Now in its 9th iteration, THQ’s Smackdown series has been going almost as long as the show it takes its name from. Every year they add more and more features and refine various mechanics – some of these work well, some of them don’t. This year boasts some major gameplay changes as well as a revamped single player mode, so let’s find out just how good (or not) they are…
First and foremost, the game’s single most major change is in its “fighting styles”. These work in giving each wrestler a little bit more individuality and serve in making fighting with them more realistic. Each wrestler has a primary and a secondary style, which match with their real-life fighting methods, and each one give the wrestler specific special moves and characteristics. For example powerhouses, like Triple H or Lashley, are able to power up and make all of their grapple attacks irreversible and can use a more powerful Irish Whip, amongst other specialties. High flyers like Jeff Hardy or Rey Mysterio generally move quicker, can pull off surprise pins, and so on. There are 8 styles altogether, and these are a big improvement on the actual gameplay, even if some of the styles just aren’t as good as the others.Unfortunately this is really the only change that affects the gameplay in any meaningful way.
The submission system has changed, and now relies solely on the right analog stick (you can rotate it to add pressure, similarly you rotate it to escape), however this doesn’t really make much difference in its effect. There are also some minor changes such as a simpler grapple system – pushing the right stick performs a simple grapple move as before, however holding the right bumper and pushing up or down performs a strong grapple, and pushing left or right performs an ultimate control move. Again, this is a slight improvement but nothing major. You can also run in any direction now by holding the left bumper and moving, but then this is something that should have been introduced years ago.The other major addition this year is the introduction of ECW, which includes several of the wrestlers from the brand, as well as the new ECW Extreme Rules Match.
That works pretty much the same as a Hardcore match, however now you can pick whatever weapon you want from under the ring from a choice of 8, including chairs, tables, ladders, sledgehammer, etc. You can also set some of the weapons (and the table) on fire now, which is a nice touch that any old-school ECW fan will appreciate. Tournament mode has returned (now with the new Beat The Clock Sprint), as well as a new “Hall of Fame” mode which tasks you with recreating legendary moments in WWE programming (beating Bret Hart as Shawn Michaels in an Ironman match, for example) which is really nothing more than a renamed challenge mode from last year. All of the usual creation modes have also returned with very little added to them –create a wrestler, create a championship, etc. Create an entrance, though, does now allow the option of using custom music which works well enough and is a nice added feature. Next up is the new 24/7 mode, which is an amalgamation of last year’s Season and GM modes.
Unfortunately this is a pretty major step back from last year – gone are the days of just wrestling the shows every week, earning EXP from your match and getting involved with a decent story – it’s now been replaced with a calendar where you need to specify what you do on every single day, including training up your wrestler in a variety of disciplines, earning popularity by signing autographs, starring in a movie, etc. This sounds great on paper; unfortunately the execution is pretty flawed. The constant training needed to raise your stats is a real chore (for example, you need to perform as many strong grapples as you can in 2 minutes to raise your strength – yawn), and the other activities such as starring in a pay-per-view commercial, signing autographs etc don’t actually do anything except to tell you that you “gained 2 popularity” and “gained 20% fatigue” right after selecting it.
That’s right, fatigue. As well as worrying about your stats, you also need to worry about how much fatigue you have. Overexert yourself too much and you’re prone to injury, which causes one of your limb meters to be automatically damaged when you start a match (you can’t skip a match even if you’re injured). To combat this you need to rest up, however selecting a day of rest causes your popularity to plummet (because apparently taking a day off makes all the fans hate you). To combat this you need to reach a fine balance of how much work you do during the week with how much rest you take. Ultimately it’s a real pain and last year’s story was simply a lot more fun.
Speaking of the story, the days where you’re actually scheduled to compete on your respective brand (Mondays for RAW, Tuesdays for ECW and Fridays for Smackdown) are similar to season mode last year – you enter storylines, wrestle matches, chase the title, etc. Again these are a step back, with the story becoming pretty much non-existent outside of voicemails and magazine articles that appear, and half the time they don’t even make any sense. On more than one occasion I’ve received voicemails telling me my next match is against myself, and in cut scenes before matches (there seems to be only a few of these and they just constantly loop throughout your career) my wrestler was often seen shaking the hand of my arch nemesis. One time I was scheduled to wrestle my rival MVP, who ended up being Kane when I actually got into the match, who then seemed to transform back into MVP in the post-match cut scene. It all seems incredibly rushed.
The GM mode side is pretty much identical to last year – you draft a roster of superstars, create feuds, specify the matches to appear on your weekly shows, etc. Unlike real WWE programming however, you can’t set the outcome of the match, which is a real pain in the ass when you’re trying to arrange your champion to compete in a squash match only to have him lose the belt.
The roster of superstars you can pick this year is actually smaller than last year. At first glance you think this is probably due to the fact that WWE in general has fewer superstars right now than it did one year ago, but then you realise that the game has missed out a whole slew of worthy candidates for inclusion – London/Kendrick, Highlanders, Cody Rhodes, Hardcore Holly, Beth Phoenix etc. Not even the current Tag Team Champions Cade and Murdoch are there when they were included last year, which frankly boggles the mind. The roster of superstars that are there are somewhat out of date as well, with wrestlers such as Cryme Tyme, King Booker, Marcus Cor Von etc not even a part of WWE anymore. Triple H doesn’t have his current music or Titantron video (seriously, how much effort would it take to quickly update a video?), John Morrison still has his Nitro gimmick – this all adds up to making the game feel a tad outdated.
Online is identical to last year, which means that it still feels rushed and tacked-on. Why can’t you team up with a friend and then search for another tag-team to fight? Why does it boot you out of the lobby when you finish the game, forcing us to remake a lobby just to play again? This is an ever-important area that is in desperate need of attention. The graphics, thankfully, are as good as ever. Most superstars look uncannily like their real-life counterparts, and most of the entrances are spot-on. The hair still looks terrible though, and this is something that THQ really need to work on. The animation is also starting to look a little dated.The game’s commentary is downright terrible, just as it was last year. Delivered lines are badly timed, are said over and over again, and by the time you’re playing your tenth match you’ll just want to turn it off. I know that Umaga is an unstoppable machine; I don’t need to hear that again and again. The entrance announcing is just as bad this year as well. These are things that really need to be sorted out, because it’s been going on for a good few years now.
It’s a shame that this year’s iteration of wrestling goodness is lacking in decent new content, because it only serves to highlight how flawed some of the existing areas of the game are. Saying that, this is by no means a “bad game” – the core gameplay is still fun to play and wrestling fans will get a kick out of it, but at the end of the day what’s there is just too similar to last year with some of it being a step back.