Most wrestling fans will tell you that when the WWE transitioned out of the "Attitude" era and into the current "Universe" model, things started severely spiraling downward. As high-profile Superstars retired or went to other promotions and the company got complacent with its solid hegemony over sports entertainment, the quality of the program started going downhill, and now the WWE is a shell of what it once was in terms of pop culture relevance. The same can be said for THQ's WWE: Smackdown vs. Raw gaming franchise, as the series continues to struggle to find its stride even after being the only game on the market for a decade. While SvR 11 gets a few things right, it still falls flat in the end, leaving a subpar product about which it's difficult to get excited.
The most interesting new feature in SvR 11 is the WWE Universe mode, a meta inclusion that tracks your actions across the game and dynamically generates matches based on feuds, power rankings and other factors. As characters team up or square off, you can see their relationship evolve and change over a series of televised shows and pay-per-view events, and the game even throws in the occasional cut scene or surprise attack to make players feel like they're watching the real thing rather than playing a game. Even better, if you open up a match card and don't like it, you can create your own, using nearly any combination of wrestlers and rule sets. Universe's ability to track game stats and continually generate new content is very impressive, and we hope that THQ and Yuke's continue to explore this promising new gameplay mechanic.
In addition to the freedom Universe affords, SvR 11 gives players more flexibility than ever to create wrestlers, move sets, story lines and more. Those who dream of a life as a WWE booker or writer will find a lot to like, as the game does a lot to cater to your inner general manager tendencies. When you're done crafting new content, it can be uploaded so that other players can check out your creations in their game. The whole experience is free to mold in any way you see fit, assuming you have the skill and talent to do so. When it comes to creation, the franchise really can't set the bar any higher than this.
Hopefully that means next year's game will focus more on the in-ring content and other feature modes, as SvR 11 is a hot mess outside of Universe. The Road to Wrestlemania mode is back again, but it's only gotten worse with time. The plots for each character are as dumb as it gets (Rey Mysterio has amnesia! Randy Orton becomes the Raw GM!), only reminding us that even though the TV plotlines are pretty poor, they're still infinitely better than what you get in a game. Making matters worse is the terrible voice acting, which was clearly done with each wrestler recording at separate times and then splicing together the dialogue later. Tone and inflection is all wrong, and there's not even a hint of lip-synching matching mouth movements. Each character looks like a fish gasping for air when speaking, and the canned animations only make things worse.
What may be even more insulting is the outdated roster. Mickie James, who was fired from the WWE over the summer, is still in the game, and in a way, that's forgivable. What isn't so easy to dismiss is an appearance from Rob Van Dam, who left the WWE on not-great terms a long time ago and even spent a considerable amount of time as the champion at TNA, the WWE's chief competitor. Folks who don't closely follow the brand may not appreciate all the issues this brings up, but for ardent wrestling fans (and the majority of WWE viewers fall into such a category), it's an illusion-killing situation that only highlights the series' sloppiness.
Gameplay in Road to Wrestlemania is just as bad, as it's equal parts boredom and frustration. Every chapter, players must guide their character around the backstage area, often talking to one specific person or completing a simple task before being allowed to advance to your match. While SvR 11 wants you to think of this as a sort of RPG experience, it's actually far from it since there's almost nothing to do. Sure, you can talk to wrestlers only to get blown off by a simple "Get out of my face" or push them a few times to start a fight and earn minimal experience upgrade points, but it all feels like a waste. Couple this with a few extremely unfair matches (A fatal four-way ladder match? Really?), and the mode sinks under its own weight fairly quickly.
After all this time working with the franchise, you'd think that Yuke's would have the in-ring action down to a science, but once again, SvR 11 botches all its big moves. Hit detection is still way off, and it's not uncommon to body-slam your tag partner or aim an Irish Whip in the wrong direction because of the finicky controls. Also, the game has functionally removed the strong grapple, instead relying on your opponent's physical state (normal or groggy) to determine how powerful your attack will be. While some may call this streamlined, it also takes a lot of control out of players' hands and somewhat limits each move set. In essence, it's not as much fun as it used to be.
It seems like every time a new SvR game comes out, THQ and Yuke's opt to ignore the little things that need to be fixed in order to come up with grand ideas to slap on the back of the box as impressive new features. Granted, this year the move somewhat worked, with WWE Universe mode providing a cool new way to play and the expanded customization options giving players more freedom than ever before. However, these improvements come with a steep cost, and once you get past the shiny new features you'll find a game that is basically not very impressive. Road to Wrestlemania is disappointing, legacy issues in the game's engine haven't been fixed and certain match types still require convoluted controls that never seem to work quite right. The net result is a step back for the franchise, as it sadly stands as one of the least fun WWE games to play in recent years.
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