the last couple of years. Play one match, and either announcing crew will run through every single line they have, meaning you'll basically hear the same lines in every single match you play. In-ring effects are also feeling a bit stagnant. Crowd noise never seems to really come alive, and many of the slams and hits just don't seem as impactful as they could be. The soundtrack is another scattered collection of generic hard rock tunes and hip-hop tracks, though the inclusion of Ghostface Killah's "The Champ" is a welcome change of pace from the usual generic nonsense tossed into these games.
WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007 has its share of lingering problems that probably ought to have been cleaned up long ago, and some of the improvements it makes don't come across as terribly necessary, but what the game does right it does very right. There's just so much to do and experience throughout the game, and as a multiplayer game, it's a riot to play, especially with a lot of the crazy gimmick matches. Not to mention that for fans of Microsoft's consoles, this is the first time that an Xbox system has gotten a wrestling game worth its salt, and that fact alone ought to excite just about any Xbox 360 owner out there. Longtime fans of the series will be disappointed by a few things, but they'll ultimately enjoy what the game has to offer. Fans will even enjoy these things on the PlayStation 2, where the fewest overall improvements have been implemented. And for those who've missed out on the SmackDown! series during its many years as a Sony system exclusive, it's a great chance for you to find out what you've been missing out on.