Professional wrestling might not be for everyone, but it's hard to argue against the level of passion and excitement generated by its fans and participants alike. By employing a careful balance of theatrics and athleticism, pro wrestling at its best can be engaging and really fun to watch. But when that balance gets off-kilter, the whole thing heads south in a hurry. While the WWE has been hit and miss lately on television and pay-per-view, the televised spectacle is still worlds more entertaining than its video game counterparts. THQ's latest installment in the WWE SmackDown! series builds on last year's game in ways that fans of the series will probably appreciate, but it fails to capture most of the thrill of the real deal.
Most of the blame for the game's lifeless vibe falls on audio and the animation. The game's speech is completely flat, and it all sounds like it was recorded in some quiet sound studio, not in some arena full of screaming fans. Without any of the live arena energy flowing, the wrestlers and announcers alike turn in sleepy performances that sound like they're reading from a script and can't wait to be finished. The deliberate pacing and pauses for shouts, boos, or applause that you hear from wrestlers on television aren't present, and the announcers are repetitive and often non-specific. Actual wrestling commentary goes all over the place, talking about the match at hand, the dramatic events that led to the current confrontation, upcoming matches appearing later on the show, and, if you're lucky, barbecue sauce. SmackDown! 2009 attempts to cover these bases in fits and starts, but it usually boils down to Jerry "The King" Lawler "oh, did you see that?" followed immediately by Jim Ross with "he dropped... the elbow!" Maybe I'm just elbow-crazy, but it seemed like I was hearing that exact exchange four or five times per match.
The character models in SmackDown! look really sharp and, at times, lifelike... at least when they're standing still. In motion, the game becomes a series of triggered animations that don't transition very well, so you'll stutter around the ring in a weird manner, then trigger a move that takes the control out of your hands for three seconds or so while your wrestler delivers a suplex, chains together a few punches, or argues with the referee over a slow count. Those canned animations look nice, but they just make you wish that the rest of the game looked that good while you were actually in control. It's also worth pointing out that the game has a fair amount of full-motion video in it for entrances and setups for the story modes. Most of it is the same slick, well-edited stuff that the WWE uses on television, but it's so blocky and artifact-filled that it looks like an old Saturn game or something. This is especially weak in the PS3 version, considering there's probably plenty of space on the Blu-Ray disc for better in-game video compression.
Actually controlling the action in WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2009 (featuring ECW!) will be a snap if you've stuck with the series as it's developed. If you've skipped a few, though, you'll probably find things to be pretty arcane, especially in some of the more-specific match types. The game offers page after page of control notes in the pause menu, and it will occasionally pause here and there to tell you about the controls for getting out of the ring, tagging a partner, or other new concepts when they first pop up. But it still isn't always clear how to put your opponent onto (or through) a table, and getting in the right position to pick up weapons also seems more mysterious than it should be. The game attempts to focus more on tag team wrestling this year, which is strange when you consider how meaningless tag teams have become in the WWE. Regardless, this leads to a new "hot tag" mechanic that lets the man on the apron build up strength and burst into the ring to execute a quick time event that leaves both opponents on the mat and his momentum meter filled and prepped for a finisher. Overall, the gameplay still doesn't do much to make you feel like you're participating in an actual WWE match. It just feels like a bad fighting game.
It took me a couple of hours to get the hang of things and start really tearing apart the AI competitors, but I didn't feel like any of that was preparing me to face human opposition. Online or with local compadres, the game becomes more about properly timing reversal attempts and knowing your opponent's range and recovery time. Filtered though a haze of network-induced latency, timing your movements becomes pretty frustrating. While I normally get very low pings in online games, the on-screen meters in both the PS3 and 360 versions of SmackDown! showed all my opposition as having the worst possible network conditions. So either the only people playing SmackDown! are doing so in faraway foreign lands, or there's something up with the network code.
The different modes and features of SmackDown! dress up the basic wrestling action in a number of different ways. You can go in and string together different animations to form your own finishing moves. You can piece together your own wrestlers out of a collection of clothing, body types, sliders, and move sets. You can get online and view, rate, and share screenshots or video clips, which is great if you want to see upskirts of the game's female roster.
You can also engage in a lengthy, but generic career mode, or play a more focused "Road to Wrestlemania" mode that attempts to inject some storyline stuff into the proceedings. But this option is only available for Triple H, CM Punk, John Cena, The Undertaker, Chris Jericho, or a tag team storyline with Rey Mysterio and Batista. Road to Wrestlemania is probably the best thing about the entire game, since it most closely resembles what you see on TV. CM Punk's story takes him through a set of struggles to capture and retain the ECW championship by fighting off the likes of Elijah Burke while also dealing with roadblocks put up by Stephanie McMahon and Tazz. John Cena's story opens at the Tribute to the Troops show and has him defending American pride against opponents like MVP, Umaga, and William Regal. Triple H's story branches to allow for him to reform the old Evolution stable or re-team with Shawn Michaels to reform D-Generation X yet again. As you move from week to week in this mode, the announcers are also given more specific things to say about your situation. It all comes together much better here than it does in any other part of the game.
Over the years, the list of match types available in SmackDown! has become absolutely out of control. At this point, the differences between the different types feels smaller and smaller, with things like regular tag team matches, tornado tag matches, ladder tornado tag matches, table tornado tag matches, and so on. But the big, marquee match types you'd want to see, like tables, ladders, and chairs matches, the Money in the Bank match, cage matches, Elimination Chamber matches, and the Royal Rumble are all present.
I won't deny that there are some people out there who will be able to completely ignore everything that stuck out to me about SmackDown! 2009 and have a great time creating wrestlers that look like other wrestlers and editing together crazy highlight reel clips. But to me, the entire game feels lifeless and old. The presentation fails to capture the excitement of the real thing. The gameplay doesn't match the product it's attempting to emulate. And the layers upon layers of plain-looking menus feel like they were ripped out of a PlayStation 2 launch game. Something as dynamic and as ridiculously over-the-top as the real-life WWE deserves better.