As with every major sports franchise, this year brings another WWE game from the developers at Yuke's. Having been with the series from the beginning, Yuke's has often been regarded as the best developers of the sport from a Western gamer's point of view. (AKI Corporation stopped during the PS2 era and since Fire Pro Wrestling never took off here like it did in Japan.) Like all long-running franchises, they have their fans that will buy up their latest copy each and every year without fail. They also have their critics, who are quick to point out flaws and inconsistencies that haven't been addressed over the years. As the series enters its fifth year on current-generation consoles with WWE Smackdown Vs. Raw 2011, the question is whether the series still has enough to make it the marquee wrestling title.
SvR 2011 features a plethora of modes, but the biggest mode is WWE Universe. Acting as a complete replacement for Career mode, WWE Universe treats the bulk of the game as a constantly moving WWE schedule. Every win and loss you have with each character moves him around a ranking system for a specific championship, and everyone is given constant, but basic, story lines. Your participants and schedule of matches are set ahead of time, but if you wish, you can customize every match on the schedule. For example, if you want a night where Kofi Kingston participates in each and every match, you're free to do so. Alternatively, if you want a show where each match is a gimmicked one (inferno, money in the bank, steel cage, etc.), you have that power. Each match is also subject to the standard tropes of the wrestling world, like run-ins, surprise attacks, and unfair tweaks made by the general manager, further immersing you into the televised experience. Its seamless nature is well done, and this is one of the few big changes that players hope will stick around.
While the WWE Universe mode represents the best new idea to come from the series thus far, Road to WrestleMania represents the lack of creativity in what was once a refreshing game mode. It still plays out the same way: You go down the paths of one of the few selected superstars as he makes his way from the Royal Rumble pay-per-view to the next WrestleMania. This time around, instead of simply going through menu after menu to get to the next match, you have to walk around the backstage area and hope to talk to the right people to trigger events that lead to the next match. While it gets rid of the tedious menu navigation, it also makes the game go on longer since you have to initiate everything yourself, and most of the people provide useless conversations.
Another complaint with this mode is who's involved. Of the five story lines to participate in, three involve people who have already been featured in the mode in previous games. The stories, while absurd, may be different, and these superstars are indeed popular, but having them as a focal point once again ends up feeling tired and played out. Luckily, you have a new story line featuring Christian, and the quest involving the end of Undertaker's WrestleMania win streak at the hands of Kofi Kingston, John Morrison, R-Truth or Dolph Ziggler feel fresh. If anything, highlighting different wrestlers every year is how the Road to WrestleMania mode should be used. If the current trend continues, though, players can expect the mode to be a stale retelling of the same unbelievable stories involving the same players year after year.
As far as the creation modes go, they still remain some of the best in the sports genre. SvR 2011 gives you the chance to customize just about every aspect of the game that's worth customizing. Wrestler and finisher creation are still deep. Entrance creation now has selected commentator snippets to go with your journey to the ring, and the highlight reel option has the right amount of tools to create some good-looking videos. The logo editor is great for someone who just wants to use the engine to make a fictional organization, and the story editor has removed a few limitations when it comes to the use of created characters in a custom story. For example, if you wanted to have a story line full of custom characters, you have the freedom to put in as many as you wish for however long the story lasts.
When it comes down to the actual combat, the game remains fun. The moves remain easy to pull off and chain together, making for some action that rivals what's seen on the shows on a weekly basis. Weapons have also seen upgrades both big and small. A physics system has been added to the weaponry, and you can easily see it when tables shatter into pieces after some abuse. The same can be said for chairs, which can now be thrown at opponents and break into pieces. Aside from the issues in the Road to WrestleMania mode, the other big issue that remains is the outdated roster. It has gotten better when compared to some of the major gaffes in previous versions, but it's puzzling to see some of the guys who have been fired, like Shad, and wrestlers in other promotions, like Rob Van Dam and Mickie James — especially since some of the people left the WWE sometime after the release of last year's Smackdown Vs. Raw game.
The bad news for the online mode is that unless you obtain a new copy of the game, you'll have to pony up $10 to access all of the online features, such as downloading user content and playing online. The good news is that you'll get a seven-day free sampling of online gameplay within the game before you decide to fork over the cash. Not only is this a good trend, but it also becomes a valuable tool when determining whether you can stand the online performance of the game.
The big addition to this year's online mode is the ability to play out a full Royal Rumble with up to 12 players. Players can stick with one superstar for the whole bout or select from the remaining lineup of superstars for entry later in the match. Unfortunately, there was no one playing Royal Rumble during the review period, and the one created by the reviewer was largely ignored.
The bulk of the online activity remained rooted in the traditional ranked and player matches, with all sorts of matches being played with different rules that can be found at any time. Finding a match was easy, but playing one turned out to be problematic; gameplay on a good connection often resulted in stuttering gameplay throughout the match. The performance made it close to impossible to play well when compared to offline matches, and while the ranking system for your profile is tempting enough to slog through in hopes of finding a decent connection, most players will be thankful to have the seven-day trial and let their online passes go unused.
The controls have been streamlined a bit. It's essentially the same as before, with on-screen prompts giving you every direction needed, but the biggest change lies in the grappling system. You only have access to weaker grapples this time around, and you must work your way toward giving your opponent a severe beating before the stronger grapple types open up. Other than that, the grappling mechanics work the same as before, with the right stick handling all of the movements and chain grapples. One complaint that creeps in from time to time is the reversal system. Unlike most games, where it's often too difficult to reverse any move, it feels too easy to reverse any move in SvR 2011. The only time you fail at reversing is if you completely forget about tapping the button needed to perform the move. A little more tweaking concerning the timing would make the reversal system acceptable.
The game has maintained the same graphical look for a while now, and it remains largely unchanged in this title. The arenas still look fine, as they've captured the general aesthetic to every show and pay-per-view rather nicely. The decorations look right, and the crowd looks just as good as before. When it comes to the superstars, things begin to vary, especially when it comes to their faces. Bigger name guys like Randy Orton and John Cena look picture-perfect. Guys like Edge have a few things that are off but generally look fine, but others, like Batista, look pretty bad. There are even some squashed faces.
The animations look fine, but there are a few instances of the transitions being too rapid and not looking seamless. There are a few rare instances when the canned animations for signature and finishing moves create some anomalies. Doing Rob Van Dam's rolling thunder while near the ropes leads to an animation where the prone opponent magically slides to the center while Rob backs up against the ropes before completing the move. Another example was experienced when fighting against an opponent on the ropes. One moment, the opponent had his back on the ropes while the strike was delivered. When the next strike hit, though, the opponent was magically transported to the outside, where he was standing on the apron with his chest facing the ropes.
The sound has always been a weak point for the SvR series, and this entry is no different. The sound effects for things such as weapon breaks and stomping around the ring sound fine, but the sound of actual hits and bumps a wrestler takes seem muted. The voices still remain unchanged in their quality. Whether it's with the announcers or the superstars, everyone delivers their lines without any passion or relevance to the actions taking place before them. Whenever someone wins, for example, Michael Cole simply announces who wins with a matter-of-fact attitude, and the same occurs when Vince comes out to announce that you have a surprise match … right now! Anyone who watches a WWE broadcast knows that everyone involved brings some character when he speaks, and it's baffling that none of this is delivered in the game after all these years. Worse yet, the commentating team of Michael Cole and Jerry "The King" Lawler is the only one you'll hear despite the fact that the commentating teams on both Smackdown and Superstars are completely different from the Raw team. On a good note, the music is still good, especially since these are the full themes used by most of the wrestlers in the game.
With WWE Smackdown Vs. Raw 2011, the series is starting to show its age. Despite being a recent release, the graphics and the sound start to feel old, and major gaffes have remained in those areas despite being singled out in several reviews. While the match modes still feel fresh, the big game mode that is Road to WrestleMania also feels old thanks to this year's chosen superstars. The gameplay and creation systems remain good, and the WWE Universe mode is, by far, one of the more innovative things the series has done in a while. Die-hard fans have probably obtained the game by now, but for those who remain casual fans of the series, it is wisest to rent it and see if the series still resonates with you.
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