Much ado has been made about the Wii's appeal to audiences outside the normal gaming realm, hence why you often find established franchises and genres taking different approaches when developing for the Wii hardware. That isn't an inherently bad thing, but when you futz with a formula too much for the sake of trying to broaden a game's appeal, sometimes you end up stretching things too far and destroying any appeal whatsoever. The case in point is WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2008, the first wrestling game for the Wii and a real downer for any wrestling fan. In an attempt to simplify the admittedly overcomplicated SmackDown! game design, the developers ended up with a control scheme that is neither responsive enough nor deep enough to hold anyone's attention for more than a few matches. Couple that with the fact that nearly every hallmark feature of the series has been stripped out, and what you're ultimately left with is a hollow shell of a wrestler.
Just to linger on that last point for a moment, let's run down the list of things that SmackDown! vs. RAW 2008 doesn't have compared with its counterparts on other consoles. The quick and dirty list includes: the fighting-style system implemented this year in the other console versions, 24/7 mode (both the single-player story mode and the general-manager mode), create-a-belt mode, create-a-stable mode, create-an-entrance mode, online play, hall of fame matches, the cage match, hell in a cell, the ECW extreme-rules match, the fatal four-way match, battle royals, backstage brawls, the ironman match, the table match, the ladder match, the tables ladders and chairs match, tables, ladders, and, in fact, any weapon that is not a chair.
Granted, wrestling games have survived with less in the past, but only when the gameplay was any fun. Sadly, SmackDown! vs. RAW 2008 is missing that one key factor as well. There is a good idea in SmackDown!'s gameplay design, but it isn't followed through on with any notable success. Essentially, the basic wrestling system inherent to the series has been simplified so that it relies exclusively on flicks of the Wii Remote that may or may not cause your chosen wrestler to do the move you have in mind. Simply swinging the remote will cause a wrestler to do a striking move, and doing it multiple times engages a series of canned combo strikes. Holding down the A button while flicking the remote will engage a quick-grapple move. Holding B engages a strong grapple, including a rendition of the total-control grapple moves from the other console versions that require you to move the remote up, down, left, or right for each stage of a given move. Flick upward to lift an opponent for a power bomb from the prone position, and then down again to slam him.
Again, this sounds like a neat idea, but almost immediately it becomes clear that there's just nothing at all to this system. Matches tend to go one of two ways. On the one hand, you could come out firing with strike combos, hit the same exact grapple move five or six times throughout the match because the game often can't tell which way you're swinging the remote, and eventually win either by busting out your finisher or just getting a lucky pin. On the other hand, you could come out firing with strike combos, get reversed constantly by the artificial intelligence, and end up getting destroyed by your opponent's finisher rather quickly. That's about it. There's no depth to the fighting at all. You wave the remote, hope you don't get reversed a bunch, wave the remote like crazy when you're getting attacked and hope that your actions magically turn into a reversal of your own, and finally hope the match ends before you dislocate your shoulder from all that waving. If there were even a smidgen more variety to how a match played out, the potential for fun could be there. As it is, this is merely a contest of aggravating repetition.
Furthermore, you'll be able to experience these contests in only a handful of ways. With only single, hardcore, tag, triple threat, and K.O. matches available, you're not going to get much mileage out of playing different match types. There is a single-player mode that kind of, sort of, not really attempts to provide a storyline, but this mode, titled main event, is just an out-and-out bore. You pick a grappler, a brand, and then set forth playing match after match against the same three guys until you earn enough respect from the crowd to increase your rep and take on a new set of three guys, and then another set, and another set, and so on, and so on, and so on. In-between, you can opt to train a bit to raise your stats in the basic strength, speed, and similar statistics, or rest up to lower your fatigue rating. But beyond that noninteractive stuff and a bunch of goofy voicemails from your opponents and eventual partners, there's nothing to tie this mode together. It's just a long string of matches with some lackluster role-playing game elements dangling off of it. We'll grant that the single-player story mode in this year's game on other consoles wasn't very good, but it looks like high entertainment compared to this thing.
The truly sad irony about SmackDown! vs. RAW 2008 on the Wii is that the things about it that most closely resemble all the other console versions of the game aren't necessarily the aspects you'd want at all. For instance, the Wii game is just as terrible in the AI category as the rest of the versions released this year. Opponents rely exclusively on constant reversals to get by, and your tag partners tend to forget to come rescue you when you're being pinned. Any time you put a chair in an opponent's hands, he'll just run at you with it constantly like a bomber on a suicide run, and if you happen to get into a spot where he can't reach you, he'll flail like a crazed fish out of water, swinging wildly at air until you happen to step right into the range needed to get hit. Collision detection is also bad. Wrestlers will periodically swing through one another, and you'll constantly see body parts morph into the ring mat. If you happen to get near the announcer tables, well, let's just say that unintentional comedy often ensues.
Then there's the roster, which is just as out of date as any other version of the game. 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. Nevertheless, maybe this speaks to a greater issue about the game's development cycle, given that this problem keeps popping up again and again, and with greater notability each year.
With that said, there are a few positive similarities to be had. For one thing, the create-a-wrestler and create-a-moveset modes are here and mostly intact. The inability to edit entrances is a real bummer, but the basic creation technology is there and works nicely. Secondly, the tournament modes introduced this year are on hand here as well. They let you create different tournaments, do a standard King of the Ring tourney, and also a special beat-the-clock tournament that tasks you with trying to win your tournament match the fastest of all to advance to the finals.
The in-game graphics directly mimic the PlayStation 2 version of the game, but that's not a slight against the Wii version at all. The SmackDown! games have always been some of the best-looking games on Sony's last-generation hardware, and the Wii version looks just as good. It's a shame that the game doesn't trump PS2-quality graphics in any noticeable way, but at least things look basically sharp. Character models are nicely put together, all the entrance animations look spectacular, and some of the move animations look great, too. Others don't appear quite as nice, but those are the same questionable animations as in all the other iterations of the game. One detail the world could have done without is the abysmal commentary. The commentary is the same recycled nonsense we've been getting from this series for the last few installments. You've heard practically every one of these lines, and you've heard them applied just as inaccurately as they are in this game. Something has seriously got to give at some point, because the commentary ultimately serves more to ruin the presentation of the matches than help it.
Although a certain degree of feature stripping is often a factor in first installments of franchises on new console hardware, the degree to which SmackDown! vs. RAW 2008 on the Wii cuts away at what made the franchise successful on other platforms is utterly ridiculous. It's one thing to put the developmental focus on the new gameplay design, but if that was truly the case, it's all that much sadder that everything else got left on the cutting-room floor for the sake of the gameplay, given what a repetitive slog the gameplay design turned out to be. This game is a failed experiment, and with any luck THQ and Yuke's will learn heaps from it and greatly improve upon next year's inevitable installment. If they don't, Wii-owning wrestling fans are in for a long console generation.