Release Date: November 13, 2007
Professional wrestling has gone through many peaks and valleys over the years. Back in its heyday during the late '80s and early '90s, fans turned out in droves to watch the epic battles of Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, Ultimate Warrior and all the rest of the larger-than-life characters. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever, and soon the WWE (then WWF) fell on hard times. It wasn't until the debut of characters like "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Rock that the brand regained the magic it had been lacking for over ten years. Much like its source material, video games based on professional wrestling have seen their share of ups and downs, and WWE Smackdown vs. Raw '08 for the PS3 postures itself as a potential champion, but it never quite finds its way out of the midcard.
New to this year's game is both the implementation of Superstar Fighting Styles and the 24/7 mode. The new fighting system assigns two distinct styles to each wrestler, which will allow him or her certain advantages during the course of the match. For example, powerhouse fighters can fly into berserk mode, making all their moves irreversible, while hardcore fighters can use any weapon they find on an opponent as well as themselves (i.e., the "Hardcore Resurrection" move lets you regain lost stamina). There is a total of eight styles (brawler, dirty, hardcore, high flyer, powerhouse, showman, submissions and technical), and they add a touch of realism to a title that desperately needs it. In years past, you would find John Cena committing low blows or Rey Mysterio stealing his opponent's finisher. Obviously, these actions are completely out of character, and any wrestler being able to access any move set really hurt the sense of believability. The addition of these new styles is a great touch, and it's one of the few things that SvR '08 does right.
The other big new feature is the implementation of the 24/7 mode, which combines the previous games' career and general manager modes. The GM version remains basically unchanged from years past, with you drafting wrestlers, booking matches, taking care of your roster of stars and generally trying to make sure yours is the superior WWE brand. Basically, if you liked the way GM mode handled before, you'll love it now, but if you were hoping for a revolutionary new system or massive improvements, you're going to be sorely disappointed.
Now then, if you're more the activist type, you'll likely forgo the opportunity to be a GM and jump straight into the real action with a career. When starting this mode, you can either play as a created wrestler or one of the handful of current (and I use that word loosely, as the roster is already outdated) WWE superstars. Success in 24/7 mode grants you cash that you can use to purchase new costumes, move sets, and "legendary" superstars. Ostensibly, the career is all about winning and retaining the title belt, but you'd never know it from watching the story unfold. The game has taken a drastic step back in storytelling this year, and for the most part, you won't have any idea what's going on or why. I was constantly scratching my head over what was going on, and regardless of whether I won or lost a match, it seemed like SvR '08 kept going on its predetermined path, oblivious to the choices I'd made.
Further muddying the waters of the career mode, you not only have to constantly train your wrestler to improve his strength, agility, etc., but you must also polish up his mic skills, on camera persona, fan popularity and pain management. If you ever get tired of training, you can also participate in autograph sessions, interviews, red carpet events or even star in a movie ... all in the span of a week. While this may sound like a fun, deep way to pass the time, it quickly turns into a giant chore, mainly because every action you take causes fatigue, and too much fatigue leads to injury. Even worse, once you're injured, there's no way to rest your character for any prolonged period of time without losing all of the goodwill you've built up with the fans. However, if you don't rest, you'll never heal, and every time you walk into a match, all it takes is a couple of attacks from your opponent to render you incapacitated. When you get to the heart of the matter, the 24/7 mode is botched through and through, and what is meant to be the title's greatest achievement turns out to be its greatest liability.
Outside of the 24/7 mode, SvR '08 offers a great variety of match types with enough diversity to keep you entertained for quite a while. You have access to traditional fare, like the cage match and Hell in a Cell, and this year includes the incredibly fun ECW Extreme Rules match. In addition, the game offers a Hall of Fame mode, where you can relive some of the greatest fights in the history of the WWE. Be it going toe-to-toe with Brett Hart in an Ironman match or trying to keep up with the Hardy Boys in a TLC bout, this mode gives you the chance to inject yourself into a chapter of wrestling history. One thing is for sure: You'll always be able to find a match that sounds appealing, no matter what your mood. Just don't expect the enemy AI to challenge you at any level, as opponents spend most of their time simply standing around and looking stupid. Really, the only difference between a computer foe on the easy and hard difficulty levels is that the latter enemy will reverse your attacks more often. Regardless of what kind of match you're looking for, you're far better off if you can find someone to play with you on- or offline, rather than take on the computer.
Since SvR '08 is the series' first foray into the next generation, a lot of emphasis has been placed on presentation. Character models look almost exactly like their flesh-and-blood counterparts, and ring entrances sometimes border on photorealistic. Combat animations also look great, and you may find yourself grimacing after a particularly bone-crunching attack. There are still a couple of graphical issues, though, and there's really no excuse for them to exist this late in the console game. For one, clipping is a major problem, as you'll often see a fist go through a fighter, or someone's head sticking out from Triple H's crotch as he sets up for the Pedigree.
One other issue that really sticks out to me is the character hair. Some people may not even notice, but it drives me nuts that the hair on character models is basically a static helmet that has been set atop their heads. In an age when the developers of Heavenly Sword can animate every hair on Nariko's head and still throw waves of baddies at you, you can't tell me the PS3 processor can't stand up to the strain of two grapplers who spend most of their time just staring at each other or walking slowly around the ring. It could be much worse, and indeed it has been in previous games, but there's little excuse for such sloppiness. This looks suspiciously like a case of developers slapping last year's graphics engine into the title, with little more than a fresh coat of paint.
Don't worry though, you'll forget all about the graphical hiccups once you're subjected to the torture of the sound in SvR '08. While the menu music presents a nice blend of rock and hip-hop, that's the only thing the game gets right in this department. The few voice-overs offered by actual WWE stars are laughable, and the ringside commentary is utterly atrocious. It seems like the ring announcers are just spitting out random sentences rather than watching the match in front of them. They've got very little to say, but that doesn't prevent them from spouting the same hackneyed clichés every two seconds. Even better, there will be multiple cut scenes in the game where your character is mouthing something to the other wrestlers, but nothing ever comes out. Unless you want to employ a particularly adept lip-reader to interpret, you'll go through the whole game just wondering what manner of salty language your fighter may be using. Trust me when I say that you can safely mute this game and not lose a thing — it may actually make the whole experience more enjoyable.
One aspect of the title that has improved dramatically is the control scheme. Previous installments in the series required massive effort and substantial finger-twisting to pull off some of the more powerful moves. Thankfully, that issue has been rectified, and all grapples are mapped to the right control stick. A simple flick in any direction executes a weak grapple, while stronger grabs can be initiated by holding down R1 and flicking the stick. Reversals have also been streamlined; a tap of L2 will block an opponent's strike, while pushing R2 will reverse a grapple. You still have to time your button presses perfectly in order to be effective, but with a little practice you'll become adept at turning a foe's moves against him.
Really, the only complaints about the control scheme are that special commands aren't entirely clear for certain match types, making them nigh impossible for newcomers or anyone who isn't intimately familiar with every little command. For example, in a table match you have to get your opponent in a strong grapple, lead him over to a table, prop him up against it, and then use your finishing move in order to put him through the table and end the match. All that can be a little complex for a game in which all you've had to do up until that point is punch, kick and grapple your way to victory. Aside from that, the simplified controls will likely please fans who just want to pull off their favorite moves without having to subject their fingers to digital acrobatics.
When taken as a whole, Smackdown vs. Raw '08 is a decent game with faults that weigh heavily upon it. While there are a ton of match types, a fairly sizable roster of ECW, Raw and Smackdown stars, and the inclusion of the new Superstar Fighting Styles, these positives cannot offset the terrible sound and voice acting, middling graphics and the train wreck that is the 24/7 mode. This title is only for the most hardcore professional wrestling fans; casual fans or those who are new to the series need not apply. Now, if Hulk Hogan were in this game, that would change everything ....
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