Giant Bomb Review

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WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2011 Review

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  • X360

SmackDown! vs. RAW 2011 continues the tradition of upgrading the surrounding components of the game, while largely ignoring the fundamental issue at the heart of the series: the wrestling itself.

Last year's SmackDown! vs. RAW title offered up one of the single best packages of feature content found in a wrestling game since, like, ever. So why wasn't it a great game? One need only look to its gameplay, the same core gameplay the series has been trotting out since the days of the PlayStation 2, with its stiff, canned animations, clunky controls, and sometimes absurd game balance issues. Every year Yuke's changes something, tweaks something, adjusts a couple of little things, and proclaims the gameplay new. But in truth, for all its incredible bells and whistles, its myriad customization options, this game can't shake the eternal monkey on its back: It's just not very much fun to play.

 Random rivalries, run-ins and betrayals frequently occur in the new WWE Universe mode.
I wish I could report that SmackDown! vs. RAW 2011 was the game to change all this, the game to finally toss that monkey aside and revamp the gameplay from the ground up. Instead, wrestling fans are in store for more or less the same type of experience they got last year. All the real improvements have gone into building out the new modes that debuted last year, as well as some major changes to core modes like the career mode. Again, it's the outer shell that has seen the most work, the surrounding walls made more ornate and elaborate, while the core of the game, the controls and animations and basic wrestling experience, remains largely the same. It's like the Wizard of Oz; a huge, elaborate fantasy built to obfuscate the withering, weak old man at the center of it all. Yes, we're still talking about a wrestling game here. Just bear with me.

Let's start where the most significant changes live, and that it's in the brand-new WWE Universe mode. You've undoubtedly heard this buzz term tossed around ad nauseum by WWE announcers as of late, though in the context of this game, it falls into the realm of a new career mode. WWE Universe presents you with an infinitely running calendar, with each month packed with four episodes of RAW, SmackDown! and Superstars, as well as a PPV event. Each card is dynamically booked by the game, but you can add custom matches to any card you please, utilizing any created characters, legends, or whoever else you feel like.

That doesn't mean it's a quick and easy path to the top. You can't just book yourself in endless title matches just for funsies. You have to earn your way to the top by winning matches and establishing rivalries. These pop up simply by fighting other wrestlers, and the game keeps track of those rivalries via a news tab that lets you know who hates you on any given week. That's a tricky thing to keep track of, since pretty much every wrestler you beat will start to hate you, at least for a bit. Cutscenes, run-ins, and occasional team-ups rear their heads too, but all of it feels a bit...random. Not that I'd expect a script-quality storyline to appear as you play through a mode predicated on randomized events, but a lot of the matches I found myself in throughout my first year in the Universe mode felt pretty scattershot and incoherent. After winning the Royal Rumble and starting a rivalry with champion Randy Orton, I somehow kept getting booked in non-title matches on Superstars against Zack Ryder, even though I'd already beaten him like a dozen times over the course of the year. The whole mode has a very grindy feel to it, though thankfully you can just sim any matches you don't feel like messing with. By all means, this is an intriguing new way to handle a wrestler's career--I just think it'll be a lot better once Yuke's has had time to perfect the progression of it.

If you prefer your storylines more heavily scripted, there's still the Road to Wrestlemania mode to keep you busy. Five specific storylines are built into this year's mode, each focusing on one specific wrestler--or, in one case, one specific opponent, in the story where you take one of the mid-tier wrestlers or a created guy through a story involving breaking the Undertaker's Wrestlemania streak. Like previous attempts at this mode, the storylines are...goofy, at best, but they do offer a far more structured take on a character's rivalries and such, and you do get heaping helpings of voice work from various WWE Superstars, even if they do sound like they're flatly reading cake mix ingredients into a microphone most of the time.

The newly implemented physics system can lead to some cool moments when using weapons--and some goofy ones, too.
The interesting wrinkle to the Road to WM mode this year is the addition of a backstage area. At the beginning of each show, your wrestler will find himself in the backstage area, with multiple dressing rooms, the GM's office, an interview area, and the training room to explore. The reason for all this walking around is twofold. One, certain story elements will only progress when you talk to other wrestlers or your GM. Additionally, you'll also find random wrestlers wandering about the place, and you can engage them in conversation, or choose to fight them. Fighting them just engages a quick backstage brawl, where you have to knock your opponent out. Doing this, as well as participating in actual matches, earns you points you can use to upgrade several stats for your wrestler.

That all sounds well and good, except that you pretty much have to do every single backstage fight in order to get enough points to make those upgrades meaningful--and those fights are repetitive as hell. While the idea of adding an exploratory element to the mode isn't an altogether bad one, nothing that's been added here actually enriches the experience whatsoever. It feels like length-padding gone horribly wrong, and hopefully won't exist in this form in next year's game.

Outside of all of that, there are still plenty of features to play around with. Online modes return with largely the same functionality as last year (online exhibition matches, the ability to upload and download created wrestlers and moves, etc.), though the lag issues that plagued the previous sequel seem largely defeated now. The one new addition is the Royal Rumble mode, where up to 12 players can take part in the 30-man over-the-top-rope battle we all know and love. It's a neat addition, especially since even once you're eliminated, the game smartly gives you an opportunity to come back and wrestle a second (and possibly even third) time as the match goes on. The only issue is one simply inherent to the nature of the match, which is that it's easy to get ganged up on, and that can get pretty frustrating when specific players are hellbent on working together. Also, I did run into a decent amount of trouble getting full 12-player matches to sync up properly. Once they did though, lag was only rarely an issue.

All the creation and customization options from last year are back, and with some added functionality. You can still create your own wrestlers, fix up their entrances with either some quick-and-dirty options, or get super granular with absurd levels of detail, create highlight reels for your favorite guys, and design new and exciting finishing maneuvers out of different slices of animation. Of course, everyone's favorite new thing from last year, the story editor, returns once again, and with a greater roster of scenes, scenarios, and options at your disposal. This mode is still tons of fun to play with, and uploading your stories online is a pretty nifty thing.

The one thing I will say is that it'd be nice to see all these different customization elements find a greater cohesion within the game's online play. Uploading stories is nice, but it'd be a lot cooler if you could factor the storylines into a greater online league system, perhaps a la some of the stuff EA's been doing with its sports titles. Being able to create leagues and build cards within them, replete with cutscenes and rivalries and all that hot stuff, that'd be something else. The pieces to do it are almost all in place at this point. It's just a matter of Yuke's putting them all together into a greater online universe.

Then again, maybe that's just not the direction THQ, the WWE, Yuke's, or anyone else sees this thing going in. In a recent interview, one of the producers of this title stated that they are all about presenting your eight-year-old's perception of what pro-wrestling is, and not breaking "kayfabe," I.E. the concept of reality within the WWE Universe. That wouldn't seem to be entirely true, given that the game offers you the ability to create your own unique storylines, essentially admitting that all this stuff is scripted out. But then again, when you look at how steadfastly the developers have stuck to the notion that this is expressly meant to be a game of competition, not a game of management and design, then those statements make a fair amount of sense.

 The wrestling can be fun in spots, but by and large just feels tired and clunky at this point.
By that same token, if this is truly meant to be a game of competition, then it's officially time to take that competition out of the rotting, rickety basket it's been sitting in for the last several sequels. There is no nice way to put it: This gameplay engine is tired. Every year, Yuke's tosses in some new change or wrinkle that changes up the mechanics a bit. The big new thing this year? The removal of a weak/strong grapple modifier (now strong grapples simply take place when your opponent is stunned). Does this change have any real impact on gameplay? Not really. It's a step sideways, not an improvement or a detriment. And that's what playing SmackDown! has felt like for years now, an endless series of steps to the side, in order to avoid the fundamental issue that this whole engine needs to be overhauled, and badly.

That said, there are some issues inherent to this year's title in particular that left me scratching my head. For one thing, the default difficulty level is insanely easy, to the point where I never lost a singles match I didn't simulate, and actually ended up winning most matches in pretty quick and tidy fashion, even when I was playing as lower-tiered guys like Santino and Primo. Granted, that was mostly against the AI, which is still terrible on any difficulty level besides the highest, meaning if you want a competitive match, it's Legend difficulty, or not at all. Online matches are better for competition, but if you and your opponent both know what you're doing, the game's one-button reversal system tends to make a lot of online matches into endless strings of deadlocked reversals.

The look of the game is also aging rather poorly. Once again, it seems like all the visual energy is being funneled into wrestler entrances, because the in-ring stuff looks just clunky as hell. Not even the addition of the Havok physics engine does much to help, especially since it seems like those physics have really only been haphazardly stitched onto the game's existing animation engine. It's pretty goofy watching the stiff moves and strikes try to blend with weapon and object physics that are working in realtime, and that can lead to some pretty hilarious glitches. Nothing game-breaking, though it is a bit world-breaking. I think going with a new physics engine to make the weapon hits and table smashings look more realistic is a great idea, but in this year's game, it's clear that Yuke's hasn't completely figured out how to make it all work together.

By no means is SmackDown vs. RAW 2011 a terrible game, but then, neither were any of the last several sequels, all of which pretty much went down this or a similar path. I enjoy playing around with all the different creation and storyline-focused options in these titles, but when I actually find myself presented with the concept of wrestling, my enjoyment disappears in a cloud of disappointment. There was a time when this gameplay design worked, and that time was years ago. Undoubtedly stalwart fans of the WWE and this series in particular will find things to enjoy here, but at some point the larger issues that plague this franchise are going to have to get addressed. If not now, then when? Alex Navarro on Google+
62 Comments
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Posted by DXmagma

coulda guessed.

Posted by snetErz

This got stomped. O_O

Posted by JesseCherry

I miss the days of WrestleMania 2000, but not that crappy N64 controller 

Posted by Starklight

Kinda sad. I enjoyed some of the older games in the series/

Posted by Mystyr_E

man...long review, you sure went all out

Posted by Venatio

Alex, if your gonna keep writing reviews for GB then your gonna need different characters depending on the review score
 
Good review btw, hope to see more

Posted by snetErz
@Venatio: I looked at them too, and they were all the same, blasphemous!
Posted by jimjimman

I miss the good ol' days of WCW Vs. NWO on the N64.

Posted by FreakAche

So can we expect Alex to become an extra reviewer every year during holiday season crazy game releases time?

Posted by zombie2011

Damn, Alex is writing more reviews for this site than the other guys.

Posted by MarkWahlberg

GO BACK TO YOUR OWN DAMN SITE, NAVARRO. 
 
just kidding

Posted by KaosAngel

Too high.

Posted by cooljammer00

I want my L1 finishers back.  I want my toe kicks and button grapples. 
 
I want...NOT whatever SvR is and has been for a few years now.

Posted by EvilNiGHTS

I wonder if there's some juicy behind the scenes reason why Alex is the one reviewing this. Didn't he review most of the Smackdown games for Gamespot too?

Edited by Hot_Karl

Yeah this game's got mad issues, gameplay wise. It's the same, it's basically the same as it's ever been. Bad animations, poor collision detection, terrible commentary, some bad graphics here and there (Maryse, one of the most beautiful women out there, looks GROSS here) and the extremely slow pace of the gameplay (it needs to run at least 1.5-2x faster than it does right now). I went back & played the first two Smackdown games, and while they hold up fairly poorly, those games run pretty damn well (and much, MUCH quicker than this one does). It seems as if Yukes has been remaking the same game for 10 years now. 
 
BUT. I still like it. It's a guilty pleasure. I like everything involving creating something- making a wrestler, making an over-the-top yet somewhat unnecessary finisher, creating a highlight reel & entrance for Vinnie "The Rocker" Mac to stroll down to when he takes on The Miz for the US title, making a ridiculous storyline about how Jillian Hall eventually owns the Diva circuit (which she does). That stuff is fun as hell. When you "play" the game, it's not great. They still really, really, REALLY need a completely new, fast engine badly but I'm not going to lie, I do like playing this game quite a bit, and if you're used to the SvR series, you probably won't be disappointed.

Posted by KuribosShoe

the problem is that this game sells gangbusters every year, so they have no real reason to change the gameplay.  Which sucks, because I think the guys that make this game know and love wrestling.  There are so many little touches that you can't help but notice, like "ASK HIM" Jericho signs and the whole Edge & Christian storyline in this year's game.  If they had a AKI quality engine, these would hands down be my favorite games year after year.

Edited by Chris2KLee

I've had the same problem with the series, I have never liked how it's played. Too bad none of the competition seem to be able to get it right either.

Posted by Hot_Karl
@Chris2KLee: That lucha game Heroes Del Ring IMO runs a bit better, smoother & is less clunky than SvR. Same goes for the TNA iMPACT game as well. But those games don't have the attention to detail & crazy creation options that this one does.
Posted by Derangel

Every year I look at these games hoping Yukes will have fixed the gameplay and every year they don't. Take a year off guys, it won't kill you to spend some more time working on the game. Rewrite the entire animation engine, make the wrestling feel more dynamic and fun, make the matches not take twenty years to finish, and beef up the graphics engine a bit. Yeah I'm asking for a lot, but if they could make these games really good then maybe it could pay off for them. Or just do something major every year.

Posted by TJ311
@VinceNotVance: i like ur take on it and i have to agree. ive only played SvR 11 at Best Buy and it does feel the same but the guilty pleasure of being able to make ur own character and whatnot is soo much fun.
Posted by Virtua_Ben

Alex needs a different cartoon for each of his stars.

Posted by Goopynose

Alex needs more avatars! Oh and yeah this game looked awful. TRACKSUIT!!

Posted by Sil3n7

Lots of text...

Posted by WinterSnowblind

Review is pretty much spot on.  A lot of fun modes and even some nice new additions.. but it's essentially the same game they've been releasing for over a decade and the gameplay is very dated at this point.
 
A lot of the presentation elements are still way off as well.  They badly need to build a new game from the ground up.  Even if that means less features for a year or two.

Edited by 234r2we232

I can only imagine Jeff with a whip, ordering Alex to review the same game franchises he did for GameSpot.
 
I love it!

Posted by Brendan
@Sil3n7 said:
"Lots of text... "

Reading reviews is hard, but chin up, kid.  You can do what everyone else does on these forums and just make assumptions based on the star score compared to a 10 point scale. 
Posted by Lazyimperial

This is totally off-topic, but it's good to see Alex Navarro on Giantbomb! Yes! Oh, and nice review. I've never been a big fan of wrestling games, but some of my old gamer buds were and I do get curious from time to time.  I hope they still enjoy the gameplay from the last games enough to have fun with this one. After all, a lack of real progress isn't too damning if you still get a kick out of it. For example, I'm currently in love with Fable 3. :P Well, save for the lack of a health bar... oh well. 
Posted by OneManX
@Sil3n7 said:
" Lots of text... "
This will sum it up: if you liked that last Smackdown games, then you'll like this one. 
 
If you're expecting them to reinvent the wheel for this year's game... then skip it.
Posted by Hockeymask27

He makes some valid points. However I still looking forward to picking this up later this year. Note Last one I played was 08. 

Posted by nail1080

Wow, detailed and dedicated reviews like this make it even more apparent that Alex is wasting his time watching movies when he should go back to doing what he truly loves.... playing video games mutha fucka!

Posted by DonChipotle

I like the game well enough, but agree with some of the points Alex has made. 
 
Still, enjoying it just as much as I did 2010.

Posted by JerichoBlyth

The wrestling's actually better this time around - Alex is just a prick =-D

Posted by Ronald

It's time for a full overhaul of the game for the next iteration. Even the characters are beginning to look dated. And the controls are just so clunky and have gotten far too convoluted. I used to get the wrestling games every time they came out, but haven't bought anything since the early PS2 days.

Posted by RYNO9881

 Alex is a MACHINE with these great reviews; keep them coming.

Posted by Lurkero

At least Smackdown vs Raw 2006 is still fun. That was the last WWE game focused more on fun than being like real wrestling.

Posted by m0nty

This game became THQs bench warmer when UFC got licensed. I'm really not surprised to see the franchise steadily decline over the years.

Posted by ImperiousRix

I'm not sure that as long as Yuke's has control, that this game is ever going to get the upgrade it deserves.  I think, if anything, WWE needs to consider making a different type of game, because Smackdown vs. RAW has been the same since the first Smackdown! graced the PS1. 
As of now, all their games are only awesome on paper.  Once it comes to actually playing them, they fall apart. 
Great review.

Posted by dragonzord
@m0nty said:
" This game became THQs bench warmer when UFC got licensed. I'm really not surprised to see the franchise steadily decline over the years. "
WWE outsells UFC every, albeit two,  year, so no? UFC was just something they could try that was different, some way they could stretch their wings, so to say. I think the game handles same as it ever has, but I don't think that's an issue other than the reversal stuff, which isn't game breaking. 
 
Wrestling games have a bleak future until someone contacts Spike games.(the developer, not the crappy TV station)
Posted by m0nty
@zoner said:
" @m0nty said:
" This game became THQs bench warmer when UFC got licensed. I'm really not surprised to see the franchise steadily decline over the years. "
WWE outsells UFC every, albeit two,  year, so no? UFC was just something they could try that was different, some way they could stretch their wings, so to say. I think the game handles same as it ever has, but I don't think that's an issue other than the reversal stuff, which isn't game breaking.  Wrestling games have a bleak future until someone contacts Spike games.(the developer, not the crappy TV station) "
Plenty of bad games outsell the better ones. I believe what you're saying so what is Yukes excuse? The game looks bad, plays clumsily and hasn't brought anything new to the table. As gamers these kinds of yearly releases should be shunned in the same way GH games have been. It'll force publsihers to rethink the yearly release strategy in favour of actually making a decent game. This strategy has been adopted by EA for the NBA license. I commend them for it.
Posted by dragonzord
@m0nty said:
" @zoner said:
" @m0nty said:
" This game became THQs bench warmer when UFC got licensed. I'm really not surprised to see the franchise steadily decline over the years. "
WWE outsells UFC every, albeit two,  year, so no? UFC was just something they could try that was different, some way they could stretch their wings, so to say. I think the game handles same as it ever has, but I don't think that's an issue other than the reversal stuff, which isn't game breaking.  Wrestling games have a bleak future until someone contacts Spike games.(the developer, not the crappy TV station) "
Plenty of bad games outsell the better ones. I believe what you're saying so what is Yukes excuse? The game looks bad, plays clumsily and hasn't brought anything new to the table. As gamers these kinds of yearly releases should be shunned in the same way GH games have been. It'll force publsihers to rethink the yearly release strategy in favour of actually making a decent game. This strategy has been adopted by EA for the NBA license. I commend them for it. "
A good wrestling, or football game every 2 years is not going to make them more revenue than a mediocre wrestling game every year. Just like Madden, or even Dynasty Warriors, the people these games are marketed to are always going to buy them unless they just really screw it up. So there's no reason not to keep doing what they're doing. They've already got their crowd, they're not looking to win anyone new over. That's what they attempted to do with Legends of Wrestlemania and now with WWE All-Stars.
Posted by Soapy86

A wrestling game is bad? I'm shocked! SHOCKED!!

Edited by m0nty
@zoner said: 

A good wrestling, or football game every 2 years is not going to make them more revenue than a mediocre wrestling game every year. Just like Madden, or even Dynasty Warriors, the people these games are marketed to are always going to buy them unless they just really screw it up. So there's no reason not to keep doing what they're doing. They've already got their crowd, they're not looking to win anyone new over. That's what they attempted to do with Legends of Wrestlemania and now with WWE All-Stars. "

What do we have here though? The quality of these WWE games has been on the decline. Eventually even the buffoons that buy these games are going to realise it's a steaming pile of poo and stop buying it. It's easier to keep your target audience than it is to try and win them back after a bad experience. Again, I make reference to Guitar Hero. They spat out the same thing year after year when Rock Band steadily took their sales. Warriors Of Rock was a last ditch grab to try and get them back. It failed. Now it looks like the franchise has met it's end.
Posted by MaddProdigy

Tons of text and a little repetitive with all the the terms like "tired" and "clunky" but it got the point across for sure, nice review. Definitely not buying this.

Posted by Demoskinos

The game play is fine if you ask me...   this is all I've been playing for the last week or two now.   It has a few issues that need to be patched but... its still going to provide me with 100's of hours of entertainment until next years title. 
 
The only thing I think that needs improved is  how often the same handful of scenes in universe mode happen over and over....   outside of that I don't have many complaints.

Posted by Sooty

Wrestling games were only cool when you was 12 years old, didn't know any better and was huddled around a PS2 with a multitap along with friends.

Posted by twillfast

Haven't you seen the south park wrestling episode? It's NOT about the wrestling, it's about everything around it. :p

Edited by MachoFantastico

Been playing some of this game with a cousin of mine and I've actually been enjoying it. Controls are still odd as hell, yet it's one of the most interesting wrestling games I've experienced since I was a fan of the WWF shows as a kid. 

Posted by Terranova

No surprise at the review score the series has just been going down hill every year, as i said in the quick look thread they need to start from scratch get a new developer and some new ideas, maybe even make current gen versions of the N64 WWE games that's how the wrestling should be then add all the other stuff on top of it and you have one hell of a good WWE game not the crap they have now.  
Posted by HaroldoNVU
@Ne0teric said:
" I wish Alex had five pictures of himself too. One for each star rating. "
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