Genre: Sports Entertainment
Release Date: November 9, 2007
It's been a bad year for World Wrestling Entertainment, with steroid accusations and wrestlers getting summoned to conference with Congressional committees swirling in the wake of once-beloved Chris Benoit's descent into homicidal and suicidal madness. Even recently, the embattled fed is struggling with the abrupt injury of former World Champion John Cena, who was previously one of the fed's top draws. Even before the still-distasteful Benoit incident, though, the WWE was having a hard time of it. Ratings have been on a slow downward slide since the glory days of the Monday Night Wars, with the wrestlers who once made the fed a ratings giant either quietly retiring due to injury (Stone Cold Steve Austin) or moving entirely into the movie business (The Rock). Only promoter Vince McMahon himself remains as a reminder of the top-drawing storylines and characters of that previous era, and despite the presence of talents like Cena, Triple H, and Randy Orton, nothing has really materialized to fill the void left by the departure of the "real" superstars.
This slow slide into mediocrity hasn't plagued the Smackdown vs. Raw series of wrestling titles created by Yuke's (also known for the amusingly goofy Rumble Roses series) and published faithfully by THQ. At this point, the games may very well be more popular than WWE's actual wrestling programming. There are a lot of good reasons for this, actually. From the fan's perspective, the games let you play in an infinite sandbox with all of your favorite wrestlers, freed from the tyranny of the WWE's increasingly criticized booking procedures. You can push your favorites to the top, or force wrestlers who infamously rely on backstage politics to rack up wins to play on a more even playing field. From the gamer's perspective, the Smackdown vs. Raw series has consistently offered up engaging gameplay with a staggering variety of modes available, an excellent if not perfect Create-a-Wrestler system and cutting-edge visuals no matter what hardware the game happened to be on. The 2006 edition of Smackdown vs. Raw was widely praised for being one of the best wrestling titles in English; the 2007 edition was considered only slightly worse, due to some obvious lack of polish in the final product; and now we come to the 2008 edition.
There is a lot about Smackdown vs. Raw 2008 that is going to be absolutely identical to what came before. That is, after all, part of the selling point of the series. Fans go to it every year expecting more of an update than a totally new product, and with this one, they shall not be disappointed. What is shocking here is how many new features Yuke's is building into 2008, when 2007 was almost literally the 2006 iteration with an updated roster, control tweaks and a visual overhaul.
Among the pleasant additions is the oft-neglected ECW brand that the WWE controls getting to contribute five wrestlers to the roster this year: Elijah Burke, Marcus Cor Von, Tommy Dreamer, John Morrison and CM Punk. The system for determining how wrestlers behave in the ring is more complex than last year's "fight dirty" and "fight clean" options. Now you may choose to outfit any wrestler with a primary and secondary combination of styles: brawler, dirty, hardcore, high-flyer, powerhouse, showman, submission artist and technical. Although the primary style determines a character's finisher, the combination still makes it easier to reflect the fact that in modern WWE storylines, the hero and villain roles are usually not clearly defined. You can now control how much pressure a wrestler applies when an opponent is caught in a submission hold. In a move that may prove controversial, the popular season and GM moves have been combined into a single long campaign mode called Main Event, where you attempt to guide a wrestler through the series of objectives required for that performer to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Aside from the new ECW wrestlers, the Smackdown vs. Raw roster also sees a few slight alterations for the new edition. Representing Smackdown: Batista, Kenny Dykstra, Edge, Finlay, Ric Flair, The Great Khali, Chavo Guerrero, Matt Hardy, Gregory Helms, Mark Henry, Kane, Chris Masters, MVP, Rey Mysterio and The Undertaker. Representing RAW: Carlito, John Cena, Shad Gaspard, Jeff Hardy, JTG, Mr. Kennedy, King Booker, Bobby Lashley, Shawn Michaels, Randy Orton, Sandman, Snitsky, Triple H and Umaga. The Legends selection is nearly identical to Smackdown vs. Raw 2007's: Mick Foley, Terry FunkEddie Guerrero, Bret Hart, Roddy Piper, The Rock, Sabu and Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Finally, there's the usual assortment of featherweight Divas to play the role of manager/escort or hop into the ring for women's action: Ashley, Mickie James, Kelly Kelly, Michelle McCool, Melina, Candice Michelle and Torrie Wilson. Overall, this is honestly not the greatest selection of wrestlers ever to grace a game, although that largely results from severe flux in the WWE roster as of late. Many current popular personalities aren't represented in this game's roster, and many of the wrestlers it does represent have since left the company or sunken into obscurity. If nothing else, its breadth will please the hardcore fans who enjoy seeing more marginal faces in a wrestling title.
Perhaps the greatest transformation for the 2008 version of Smackdown vs. Raw 2008 is just how many platforms it's appearing on, ranging from portable to next-gen. The version that's the particular subject of this preview is perhaps the most curious: the Nintendo Wii. Given that the entire selling point of the Wii is forcing developers to trade off graphical power for the ability to use a totally unique input system, and the entire selling point of Smackdown vs. Raw is a consistently similar control system matched with ever-improving graphics ... well, it makes you wonder how exactly this marriage of software and hardware is going to work out. Smackdown vs. Raw should be utterly hostile to the Wii hardware, and vice versa, but Yuke's has made more difficult hardware compromises work before.
Gameplay uses the standard Wiimote and Nunchuk combination, with movement handled via the analog stick. Moves are performed with a combination of button presses and motion input movements. This particular build, which appeared to have most options implemented, broke up the game into Play Now, Main Event, Tournament, Create and Options.
Musically, the bulk of the game's sounds are licensed hard rock tracks and songs wrestling fans would expect to hear during introductions and at match's end. Matches themselves are silent, with no sounds other than crowd noise, sound effects and commentary. Visually, the graphics were a significant improvement over the usual appearance of the PS2 Smackdown vs. RAW SKUs, particularly when it came to the realism of the wrestlers' appearances. Crowds were actually composed of 3D polygon spectators who move during the matches and wave homemade signs. With this said, the textures are so simple and the bodies of characters so noticeably low-resolution that it'd be impossible to confuse this with the 360 or PS3 versions.
With Options, you could set fairly typical gameplay options like difficulty and appearance, and add in other customizations, like cheat codes. Play Now is a sort of "instant action mode" that lets you automatically pick a match type (Single, Hardcore, Tag Team, Triple Threat or K.O.), whether you wish to fight the computer or a human opponent and the venue for the battle. Main Event is the game's campaign mode, Tournament let you opt to play or create a variety of tournament types (including the famous King of the Ring event), and Create opened the way to the traditional Create-a-Wrestler mode.
Once you go to a match, getting into the action was quick and simple ... to a fault. The Smackdown vs. RAW series has long made heavy use of a contextual button for activating basic moves like chops, kicks and basic wrestling moves. For the 2008 Wii iteration, motion input entirely replaces use of the contextual button. To get up after being knocked down or kick out of a pin attempt, you shake the Wiimote. To attack an opponent, swing the Wiimote; what your wrestler does is determined by where you are relative to the opponent. Shake the Wiimote to use other contextual moves, like elbow-dropping a downed opponent. Hold A while swinging to execute a light grapple and B while swinging to get a more potent grapple. Once grappled, you can execute more moves by following on-screen prompts. Likewise, escaping grapples and submission holds is also best accomplished by following on-screen prompts, which makes it frustrating when trying to accomplish something (like grabbing foreign objects or climbing in and out of the ring) that doesn't merit an on-screen prompt.
This sort of control scheme doesn't seem to bode well for Smackdown vs. Raw 2008 on the Wii. The constant shaking and swinging of the Wiimote grew tiresome even during short matches, and matching it to an already-imprecise mechanic like the contextual button just makes the controls fuzzier. It is very difficult to get wrestlers to execute particular moves, as opposed to just get them to generally attack by shaking the Remote, and at least on the Wii, the 2008 versions seems to have removed more moves. The game can be played with GameCube controller input, but most players buying a Wii SKU would probably prefer to use the Wiimote and Nunchuk with their games.
Fortunately, the build is still pre-gold, and there's still time for changes to be made, particularly some tightening up of the motion controls and, hopefully, the implementation of some alternate control schemes with the Wiimote and Nunchuk. Right now, simply navigating menus can be difficult, thanks to some highly non-intuitive interface design that could also be easily fixed before the game ships. Here's hoping that Yuke's irons the kinks out before Smackdown vs. RAW 2008 ships, since the motion-sensitive controls could be very enjoyable with a bit more precision behind them.
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