Just like the big-name pay-per-view events that regularly punctuate the WWE's show schedule, Smackdown vs. RAW is back for another year. The latest entry in the long-running series picks up where last year's game left off, continuing to focus on user creation and true-to-TV action. The biggest new additions this year are on the user creation side, and the gameplay also benefits from some notable refinements. There are also a lot of new match types, but this addition is overshadowed by the removal of online play. Players looking for strong competition are left to rely on their local friends, and the lack of online sharing limits the appeal of the new story designer. Though Smackdown vs. RAW 2010 improves upon its predecessor in a number of ways, its withdrawal from the online arena and lingering perennial issues balance the scales to keep this good wrestling game from being a great one.
One of the first improvements you'll notice is the lack of motion controls. Last year's waggling strikes and gesturing finishers have been dropped in favor of a button-only control scheme. While some will miss the extra satisfaction of swinging the Wii Remote to execute a powerbomb, the new control scheme allows for more precision and support for the Classic Controller and GameCube controller. Characters have expanded move sets this year, and though maneuvering your opponent around the ring can sometimes be finicky, it's a lot of fun to explore the wide variety of moves each character can perform. The special abilities introduced in last year's game play a more concrete role this year, and there are easily accessible descriptions of each one. They range from passive (like being more resilient to pins and submissions) to active (like quickly escaping the ring or regaining some health by hitting yourself in the head with a chair). Helpful prompts also appear to let you know when and how to use the active ones.
Using your character's special abilities can give you an edge in the ring, but odds are you won't need them much while playing solo. The computer doesn't put up much of a fight in one-on-one matches, and you'll easily dismantle opponents without taking too much damage. It's still fun to whale on another wrestler, but when your opponent sends you across the ring with an Irish Whip and then just stands there waiting for you to recover, you'll long for a more realistic challenge. When things do get tough, it's almost always because more wrestlers are in the mix. Two-on-one handicap matches, tag-team contests, and pretty much any other match with four or more wrestlers ringside are difficult to win. This is not because your opponents are tougher but because there are more of them, and they will vigorously try to break up any pin you attempt. These matches last much longer and capture that satisfying struggle that is characteristic of some of the most epic real-life matches. But when you've been beating on your opponents for upward of 30 minutes, it reaches a point when it stops being challenging and starts becoming frustrating. And because both manual and autotargeting are very finicky, it can be even tougher to single out an opponent for a punch or a pin.
Because the action feels more fluid this year and characters generally respond better to each other's positions, your high-flying attack off the turnbuckle is less likely to go wrong. There are fewer animation hang-ups and things tend to flow more realistically. Yet, there are still noticeable problems, especially when multiple characters are in the ring, and you still have to endure your fair share of moves gone awry because of interrupted timing or awkward positioning. And there are also a number of moves that are consistently affected by poorly coordinated animations, like the grapple attack in which Shawn Michaels appears to be force-feeding his opponent an invisible sandwich. Overall, the game plays more smoothly than its predecessor, yet the mechanics haven't received a significant overhaul. Thus, the action has been improved, but it still relies on the same underlying system from previous years and suffers from the same inherent flaws.
Other aspects of the presentation are similarly mixed. The character models are accurate, and the stadium crowds are boisterous from afar, but ugly up close. Last year's stamina and momentum bars are gone and have been replaced by a thin ring around your character's feet. This minimal display gives the action a more realistic feel, and the camera seems to better highlight your moves by using dramatic angles. The announcers are on point most of the time and inject the proceedings with some much-needed drama and flair. But even lively announcing can't mask the still-disappointing sound effects. A title match in the ring still manages to sound exciting, but if you're fighting in the parking lot or the locker room, all you're left with are limp smacking sounds and dull, muted thuds, with the occasional blaring entrance music. Though these effects may be more realistic, they sound weak and out of place in a game that's all about loud, exaggerated action.
Fortunately, the game knows its strengths and once again delivers a lot of content. From Superstar Careers to the Road to Wrestlemania, there are many hours of fights and melodrama to enjoy. Of the six Road to Wrestlemania paths, perhaps the most entertaining is the one you take with your created wrestler, which contains a good amount of humor and some clever gimmicks, as well as a lot of interesting match situations. Unfortunately, some of your matches have poorly-stated goals that make it tough to know what you need to do to progress. In one early match, you can beat on your opponents all you want, but unless you destroy Vince McMahon's office in the process, you'll never progress. Though this lack of clarity can be frustrating, it's still a lot of fun to guide your superstar to WWE prominence.
There is plenty of single-player content available, and there are a bunch of new match types added to the mix. Championship Scramble, First Blood, and Last Man Standing are just some of the additions, and many of the match types can be played with up to four players. But if you don't have any friends around to play with, you are out of luck. Last year's online support has been omitted, leaving avid competitors out in the cold. Though online matches had some issues in Smackdown vs. RAW 2009, they provided a much-needed competitive outlet. Without online play, Smackdown vs. RAW 2010 feels somewhat stripped.
Players looking for more bang for the buck will have to turn to the stellar creation tools for which the series is known. The big new addition this year is the story designer, which lets players script shows over weeks, months, and years. You also get to choose which matchups happen when, who interferes, and who runs their mouth on the microphone. It's easy to create short sequences, and those who put a lot of time into longer arcs will be able to create some epic stuff. Unfortunately, there is no way to share your creation with the world and, even more tragically, no way to play the crazy scenarios that other people create. You can compose your own drama for you and your friends to play out, but the lack of online sharing squanders most of this mode's potential. Less time consuming and possibly more rewarding is the Create-a-Finisher mode, which arrives on the Wii for the first time this year. This tool allows you to choose from a huge list of move parts, as well as chain up to 10 of them together to create a finisher as quick and brutal or as long and painful as you want. You'll get a constantly updating preview of the move while you design it so you can easily tweak it to your liking. It's really fun just to experiment with all the different move combinations, and this feature, along with the move set, superstar, and entrance creators, really rounds off a formidable suite of customization tools.
Smackdown vs. RAW 2010 offers a lot of subtle improvements over last year's game and includes a lot of new, diverse content. The new creation tools are robust, though with no online sharing, much of the potential will go unrealized. The lack of online play is a strange and isolating omission, but those who have a friend to play with will appreciate the refined action, bigger move sets, and numerous match types. While this year's entry is an overall improvement over last year's, the game is still plagued by some lingering problems, and one has to wonder how much mileage this series can continue to get out of its current model. As it is, the refined action and new creation tools may not be enough to entice series veterans to make another purchase. Smackdown vs. RAW 2010 is a well-rounded and entertaining product, but its limitations keep it from earning a title shot.