Since the year 2000, THQ and Yuke's WWE SmackDown! franchise has been steadily chugging along on an annual schedule. Save for one slight disappointment in WWF SmackDown! Just Bring It, the series has also continued to improve year after year, finally culminating in easily the most impressive effort to date in last year's WWE SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain. Yuke's has had a tough act to follow with its next sequel, considering how polished and well put-together its last game was--unfortunately, it just wasn't quite able to pull it off. WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw is the sixth installment in the highly popular series, and it's also one of the most marginally changed iterations of the series. Despite being the first WWE game ever to offer a full roster of WWE voice talent and the first North American-released wrestling game to feature online play, neither of these features live up to their potential, and the other random gameplay upgrades just don't feel like a significant enough progression for the series.
Let's start with those gameplay upgrades of which there are at least a few worth mentioning. Nearly all of the gameplay changes made to this year's game are assorted ways to try to capture the proper flow of a real match. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in the little in-match minigames. At the beginning of a match, you'll frequently find yourself faced with a stare-down contest, a test of strength, or a shoving match. These are all controlled by specifically timed button presses that appear onscreen. In the stare down, you simply have to press X at the right time and you'll get the always important first strike. In a shoving match, you'll be presented with a meter that looks almost exactly like the kick meter from Madden NFL 2005 and it works pretty much the same as well. The meter swings upward to signify power for your shove, and then it swings back downward, challenging you to hit the X button at just the right time for maximum effectiveness. There's also an exact copy of this meter for the ever-popular chop battles you tend to see during real matches, which have been translated here very nicely. As well, you'll encounter a new spanking contest (strictly for the divas, of course). These little games can be turned on or off in the game's options menu, but we didn't find them to be intrusive, and instead thought they added a little more flair to the matches. That's flair meaning "style," not flair meaning Ric Flair. If you want to add a little more Ric Flair to your matches, yes, he is a selectable character.
There are also a couple of new meter systems. The first is a new way to reward players for playing characters according to their personalities. The wrestler will have a meter that sits beneath his special move meter that will signify what he is--either a good guy or a bad guy. If you're a good guy, you can build this meter up by playing to the crowd, taunting and performing high-risk maneuvers and such. On the flip side, heels are boosted by using weapons, complaining to the ref, using cheap tactics, and just about anything else you can think of to make the crowd hate you. The boon for filling up your meter depends on your personality. Good guys are rewarded with a manner of invincibility that causes your attacks to do more damage and prevents you from being attacked. Heels, on the other hand, are given a special low-blow move that actually does as much damage as your typical finisher. This is an absolutely great way to represent how different types of wrestlers play to the crowd, and it also provides an additional boost of authenticity to the in-ring action.
The other new meter is specific to the Royal Rumble match. Essentially, Yuke's has reworked how you throw opponents over the top rope during this match, which is to provide each participant with yet another onscreen meter that displays how close that wrestler is to being tossed. You still pretty much toss opponents over the rope the same way (by Irish whipping them near the ropes), but they won't go out that easy; they'll instead hit the outside apron and you'll have to immediately start striking or grappling with them to push them out. An additional wrestler can even come over and help you try to knock the other one over. Fundamentally, this is a cool idea, but the implementation isn't quite right. For starters, the animation while you're grappling with the guy doesn't look like anything you'd ever see during a real rumble match. Furthermore, with up to six guys in the ring at once, the combination of the life meter and ring-out meter ultimately equates to too many meters on the screen at once, and it becomes very distracting.
While SmackDown! vs. Raw does a great job of providing you with all sorts of minigames and meters to play with, it doesn't really change the core gameplay in any major way. There's nothing here as earth shattering as the new grappling system, which was implemented last year. Certain changes that were made in Yuke's GameCube wrestling title, WWE Day of Reckoning, didn't make it over into this game, like, for example, that excellent weight-balancing system (though this game does feature its own new weight system--albeit not as impressive of one). Generally speaking, the game plays just like its predecessors during matches, save for the few new additions and one very notable flaw--the artificial intelligence. The AI is downright brain-dead in certain situations. Scenarios involving weapons tend to be the worst; on more than one occasion, an opponent delivered a wicked chair shot to our superstar, only to end up idly standing over our downed wrester, seemingly incapable of following up until we stood back up. Opponents will also frequently botch Irish whip moves badly, and they just don't seem to be capable of properly taking advantage of situations that would seem to be in their best interest. Cranking up the difficulty does fix some of this, but overall, the game just feels easier than it ought to, and you can thank the AI for most of that.
When it comes to features, no one feature has been more touted than SmackDown! vs. Raw's online functionality. Ever since the proliferation of online console gaming, wrestling fans have been chomping at the bit for the chance to go at it in the broadband-based squared circle. Now, three years after the first online game for the PS2, THQ and Yuke's have produced an online wrestler--albeit one that features an online mode so bare bones that you'd think you had traveled back in time to 2001 when online first hit the console. To call this online mode disappointing would be a hefty understatement, as there's barely enough here to qualify as an afterthought let alone a real feature.
Essentially, once you select the online mode from the main menu and then connect, you can opt to create an online profile or just go in as an anonymous default user. From there, you can select from assorted game lobbies based on varying skill levels, from amateur to expert. In these lobbies, you can create either a one-on-one match or a bra-and-panties match, or you can join someone else's one-on-one or bra-and-panties match. And that's it. There's no chat beyond basic keyboard support; you can only choose from these two match types and only from the Raw and SmackDown! arenas, and there is no ranking system or win-loss tracking whatsoever. You just go in, play, and voila, you've seen it all. In fact, the only thing of note in this mode is that you can take created wrestlers online, although that really should be pretty much a given. At the very least, the game does perform pretty well when playing. Lag does manifest itself from time to time, and when it does, it really cripples the game. Thankfully, it seems to be rare over consumer-grade broadband connections, but as with anything relating to online play, your mileage may vary. When you consider how far online gaming has progressed in the last few years, it seems almost inexcusable for an online game to lack so many features. Needless to say, the online mode is definitely not the first reason to pick up this game.
Fortunately, apart from lacking online functionality, SmackDown! vs. Raw still manages to provide you with all the usual ways to entertain yourself in a wrestling game. The season mode, for instance, is back yet again, and it features an all-new set of scenarios to put in the path of your chosen superstar while you wrestle your way through a full year in the WWE. The key difference in this year's season mode is that it does away with a lot of the open-endedness of its predecessors. You can't move around an arena anymore--you are actually strictly relegated to your locker room in between shows. The storyline itself is usually quite good, although you won't see as many branching-off points in the plot. The story actually only starts off and ends one of two ways, and this depends on what caliber of superstar you pick and how you perform in very specific matches.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the season mode is the way in which you interact with the many personalities of the WWE. You can say mostly goodbye to sifting through a gang of text boxes, as now the game features fully implemented voice work from every superstar in the game. You'll still see some text, because whatever wrestler you choose to play as speaks strictly through the screen; all dialogue from commentators, backstage personalities, and other wrestlers is represented by their real-life counterparts. Sounds great, right? Well, not quite. It's certainly awesome that the developers were able to gather all the wrestlers and have them speak their lines, but the problem is that a lot of it sounds horribly rushed. About half the dialogue is badly recorded in what sounds like an echoey chamberlike warehouse, and some of the line delivery is unbelievably bad, and not even in a typical wrestling kind of bad either. There are some moments where it is plainly obvious that lines are simply being read off of a script by someone with no previous knowledge of the dialogue. To be fair, some of the dialogue is also really good. Big-time personalities like Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerrero, and Vincent K. McMahon all do solid justice to their TV roles. But wrestlers like Edge, Shelton Benjamin, and Rene Dupree are all terrible. More often than not, the voice work is just mediocre at best, and it only serves to make the cutscenes drag on in many cases.
SmackDown! vs. Raw also includes a couple of new features that provide some single-player longevity. While the create-an-animation mode has been axed, two new creation modes have been added: create-a-pay-per-view and create-a-belt features. Both are exactly what they sound like; the create-a-PPV mode gives you the opportunity to mix and match a card of up to eight matches using whatever arena, superstars, and stipulations you please, and the create-a-belt mode allows you to design a championship belt using a host of options, ranging from the type of belt strap to the kind of jewels used on the front plate. While the create-a-PPV mode is mostly a neat novelty option, the create-a-belt mode is actually really cool, as there are a ton of ways to customize your belts. The only downfall of the create-a-belt mode is that it requires a whole lot of SmackDown! cash to buy the belts, even if they aren't extremely gussied up.
Fortunately, the season mode is now not the only way to earn cash, as you can also earn money by completing specific challenges in the game's challenge mode. It's kind of like the Madden challenge mode in EA's football franchise where certain objectives met in the exhibition mode unlock new stuff. In this case, it unlocks cash to use on belts as well as other unlockables in the shop zone mode, and you can even unlock a few special goodies directly via the challenges. The actual objectives span several different difficulty levels and involve everything from landing certain moves in a match to winning tough bouts. This is definitely a nice way to add some incentive to playing exhibition matches, as there really never has been any except for multiplayer purposes. It has also been a great way to kill time up until this point.
The last remaining feature in SmackDown! vs. Raw is the one that's seen the least in terms of alteration: the create-a-wrestler mode. Make no mistake, this year's wrestler creation is as deep as it has ever been, with a whole host of new creation items, but it's also basically the exact same mode you've been using for the last couple of years, save for some interface changes, which make the process a little less daunting. More clothes, more hairstyles, more form editing...basically, there's just more to do. It would have been nice if Yuke's had gone the extra mile and really put some heavy work into simplifying the whole wrestler-creation process, as it can still be a pretty time-consuming affair to tweak a created wrestler to perfection. But, at the very least, the new interface joins more realistic template bodies and more predesigned move sets to help make the process of designing your favorite superstars (who weren't included in the game) or your own original creations a lot easier.
The new features in SmackDown! vs. Raw are certainly nothing to sneeze at, but they also come at a price. SmackDown! vs. Raw has a somewhat smaller roster than other games of its type. There are just barely over 40 characters in the game, though pretty much every major superstar is included. However, some notable lower-card talent, like Billy Kidman, Orlando Jordan, and Eugene have been left out altogether. Also, similar to the last batch of WWE games, WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw once again includes several classic unlockable wrestlers, including Bret Hart, Jimmy Snuka, The Legion of Doom, Andre the Giant, and Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake. At the very least, this year's game does actually include authentic entrances for the old-school superstars.
Match type is one area where the game hasn't seen a drop in sheer bulk, however. Every single match you could play in Here Comes the Pain, from the bra-and-panties match to the elimination chamber, is included, along with one new match type: the parking lot brawl. This match takes place backstage inside a ring of parked cars. It works like your basic hardcore match, though your weapons are the cars themselves and your goal is to whip your opponent into as many vehicles as you can to do the most damage and to ultimately score the pin or submission. This match is a nice addition, especially since the amount of backstage brawling you can do in normal matches has been scaled back significantly. Otherwise, SmackDown! vs. Raw provides you no shortage of gimmick matches in which to partake, and it's unlikely you'll ever find yourself bored with the match variety. It's just too bad you can't play most of them online.
SmackDown! vs. Raw manages to continue the series' tradition of superb graphical presentation, although much like the other components of the game, it hasn't seen a huge boost over last year's title. The player models are still wholly spectacular looking, with incredible detail in the faces, bodies, and costumes. A couple of guys, like Chris Benoit and Triple H, look a little bit off, and the hair textures for characters with longer hair still look really, really weird. But apart from the minor things, these are some of the best character models you'll see on the PS2. The wrestling arenas are more detailed in this year's game, with the crowds getting a nice 3D boost. Not all of the crowd models are 3D, mind you, but enough of them are to give entrances and the segments outside of the ring a more realistic look. However, they could still do with a little tweaking to make them animate more naturally. Although there's a little less in terms of postmatch celebration, entrances are fantastic across the board, and not one looks off base from reality. The frame rate stays steady throughout most of the game, save for a couple of spots during special moves, though frame drop here actually seems to be implemented purposely for effect. Predictably, clipping problems do plague the game, but it's far less prevalent than it has been in recent years, and it only becomes especially noticeable during specific gimmick matches, like hell in a cell and the elimination chamber.
There's a lot more to SmackDown! vs. Raw's sound design than just its scattershot voice acting. Match commentary has made its return for this year's game after sitting out in Here Comes the Pain. Unfortunately, it has made absolutely no strides forward despite the year off. The two separate commentary teams of Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler and Michael Cole and Tazz are convincing enough in terms of line delivery, but the writing is pathetic at best and there's barely enough of it to get you through a single match without hearing multiple repeated lines. On the positive side, much like Day of Reckoning, THQ has licensed a number of songs for use on SmackDown! vs. Raw's soundtrack. The list includes bands like Powerman 5000, Breaking Benjamin, Styles of Beyond, and Anthrax with Public Enemy. While some of these songs are repeats of songs found in Day of Reckoning, there's ultimately more music here, and all of it is a welcome change from the same rehashed music the series had been using for matches and menus over the last couple of years. All in all, the game sounds good, but it could have been a lot better had the commentary and voice acting not been so terribly disappointing.
Disappointing is perhaps the best adjective to use to sum up WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw, though perhaps the best overall terms to use would be disappointingly great. Make no mistake, SmackDown! vs. Raw is still a fun, full-featured wrestling game that brings some neat gameplay additions to the table and still plays wonderfully (despite the deficient AI). But even so, you won't be able to shake the feeling that this game just isn't living up to its full potential, thanks to the lackluster online play and dishearteningly fluctuant use of the WWE voice talent. Will you enjoy SmackDown! vs. Raw if you liked the previous entries in the franchise? Absolutely. However, if you were hoping for a game as impressive as Here Comes the Pain was upon its release, SmackDown! vs. Raw may prove to be a bit of a letdown.