You don't get many bells and whistles with WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2008 for the Nintendo DS. However, what you do get is a solid portable wrestling game that manages to accurately depict the look and feel of the matches and storylines you see on television every week.
The character roster includes 21 WWE superstars divided roughly in half between the SmackDown! and RAW brands. That's barely a quarter of the federation's current cast, but most of the big names are present. John Cena, Undertaker, Rey Mysterio, Edge, Shawn Michaels, and Kane are just some of the marquee names you can play as. There are even a couple of refugees from the ECW brand.
From the main menu, your two options are exhibition play and the season mode. Exhibition play lets you set up matches against the CPU or one of your buddies, provided they also have a copy of the game. The different match types you can pick from are standard, hardcore, last man standing, submission, iron man, and three stages of hell. You can also choose from any of 18 different arenas, including the basic SmackDown! and RAW house sets, as well as all of the popular Pay-Per-View venues. Sadly, there are no custom match or create-a-wrestler features.
Season mode is where the action is. In it, you pick a wrestler and basically work your way through the ranks until you win all of the major championships. Before each match, you can visit the locker rooms and other areas in the arena, where you can talk to the other wrestlers, manage your items, and search containers looking for training room tokens. Talking to other wrestlers causes different events and side matches to happen. Feuds, face turns, alliances, and shocking behind-the-scenes attacks are all par for the course, just like they are on actual WWE broadcasts. In your personal locker room, you can select the foreign objects and allies that you'll use during matches. Meanwhile, those training room tokens let you buy workout time on three different training minigames. The bench press builds your strength, the jump rope builds your agility, and the heavy bag increases the power of your strikes.
Each wrestler has his own story that plays out during the course of the season. There's no recorded voice work for that dialogue, however. It's all just displayed in text boxes that appear next to each wrestler's face. Thankfully, the presentation improves considerably once you enter the arena. Wrestler entrances involve big-screen displays, light shows, familiar music, and an announcer that dramatically speaks out each wrestler's weight, origin, and name. The 3D graphics are very detailed. You'll observe spectators and big screens doing their thing outside the ring. Inside the ring, the wrestlers' bodies and costumes are mostly accurate, and their animations are remarkably lifelike. All of the different smack, thump, and slam sounds are satisfying, too.
The unique thing about SmackDown! vs. RAW 2008 on the DS is that it relies solely on the touch screen for input. To select menu items, visit location hot spots, and talk to people, you only have to tap. Each of the minigames in the training room challenges you to tap, slide, and draw circles in response to the onscreen prompts. In the ring, moves are first selected by tapping the different context-sensitive icons that appear. Then, you have to tap, trace lines, or draw circles as indicated in order to actually perform the move. Basic level-one strikes only require a quick jot. Stronger takedowns and submissions require multiple scribbles, spins, and taps.
You can't actually move around the ring in the traditional sense. Instead, to nudge an opponent toward a turnbuckle or hurl them into the ropes, you have to use your wrestling moves to maneuver you and your opponent into position. The action icons that appear on the touch screen vary depending on where you're located in the ring, whether you're tied up in a grapple, and who has the upper hand. If you play as Rey Mysterio, for example, your options in the middle of the ring are limited to a punch, the Dragon Whip spin kick, and a lock up. In a lock up, those icons will change to a groin kick, reversal, and an Irish Whip. When you're near the ropes or turnbuckles, they'll let you set up a high-flying takedown or a leap off the top rope. In the unfortunate instance that you end up tied up or flat on the mat, the icons and touch commands will change into defensive actions that will let you roll out or spring a surprise trap on your opponent.
It takes time to adjust to the controls. Tapping and scribbling to play a wrestling game feels weird at first, the amount of time you're given to perform each command is short, and there are dozens of moves and situations to learn. But once you learn your wrestler's individual moves and figure out what action icons appear in various situations, you'll come to appreciate how the use of context-sensitive commands simulates the pacing and style of a real WWE match--even if it means less overall freedom of movement.
Assuming you can get used to the controls, you'll probably like the DS rendition of SmackDown! vs. RAW 2008 if you're in the market for some portable wrestling entertainment. It may not offer the sizeable cast and customization options that console-based wrestling games have, but the action is exciting and the atmosphere is frighteningly true to the soap opera-style pageantry that the WWE actually broadcasts.