Professional wrestling is completely ridiculous... and I mean that in the best possible way. The age-old struggle of good versus evil, as retold by the likes of Chris Jericho, Shawn Michaels, Tommy Dreamer, John Cena, Triple H, and a host of other bulked-up muscledudes is classic and cheesy at its best and an ironic and hilarious train wreck at its worst. The problem with translating it into a video game is that the scripted moments in the physical action allow for a flow that can't be easily duplicated when you're trying to make an AI opponent behave the way they do on television. This year's version of THQ's long-running WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW series still has all of those issues. But it also has a story editor that lets players create new moments using the WWE's cast of characters. It's not perfect, but it's a great first attempt at letting WWE fans truly control every aspect of Vince McMahon's crazy universe.
There are over 60 wrestlers in the game, representing all three of the WWE's sub-brands and also including male and female wrestlers. The game's got just about everyone you could ask for, including all of the names mentioned above, as well as other wrestlers like CM Punk, Christian, Mickie James, and Matt Hardy. Also, since the list of people actually employed by the WWE seems to change on a daily basis, there are a number of selectable wrestlers in the game that are no longer with the company, like Jeff Hardy, JBL, Mr. Kennedy, and Umaga. You can also create your own wrestlers using a robust set of tools that allow you to apply preset clothing items and modify them with a paint tool that lets you create your own logos and other detail work. There's enough stuff in there to create reasonable facsimiles of real-life wrestlers who aren't on the game's roster (there are already versions of guys like Scott Hall, Magnum TA, and Hulk Hogan floating around), characters from other forms of media (I made a pretty lame version of Guile in about 10 minutes), or even just your own original characters, if you want to get fully creative.
In addition to creating logos and wrestlers, you can also create custom entrances, edit together video clips, and piece together finishing moves from preset animations. But the real crux of the game's creative side is the new story editor, which lets you create pretty detailed story lines by adding your own custom text to a set of prefabricated "moments." Most of the standard things you see week-to-week on a wrestling program are represented, like backstage interviews, shots of the commentators, wrestlers standing in the ring, shouting into microphones, and so on. The more dramatic elements of wrestling, like people getting hit by cars (with mystery drivers!) or wrestlers jumping out of the crowd to attack are also represented. Though I can certainly envision a few oft-used scenarios that aren't included (such as driving a beer truck directly into the arena, having a wrestler break through a wall and immediately fall down, or anything involving a coffin), the whole setup feels pretty flexible. You simply choose the location and animation, which characters are in the scene, and write dialogue, if necessary. You can also add matches with different goals to your stories, giving players something to fight for in-between story segments. Like the other created aspects of the game, you can share your completed stories online.
In addition to just making things yourself, the game also contains a bunch of preset modes. The Road to Wrestlemania mode returns this year, offering preset stories for Edge, Mickie James, Randy Orton, Shawn Michaels, created superstars, and one called "Brand Warfare" that includes multiple wrestlers and can be played cooperatively. These start you out around 90 days before Wrestlemania, and take you through the lead-up to the biggest show the WWE puts on. Winning matches moves you through the story. Most of the stories are pretty decent and feel like they could plausibly occur on WWE's television programming. Beyond creating your own stuff, this is probably the best stuff in the entire game, even if a lot of the voice acting is kind of terrible. It all sounds like it was recorded in a voiceover booth and lacks all of the intensity that wrestlers and announcers typically convey when in front of a live crowd. There's also a career mode that lets you move up through a set of rankings to eventually challenge for belts, and you can, of course, configure a match using the full roster and a wide collection of match types to just play.
But the part of WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2010 where you pick up the controller and start wrestling is where the whole thing falls apart. The game's canned animations string together in awkward-looking ways that are sometimes hard to predict, and the action feels repetitive and unrefined. The game has one counter button that can be used to counter just about anything, if you can fit your button presses into a pretty tight timing window. And a lot of it is clunky, especially when more than two wrestlers are involved, as the game holds your focus on one opponent, even if you start running at another. So if you've knocked one guy down and turn your attention to another, standing opponent, most of the time you'll do elbow drops and other moves intended for a guy that's on the mat. The weird part is that they still hit the standing wrestler. You can fiddle with the game's settings to allow for manual focus controls, but forcing you to dictate your intentions like that doesn't feel much better.
Also, the action in the game feels very little like actual WWE in-ring wrestling. There are things you have to worry about that only come up on television when it's convenient, like rope breaks, where a pin gets broken up because the guy on the bottom has his foot under the ropes. In the game, you feel like you're constantly having to worry about the position of every wrestler, because it's far too easy to pull off your finisher in the wrong spot and not be able to follow it up with a pin. Tag matches also feel fundamentally different when they're treated like an actual sport, rather than scripted entertainment. Overall, the action is disappointing and the AI is pretty lackluster. So you're better off with human opposition... provided they're sitting right next to you. Yes, the game has online play, but the only time I was able to find a match that wasn't laggy to the point of pointlessness is when I took two copies of the game and ran them both on the same Internet connection. Considering how much of the gameplay is focused on properly timed button presses, this makes the game barely playable online. At least you can upload and download created items with other players.
WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW 2010 doesn't fix any of the fundamental issues that the series has had for years, and as this style of gameplay gets another year older, it looks that much more dated. The good news is that all of the stuff surrounding the actual gameplay is getting to be really good. I'd be perfectly fine with never wrestling another match... but I'll probably go back and create a couple of completely ridiculous stories using a bunch of created wrestlers. If that sounds appealing to you (or if you've already come to terms with the way the SmackDown! series plays), this year's game is worth checking out.