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WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011
System: various :: Rating: Teen :: Players: 1-4
Genre: Wrestling :: Released: 26 October 2010

By Damien Wilkens
16 November 2010 Hardcore wrestling fans are surprisingly patient people. It's hard to imagine another fanbase so insistent on following a product that they often hate, if only for the possibility that it could one day be great again. Fans of wrestling video games are much the same, though in their case, it's more about returning to the AKI-era than one of Attitude. For all the people that want to say nostalgia clouds our judgment, there's a reason No Mercy (a relatively bare-bones and ugly game) is still talked about, while THQ's Smackdown series, with all the glitz and glamour of the modern era, still sputters along from a critical standpoint.

Why? Are we just being unfair to THQ, not realizing that video games, like the wrestling business itself, have changed with the times?

Last year, I gave the then most recent iteration an 8 out of 10. For someone that had been so harsh a critic of the series in the past, it was well deserved, considering that the last time they put out a product with such polish and care was in 2005. For all of the attempts at innovation over the years, the new Story Designer feature was the first to actually innovate, opening up a myriad of possibilities and giving the series some much needed replayability. And the Superstar Threads feature, while not perfect, felt like a genuine attempt to give fans something they've been wanting for years.

This year, there is no innovation; no revolution. It'd be hard to argue that the series has even evolved from last year. If anything, it's devolved.

The big selling point this year is the new Universe mode, an amalgamation of the defunct GM and Career modes. In it, you customize your own playable WWE product: assigning each superstar to a brand, picking your title holders, their face or heel status, allies and enemies, etc. With these settings, Universe then produces an event based on the rankings and current rivalries. You can then play through the matches, simulate them, or create your own. That all seems fine on paper, until you realize that the game's promise of creating "your moment," more accurately translates to "your moment, as long as the moment you want is A, B, or C." For every illusion of freedom comes a new restriction. You can defend all of the major WWE titles, but only on PPVs and only against the top contender determined by the computer. You can combine any two superstars you want into a tag team, but the mode's reliance on forced cut scenes means that they will almost always be broken up. You can have an entire Raw or Smackdown roster of created wrestlers, well, except for the two preset in-game superstars mandated per brand. After only a few virtual weeks, the shiny potential promised by the mode is stripped away to reveal a disappointingly shallow experience, and there isn't much to see outside of the annoyingly repetitive cut scene involving a sneak attack on the entrance ramp.

Looking elsewhere for dynamic storylines or feuds will inevitably lead you to the Road to Wrestlemania mode, which has been revamped this year, and not for the better. In previous years, it was a fun but short distraction that really only served as a way to unlock various hidden costumes and characters. Now it's much more focused on backstage roaming and minigames. And by minigames, I mean "steal the Undertaker's urn and collect souls hanging around in locker rooms" and "pick fights with everyone." Since superstar attributes can be freely adjusted (if you pay for the DLC, of course), Road to Wrestlemania has it's own self-contained stat building feature that essentially forces you to get in brawls with every single person you run into, which is time consuming, and more importantly, not fun.

Story Designer is much the same as last year. Instead of random attempted vehicular homicide, the favorite scene of online story creators now appears to involve being chokeslamed through a hole in the ring, which then explodes. The other innovation from last year, Superstar Threads, is exactly the same, as is the Create a Superstar mode, which has needed an update for years.

When arguing against the merits of a game like No Mercy, it's important to point out how a lot of Smackdown's features, while not fully realized, weren't even attempted in that game. Indeed, there was no Story Designer, nowhere near the multitude of match types, and things like ring entrances were non-events. So then why is it still considered the standard? Because the gameplay offered just the right mix of fun and challenge.

Pretty much since its inception, the biggest determent of the Smackdown series has been the action in the ring. It's also been the one thing that the developers seem to care about the least, not understanding that all the bells and whistles in the world don't mean a thing if matches are a chore to slog through. As with every year, the grapple system has been changed. Strong grapples are reliant on the opponent's dizzy state, while weaker moves are preceded by a generic chain grapple animation. This means that every match, be it a normal one-on-one encounter, Hell in a Cell, or Money in the Bank, will include wrist lock after wrist lock, with just as many reversals. Since the entire challenge of the game is based on the AI's ability to perform reversals, you either have to endure battles with an opponent that's not particularly aggressive, but will reverse every move you attempt, or turn the AI sliders down and win 90-second matches in your sleep. There is no solid middle ground between the two, and even if there was, it shouldn't be the job of the player to look for it. The much touted new object physics offer some new possibilities in weapon matches, but as with most things in the game, the broken tables and ladders become significantly less impressive the more you see them.

Like most games of this type, the preferred way to play is against other humans. Online multiplayer is just as laggy as ever, though there are more match types available online this year, including a 12-player Royal Rumble. Though it sounds fun, finding 11 other people with a good connection that aren't going to cheat and use turbo controllers would probably take you all day, and even then, you may find yourself battling with a multitude of glitches.

Yes, glitches. Huge, glaring glitches, like falling through the ring, becoming stuck in the air mid-move, inactive weapons moving on their own, or having your created wrestler's entire moveset reset for no reason. Sometimes, the game will just freeze after a match has ended, flashing a blank white screen in your face, refusing to move on.

For a company that constantly excuses the faults of the franchise on an abbreviated development cycle, it's amazing that THQ still refuses to use what little time they have to improve the dated fundamentals of their engine. For every second of a perfectly motion-captured entrance, a move is removed. For every sculpted muscle rendered on an in-game character, the artificial intelligence feels progressively less intelligent and more artificial. It's style over substance, sizzle over steak, presentation over fun, and ultimately, as seen far too many times before, a game with a very limited shelf life.

Last year I thought I felt the winds of change blowing for the Smackdown franchise, 2010 being what I thought was the first step in a steady climb towards greatness. This year, it's a homogenized, mechanical, and quite frankly boring product that shows a stubborn refusal to learn from past mistakes.

In that respect, it's very true to its source material.

Final Grade: 6/10

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