Genre: Sports Simulation
Release Date: December 13, 2005
Buy 'WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2006': PSP
I suppose no one can really be surprised at this point that Smackdown vs Raw 2006 is as good as it is. Developer Yuke's has churned out seven games in this series in six years, after all, so they've had plenty of chances to polish the wrestling engine (and everything else, for that matter) to perfection. No, that didn't shock me. These guys absolutely know what they're doing.
What did shock me was that I wasn't playing Smackdown vs Raw 2006 on the PS2, the system that has been home to the series since 2001 - I was playing the PSP version of the game. Now, given the pedigree that handheld wrestling games have had (crib note: they're universally garbage), it's patently surprising to see the flagship WWE game product ported over to a portable system and actually surviving the transition with any amount of fidelity. Looks like the PSP has just proven that it's worth its salt.
The game has survived incredibly well, so much so that it doesn't even need to be compared to the PS2 product that shares its name in order to highlight its quality. The core of the game, the wrestling engine, is about as good a system as has ever been implemented in the genre. The light and strong grappling system allows a great deal of moves to come out of each wrestler without overwhelming the player with button combinations, and the context-sensitive actions based on the section of the arena you're in further increases the variety. There's also a new stamina meter for each wrestler – do too much running, jumping, or wrestling and the wrestler's stamina will deplete, making them far less effective a competitor until they rest to replenish it. On top of that, there's all kinds of flavor, including complaining to the referee and a slew of objects to use as illegal objects – and all of this is just in the standard match type.
Out in the menus, you'll find huge swaths of deviations from the standard one-on-one match type. A lot of this stuff has been around for a while in this series, but it's all been refined in this first portable incarnation. For example, the "Fulfill your Fantasy" match type, which eschews stamina meters and pin falls for shirt-ripping, pillow-fighting divas. A particular standout, though, is the new backstage brawls, which take area interactivity to a new and hilarious level. You'll likely be pulling your opponent by the hair around each arena just to see what you can smash him into and how elaborate this smashing is. The most important thing to note here is that even on the PSP, every one of Smackdown's variant match types is intact, and plays just as well as they always did. It's actually pretty astounding, and just experiencing each match type once is a time investment of several hours.
That's not even getting to the new season mode of the game. Smackdown vs Raw 2006 allows you experience either a Raw or Smackdown-branded season experience, and the show of the superstar you choose in turn dictates the selection of plot elements that will weave together to form your storyline. In short, expect ECW invasions, whodunit backstage assaults, and general smack talk from Triple H. You'll start experiencing duplicate story elements pretty quickly, and you'll be expected to do the Legends tour (a kind of surreal experience populated by dead and retired wrestlers) in most seasons and win the Royal Rumble in each. It's still good for a couple of playthroughs, especially since the quality of some of the writing exceeds the quality of WWE's typical television product.
And if you're overwhelmed by all of that wrestling, there are still multiple create modes to go through. The Create-A-Wrestler mode that has been this series' hallmark is as robust as ever, but takes a critical hit in that it only allows a limited number of accessories to be used on each character. It works fine if you're making your own character without any real direction, but if you, like me, feel that superstar wrestler Christian is naked without Tyson Tomko (who, in some kind of ridiculous oversight, is not in the game), you're better off doing your elaborate goatee tweaking and intricate tattoo designs on the PS2 version – it doesn't have this limitation. And hey, if you do that, you can use the PSP-PS2 link option to bring over the "Problem Solver" in all of his bald glory, along with your season data and match history. You can still create a moveset as detailed as you ever could. You can create a huge variety of entrances, configuring your own pyrotechnics, lights, and even camera pans. You can even create your own title belts now, so if you felt that the standard Intercontinental Title isn't gaudy enough, you can bestow your own prestigious championship, all dressed up in tiger stripes and purple rhinestones. Or you can make an attractive belt, if you want. It seems like such a waste, though.
And if you get bored of that, the PSP game even includes some barebones mini-games. There's a Texas Hold 'Em game in there, and a WWE trivia game that should make most of Smackdown's target market feel quite smart. There's also a game where you control faux-retarded wrestler Eugene's "arm airplane" so he doesn't fall down on the way to the ring. It's not exactly a "fun" game per se, but it sure does make you think.
No matter what you're doing in the game though, you'll find that it's technically spectacular. While it's obviously not up to the PS2 version's incredibly high bar, texture detail is among the best on PSP, and wrestler faces and animations are incredibly accurate. The audio is characterized by the typical slap-and-hit sound effects and angry rock songs that are standard for these games and wrestling in general, but season mode also has a great deal of voice acting from the wrestlers. The quality of this depends entirely on the skill of the wrestler doing the delivery, so it ranges from ear-wrenchingly awful to fantastic, so if it's not good, at least it's realistic.
In fact, there is one major technical issue, and it's one that brings this game down from excellent to merely great – the load time. It's overwhelming; moving from a menu to a match can incur huge load times spread across three splash screens. Smaller but still palpable load time occurs between nearly every change from a menu to another game mode, and loading hiccups can even occur within the game itself. This can cause small moments of freezing in matches or out-of-sync lip movements in cut scenes. It's infuriating, but in a game this good on a format that's never had a really strong game in this genre, it's survivable.
If we absolutely had to do a straight comparison to the PS2 version of the game, we'd find that it doesn't contain as many unlock options, but has more mini-games. We'd find that it doesn't look as good and has longer loading, and lacks some robustness in wrestler creation; we'd find that there's a lack of in-ring commentary and decide on our own if that's a good or bad thing. Throw in the feature of portability, and it's a wash – Smackdown vs Raw 2006 for PSP justifies its premium price tag with a slew of play options, quality technical presentation, and a wrestling system that might be the very best in the genre. If you already have the PS2 version, the connectivity options between the games may not be able to make up for the fact that you just bought the same game twice, but if you're looking for an excellent wrestling experience and you don't want to be leashed to a television, Smackdown vs Raw 2006 has just obsolesced all your other options.