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Official Review: Smackdown vs Raw 2011

There are numerous game franchises out there that have an update every year. You have your Maddens, NBA games, FIFA, MLB, Guitar Heroes, Call of Dutys, etc. You also have the Smackdown vs. Raw series. Out of all the annual franchise games, Smackdown vs. Raw (and going further back, the Smackdown franchise) has always been the one I would spend countless hours playing, and 2011’s entry has proven to be no different.

To my memory, I have played every single game since the original Smackdown on the PS1 (Though it wasn‘t the only WWE/F franchise I‘ve played). The nice thing about this one in particular is they are always trying something different every year, rather than doing minor tweaks or just updating the roster (which seems to be a commonality amongst most annual sports games).

As many of you know, I recently got to check out the title in Los Angeles back in August, where I came back and gave you my hands-on preview. With the time span between then an now out of the way, how does the retail version of the game stack up to past titles and the promises of the new features that have been announced? Hopefully this review will answer those questions.

For me, I guess you can call it a tradition, but the first thing I usually do when I start up the game is go to Create a Superstar. I think that the CAS mode in these games has always been ridiculously in-depth (apart from the first Smackdown title). Every year, something new comes out to add to the creative freedom you are entitled to, and this year, your creative juices can extend beyond just the appearance of your wrestler (I will get into more detail to that in a bit).

Admittedly, last year’s entry I haven’t had too much time with, so I apologize if I might have mixed features in CAS between the two. With that said, I feel that the point limit kind of hinders some of your creativity, since the bar fills up as you add new pieces to your Superstar’s outfit, and it does so rather quickly (which has been an issue on some of my wrestlers since last year). If you have a more advanced look you’re aiming for, be ready to make some possible sacrifices to accessories and clothing articles.

Now, as far as items go, there are a ton to choose from, but you may come across a few instances of not being able to find the right accessory/item. There are plenty of hair styles to choose from, for instance, but you might not find exactly what you’re looking for. Then again, it would be annoying having to go through 200+ hair styles to find the one you’re looking for (since you will spend a lot of time looking through items in other places, like clothing, etc).

Even though there are many new items this year to use, to me, it seems that the regular clothing options are more lacking this year than last. At least you can use custom logos and the like you created in the paint tool, which can spice up an outfit. Too bad Superstar Threads is still a bit limited, but it’s a neat idea to be able to edit some of the look of the other superstars regardless.

Speaking of the Paint Tool, you can now use that data for crowd signs. The only thing to keep in mind when doing that, though, is to make sure your image items are stretched from top to bottom, since the image area is square and the signs are rectangular (so it will stretch it out width-wise). What I think would be really cool is if they allowed you to import images to use from the XMB.

Naming your Superstar/Diva is still a hit or miss deal, with audible name options still being pretty limited, but at least there are a lot more options than last year. There are a few first names, for instance, but not too many popular ones. Even finisher move names are pretty limited, but I don’t think that’s as big a deal as the wrestler names themselves.

To further expand into the creative side of the game, there is now a new option for Create a Finisher. You can now create finishers for when your opponent is at the top of the turnbuckle. There are a lot of different animations to choose from (and you can now adjust speed, etc by 1% increments instead of 25%), but like the other CAF options, some animations have ugly transitions between one another, even though THQ tried to make it so one animation would fit and transition well with the next. I’ve had a few moves where I needed to change it because the animation did something weird, like your body shifting to another spot for no reason. At least with the new control scheme, getting your opponent on the top rope is really easy, since right stick up, depending on the situation, lifts up your wrestler (and R1 turns them around). Although a lot of people don’t like it, I still like the one-button reversals and am glad they’re still there.

As mentioned in my preview, the strong grapples are gone and replaced with chain grapples, reducing some of the available moves, but new moves were also added, including ladder and Royal Rumble finishers, which makes those kinds of matches a bit more interesting. The Royal Rumble has been really easy since last year at least, and performing the Royal Rumble-specific finishers are pretty much a guaranteed nock-out. The only thing I’m at a loss on is the momentum meter in that match, since it doesn’t seem to build up normally like in other matches.

Now, as far as the new physics model goes for weapons, it has improved quite a bit since I last tested it out in August. Tables can break pretty easily, unless you do a table match (in which there seems to be a time limit on how fast you can break a table; instead, a leg or something will fold up until later in the match). You can also stack tables on top of one another, and suplex your opponent off the turnbuckle into them (which is also a trophy). Leaning weapons against the ropes and stuff is pretty cool, too, and ladders are also able to be damaged (so far, I’ve only seen that being possible when you lean them into the corners, but I could be wrong).

Of course, there are still a few bugs here and there, like the ladders bouncing around in place (well, more like vibrating) and the usual clipping, but it’s not a huge factor, just a very minor annoyance (the Smackdown games have always been notorious for clipping issues anyway, so I‘m used to that). The game still looks like a SVR game, with colors and the like that pop out (you can also adjust the shininess of your skin, from clean to just-got-out-of-an-oil-shower), but no huge improvements in the graphical department.

With that said, the Hell in a Cell match is more realistic than ever, since the boundaries of the cage have been expanded and you can now use weapons (which is another thing I mentioned in my preview). Pulling out a chair from under the apron and then throwing it at your opponent before doing a Cell finisher is pretty satisfactory. I also love how you actually need to do moves to get out of the cage instead of just going over and opening a door.

There is also a new ‘Match Creator’ you can use. This allows for multiple options for a match, including the ring type, what you can do to win the match, etc. You can have a First Blood match in an Inferno Match ring, for instance. Too bad blood is off by default, as I kept forgetting to go in and turn it on after a few hours of playing (it won’t let you play a First Blood match until you turn it on in the options anyway, but you have to go there to change it instead of having a prompt asking you if you want it turned on or not). This is one step in the right direction. Now all they need is Create-a-PPV similar to that of WWF Attitude on the PS1 and I will be happy (seriously, being able to edit everything from stadium lights to the color of the ropes made the mode pretty fun to mess around with).

Road to WrestleMania makes a return as well, which is the deeper story-driven career mode over the course of three months, following specific Superstar storylines. There is also the Vs. Undertaker RTWM, which is, for lack of a better word, ridiculous. I know that the WWE has had some ridiculous storylines in the past (I still remember that whole Mark Henry/Mae Young thing they did), but this might just take the cake.

The nice thing about the mode this time around is that you have multiple outcomes within the stories you can follow, and if you don’t like a specific one, there is also a time machine you can use to re-do events or complete side quests you might have skipped over at an earlier time to complete challenges. Most of that happens in the backstage free roam, which you can traverse and even start fights with other superstars roaming around in the back. What I would like to see is Road to WrestleMania be made available to more than just a handful of the grapplers, though, but, alas, that takes a lot of time and resources.

If you’ve exhausted the Road to WrestleMania mode, you can always hop online and access storylines others have uploaded. With the addition of branching storylines, new animations, and sounds available to use, it’s a lot better, but still takes a lot of time and patience to complete. I’m currently working on one of my own and, so far, I’ve only completed two days, but spent a few hours on tweaking it (I will upload it when it’s completed).

Speaking of online functionality, this year’s is FAR more improved over last year’s. Though no one was playing the new online Royal Rumble, I did compete in a match, and apart from a little connection hiccup and some minor lag afterward for a few seconds, the gameplay was nice and smooth, and I was doing a 6-man elimination tag match. The only real issue I have is that to access the online portion, you need to get the Axxess pass, which is $10 if you didn’t purchase the game new. You can also get the Fan Axxess pass that pays for all the future DLC THQ plans on releasing.

Even downloading others’ creations is expanded, with creators giving people the ability to modify their stuff if they so choose (such as created superstars, and being able to edit their move sets, signs and entrances, something that was sorely needed last year). You even get ranked on the number of downloads of your content as well. I don’t like the fact that you can’t upload anything that uses DLC content, though. There’s not even an option to upload it and only make it available to those who own the DLC (which, currently, the only DLC there is came from the Axxess code on the manual anyway, which you need to download created superstars, etc to begin with; except for maybe the Bret Hart DLC).

But what new feature have I spent most of my time with so far? That would be WWE Universe. You can set up rosters, who has what titles, which matches will be available, etc. This is what would happen when you mix the standard Exhibition mode with past titles’ career modes. The game tracks a lot of what you do, and adjusts matches and cut scenes accordingly. It also automatically builds rivals and tag teams as well, and if you play out the matches of big rivals, you could be attacked by your opponent on the way to the ring (these cuts are a nice addition and adds to the authenticity).

After I set up my title holders and roster, I did come across a few issues I had with the mode. First off, the titles are fixed to their respected brands. You can’t, for instance, have the WWE Championship on Smackdown and the Heavyweight Championship on Raw. Although you can assign specific teams the two different tag team titles, the only ones that the mode tracks is the Unified Championship, so assigning the individual titles to different tag teams doesn’t really result in anything.

The game also doesn’t track progress for the other championships, including the Hardcore title and WCW championship. That was a disappointment. Watching the ranks change in the #1 Contender lists are interesting, too, but I’ve yet to understand how and when they track specific matches to either increase or decrease a contender’s rank. I’ve also seen a couple championship matches that skipped over the #1 contender and went with the champion against a #2 or #3 ranked wrestler.

Although the mode gives you a lot of freedom in matches and the like, I find it disappointing you can’t schedule your own championship matches or #1 contender matches (and you can’t change the competitors either). If you try to change the match assigned for the championship matches, it reverts to a normal match instead. But hey, at least you can create and edit everything else, including tag teams and rivalries.

What you can do just to see what happens is skip over multiple events, and the game will automatically set up and simulate matches from the point you were at to the point you skipped to. Unfortunately, you can’t go back and see past results of matches and events you skipped over (as far as I know), but everything can potentially change a lot, including title holders and the like. Don’t ask me how it happened on mine, but the Rock is a hated Superstar and Jake Roberts held onto the WWE Championship for 4 months straight (even simulating the matches), after I had him cash in his Money in the Bank (a match I simulated, and he won) against Shawn Michaels (Shawn had actually won the title from me in a Fatal 4-Way in which my created superstar was in the middle of performing a finisher when he went for a pin against the 4th guy).

Now with all the gameplay and modes out of the way, let’s talk about the sound. When creating a superstar, and doing the entrance, you still have the option to use a song stored on your PS3. It works much better than that of the 360 (which requires playlists), since you just go in and select a song, but 9/10 times, the song is too loud to be effective in the game (since it will drown out the ring announcer and can be way higher than the rest of the game’s audio). This has been an issue for a while, though, and since the game doesn’t have volume options to either bring the music volume down or the game audio up beyond their current limits, the only other option is to edit the audio file on a computer and manually bring the overall dB of the song down.

I’ve also had a few bugs with the sound, too. While working around in the menus or setting things up (whenever background music plays basically), I will occasionally get static in certain frequency ranges of the music, which lasts for about a minute before going away. If you’re wrestling with a superstar that you have a custom soundtrack set up for, and you pause the game, half the time the music will play after you exit the pause menu, and with the loudness of most of those songs, it’s pretty annoying. Even when creating a storyline, you might set up someone’s entrance music to play, but in the preview, it might mess up and mix in with another song you might have used earlier, so you will have to sit through the preview until the clip finishes so it will run through again and play the song by itself. At least that doesn’t seem to be an issue when you’re actually playing out the scenes, though.

Overall, this is definitely a better version than the Smackdown vs. Raw of last year, thanks to all the new editions. Although the control scheme changed (again), once you get used to the new controls, it become easier to play than before, since a lot of the changes result in a more intuitive experience (if you played past Smackdown vs. Raw titles, it will maybe take 5 minutes to get used to). The Road to WrestleMania is still a fun affair, and with the multiple paths you can follow in the story and the backstage side quests, it adds more replay ability to the whole experience.

The WWE Universe mode is a very nice addition, and I hope it stays for future iterations, if only it gives you even more options, including being able to set up your own #1 Contender and Championship matches (and mixing brand titles and using the other ones as well). It could also be more fun if you were able to create championships and include them into the mode as well, but maybe next time.

Although there were a few sound bugs and the graphics clipping is still a big issue (as well as some occasional weird rope animations), overall, it’s still a very positive experience and is amongst the best of the WWE/F titles out there, but it’s still far from perfect. If the bugs were better worked out and some of the features allowed for a few more tweaks (WWE Universe for instance), it would be, in my opinion, the best wrestling game I have ever played.

[review pros=”More realistic Hell in a Cell
More Customization Options
Online functionality vastly improved
WWE Universe” cons=”Some sound bugs
Still suffers from many clipping issues
WWE Universe could use more freedom
Some animation bugs, especially in created finishers” score=80]

This review is based on a retail copy of the PS3 version of Smackdown vs Raw 2011 provided by THQ.