Release Date: November 11, 2008
Are you ready for a beat-down? Are you ready for the most realistic wrestling interface that's on the market? Are you ready for immersive story lines where your choices dynamically affect the wrestling world? Well, you'd better be happy with two out of the three.
THQ once again bodyslams its SmackDown vs. Raw game to the consoles of the world, and by all rights they do a pretty bang-up job. The graphics are honestly some of the best they've ever come out with, from faithful ring entrances to wrestlers' faces, bodies and signature moves, and finally even to the surrounding stadium attendees holding signs, cheering or leering at the superstars.
Likewise, the audio is pulled right from licensed entrance music, as well as a huge selection of custom tunes for your own custom wrestler, which I'll discuss in a little bit. WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 is a game where, if you've played one, you've played them all. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your gamer style and general reverence of the largest sports entertainment group on Earth.
Now, you'll notice I've already addressed two out of the three game dynamics from my opening paragraph. Where this game absolutely falls short is on a career or story mode. For single players, there is the Career mode and Road to WrestleMania. Now, in the case of the latter, you can choose an established name, like The Undertaker, and wrestle against foes; you'll see a few cut scenes and story arcs, but that's really where the immersion ends. Following the Career mode is as dull and pen-to-paper as you can get. Whether you pick a name or make your own wrestler, you're simply given a choice of which franchise you'd like to enter, SmackDown or Raw, and then a choice of which belt you'd like to fight for. You fight up a ladder (both figuratively and sometimes literally) to beat your opponent, gain stars, beef up your stats and move up the ranks. Sadly, that's it. There are no story arcs, no cut scenes and certainly no dynamic choices that affect the game. You fight, win, get stats and do it again.
The star system starts to feel dull and formulaic after about four matches. You're rewarded based on technicality, difficulty, showmanship and damage. After a while, you're just going through the pre-scripted motions to do a few turnbuckle dives, a few super moves, a handful of whips, and assorted elbows and leg drops to get the right amount of points so you can get four or five stars to unlock the next fight and make your way to the belt. I miss the older WWE games where Vince might bribe you to switch sides or Triple H would tell you to take a dive. Your choices would affect major story arcs and actually made you feel immersed in the WWE. Nowadays? Not so much.
It's a shame, too, because the graphics are absolutely stellar. Everything, from the biceps to the trunks to the facial expressions, are captured and rendered perfectly on each superstar. Sure, you're bound to have a few clipping issues here and there, but they're so small and the action so smooth that you'll rarely notice it. Likewise, each match type has been vastly improved, from tag-team matches to the dreaded TLC (tables, ladders and chairs) matches. A few of the modes will take some getting used to, as the maneuvering around tables and ladders is rather clunky and hard to get just right, but once you've got the gist of it, you'll be doing some amazing ladder leg drops. Whether you hit or miss, it's still amazing to watch, and it'll definitely result in some grimaces or laughs.
Now, I'm a sucker for games with customization options, and SvR 2009 does not disappoint. Back again is the ability to create your own wrestler and customize every single thing about him: body mass, grappling style, hair, height, musculature, outfits, wrestling style, tattoos …. I can't even imagine the sheer number of possibilities, and I'm not really great with math, so I'm just going to estimate eight gajillion. It's seriously insane. A welcome addition of which other games should take note is the ability to layer multiple options and select the order of appearance. For example, I could create a guy with beard stubble, and then layer a fu-manchu moustache over that. Both will show, unlike other games that give you only one or the other option. The same holds true with the costuming, as you can layer any number of combinations and colors on footwear, gloves, masks, suits and trunks.
After you've spent about five hours customizing your superstar (or is that just me?), you can take it one step further by assigning moves. It follows the usual d-pad combination of moves, whereby a hard grapple while pressing up on the d-pad is a bodyslam and pressing down on the d-pad is a backbreaker. You can really fine-tune your wrestler's style, right down to the cheers and taunts. It's an absolutely excellent system that lets you tweak every single aspect of your fighter.
Oh, is that not enough? All right, how about the Create a Finisher dynamic moves editor, where you can create your own wrestling move. You can pick from a set of motion templates and chain them together to create your own move. I spent about an hour just making one animation, and it was an ugly one at best, but the fact that I could even create the Flying Death Punch was awesome. The tools are definitely there, and I have to give Yuke's credit for including it once again in the WWE franchise.
As I mentioned earlier, if there is one thing besides gigantic muscled superstars that wrestling is known for, it's the music, and SvR 2009 once again manages to load up energetic and blistering music tracks licensed to the wrestlers. In past games, the options for custom wrestlers were pretty limited in the music area, but SvR 2009 offers at least a dozen custom music tracks from which to choose. Music aside, the game's audio is fairly lackluster. If it weren't for Lawler and Cole serving as announcers — which gets old and repetitive after a while, as usual — the sound would be completely forgettable. I mean, how many elbow drops and chest slaps (WOOOOOO!) can you hear and comment on the dynamic audio quality? It's not that it's bad. It's just … elbow drops and chest slaps.
If you decide to pass on the single-player career or WrestleMania modes, you once again have the ability to go online and choose from a named wrestler or your own creation. The process is amazingly simple and straightforward and lets you view intros for each wrestler — or wrestlers, in the case of tag-team matches — or skip all the fluff and go straight into the pummeling. My only complaint, which seems to be the current standard for developers everywhere, was that after each match, I'd be dumped back to the main screen. What ever happened to making in-game lobbies to offer rematches or change match types while you're still talking to your friends? Sure, the Xbox 360 can handle group parties now, but this is one of those things that would just make things a lot easier.
In summary, WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 drastically improves the graphics and gaming engine once again, though much like the Tiger Woods franchise, if you've played one, you know what to expect. If you're a fan of wrestling, you'll love the game. If you're not a fan of the genre, odds are that you're not going to like the game. For those who even have a passing interest in fighting, wrestling, mixed martial arts, or custom creation and multiplayer options, WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 is a great game to add to your lineup. It's the kind of game that you can pick up and play for 10 minutes or devote an entire weekend to crafting your own persona, right down to custom outfit, music and moves.
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