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.
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 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.
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?