Jeff Hardy would've used his drug money to buy this game.
The situation with our annual wrestling video games seems to mirror the wrestling scene in reality. Every year, Yukes, THQ and the Fed pump out their annual Smackdown vs. Raw title, rudely telling the fans what features they want to see implemented (like last year’s tag team system, in spite of the WWE’s general lack of tag teams.) All the while, they ignore the existing flaws of the series and thus release a similar product year after year. Kind of like the weekly television and their rehashed feuds and excessive use of Hornswoggle. Keep in mind, Yukes has been working on this series for nine years, so that certain faults persist year after year is baffling. Meanwhile, the more trendy, fan-friendly UFC has come out of the gate swinging with a fantastic fighter in UFC Unleashed, on the first try. And from the same developer!
So I guess you can see why I’m confused at how Yukes, the very same company, could pull off such an excellent UFC game on their first try and yet struggle with Smackdown for nine long years.
I’ll get those annual faults out of the way here and now. The AI is “suspect” at best and “Colin Delaney-esque” at worst. On the normal difficulty, they’ll stand perfectly still and wait for you to punch their face as if they forgot their next spot. On Legend difficulty, they’ll turn up the aggression to resemble someone who’s drunk and lethargic, throwing a few more punches than the normal difficulty’s jobber AI. You may or may not have to alter sliders to reduce or improve the AI’s counter rate, or the rate that the special meter builds (you’re going to get finishers built up fast.)
The online play as a whole is still being choked by the plodding Randy Orton chinlock of lag. Games are hard to be matched up with and harder to actually play, and you’re at the mercy of whatever match type the host is playing. I found myself in a Ranked three on one handicap match once. Huh? Who says that leaderboards matter?
And as for the commentary… vintage Smackdown vs. Raw! The editing of the commentary calls has been cleared up enough as to not embarrass the player with bad levels or out of place calls. So you won’t hear Michael Cole say that “JOHN CENA is in a lot of trouble” after hitting the Attitude Adjustment. However, the problem is with the recording themselves. The announcers sound decidedly phony or disinterested, reading lines off a script instead of being in a 16,000 seat arena filled with screaming kids in Rey Mysterio masks. Jim Ross in particular seems to be squinting at his script, reading lines at a slow, librarian pace. The wrestler voiceovers in Road to Wrestlemania are equally inconsistent, with many of the performers guilty of disregarding the situation instead of reenacting a scenario. Triple H, for example, sounds like he’s having a conversation at the dinner table while he’s in the middle of the ring vowing revenge on his enemies. Some wrestlers are more believable, like JBL or Mr. Kennedy (both wished well in their future endeavors) but the words coming out of their mouths are generic, lacking the dynamic promo work that either of them are famous for. Chris Jericho in particular stands out as someone who really should’ve been allowed to write his own material because he speaks nothing like his current persona.
And the Career mode is still kind of a throwaway, making the player fight in a series of matches. That the player can select the order of his opponents and even the match gimmick kind of sucks any sense of escalating difficulty or format, leaving this mode to feel like a means of grinding levels for your created wrestler (more on this in a jiffy.)
The in-game wrestling feels largely the same, though with some positive and negative changes. Counters are assigned to one shoulder button instead of two, simplifying the process but not breaking the system as to make counters too easy to execute. You can now hold a shoulder button to pull off strong grapple attacks, further proving that natural evolution should transform this series into No Mercy eventually. I just wish that Yukes would speed up the process and drop this concept of analog grapples or having four different grapples. My problem is that each one has its own animation; arm wringer, grapple, headlock, etc, and you have to wait for each canned animation to finish. What sense does it make for me to wring someone’s arm only to grab the head and go for a DDT? That’s an indy wrestling-level of non-psychology. (And all your favorite indy groups have had this problem at some point or another.) As a result, I found myself relying on striking attacks and wishing for the less sluggish, less pre-programmed feel of No Mercy or the recent TNA Impact game.
And that is about the only time you’ll hear me say that the TNA game is better than Smackdown in any way. Promise.
I like how the HUD was cleaned up though. Gone are the 50 health, special and limb-damage meters that cluttered the game screen, instead replaced by a single special meter that appears beneath your sweaty boots. However, also gone is the coloured arrow that tells you which body your wrestler has locked his focus towards. The default target setting is “Auto” which means “your wrestler will randomly target any opponent who’s baby oil splashes onto your chest” which is too random and annoying. The manual target system is more reasonable, but even then, the lock on button is not always responsive, occasionally not listening to you at all, or targeting on to the ref when you wanted to direct your attention towards the face-painted Carolinian with the drug problem.
Speaking of that, while an outdated roster is normally a frequent-occurring problem with this series, I’m not downtrodden this year. This game is better for still having Jeff Hardy, Umaga and the like. Besides, it’s not like the WWE is going to create any new stars anytime soon. And there are some nice presentation touches too, like the logo flashes for a title defense or the individual smart marks that scream stupid comments under the misguided pretense of being funny. That said, the presentation values are still far too behind the EA Sports games when you consider the whole “9 years” business, and some presentation aspects feel like a stretch. In particular, no crowd will ever, in a trillion billion years, start a “Koslov’s gonna kill you” chant. Imagine what Samoa Joe, the man whom helped make that chant famous, thinks about that. He could binge-eat himself in a depression from that. Well moreso.
You still have your plethora of match types that the Smackdown series has…quite honestly built its existence around. You can still boot up a Hell in a Cell match, climb the top of the cage, throw the Undertaker off, watch as he lands back-first from the 30 feet fall…and get straight back up. The Royal Rumble is the match with the most notable improvements, implementing a glorified button-mashing system to recreate the lack of thrills in trying to throw someone out of a ring. As always, Smackdown vs. Raw was meant to be played with friends, assuming you still have friends that still watchwrestling and assuming they can still wrap their mind around the always-convoluted control scheme. It helps, then, that the title screen is a “training school” where your John Cena-atron can wail on a defenseless Randy Orton-atron at your leisure, all the while being presented with pop-up screens displaying commands you can choose to follow through. It’s a great way to learn the game at your pace as opposed to being walked through every single button command in a forced manner like way too many video games (especially the UFC game.)
Road to Wrestlemania is thankfully back. The gist of this mode is that you compete in a series of matches leading to Wrestlemania as a certain wrestler, all the while watching fully-voiced cutscenes of varying quality. You’ll also be given the occasional optional objective like “hit the Pedigree twice to ensure this guy’s career is thoroughly dead and buried” in the name of unlocking goods. If you thought that the heels didn’t get enough loving in last year’s games, then you’re in luck, as Edge and Randy Orton have their own gloriously villainous paths, and they are arguably the most entertaining. The Mickie James career path is Diva-oriented and displays the WWE’s…questionable views on women in television, though I didn’t spend much time with it as of this writing. The Shawn Michaels path has its moments but seems to be filled with 2-on-1 scenarios that’ll cause you to lose your hair in frustration faster than the real Shawn Michaels. An early instance put me in a match against Randy Orton, and JBL ran interference. Except JBL never quite “left” the ring, he merely continued to run roughshod on my Heartbroken ass. The referee just stood there and allowed it, and my attempts to equalize the situation with a steel chair were met with a disqualification. What? And I had no choice but to win said match to advance the plot. And lest we forget about the Auto-targeting problem mentioned earlier.
The storyline designated for Created Wrestlers is a bit of a laugh in that it has the same issue with the TNA game and its use of Suicide. That problem being “you play as a punk kid with a massive attitude problem that would never be allowed backstage at a WWE show, ever.” The only difference is that your created wrestler isn’t used as an on-screen character in the real life show and shoved down fans throats. Poor Frankie Kazarian. Finally, the John Cena/Triple H team storyline is designated as the game’s “two player co-op” storyline, but that’s a lie. Most of the matches are spent in one-on-one battles with the two players taking turns fighting; a multiplayer mode as cutting-edge as the one in Super Mario Bros.
And finally, there are the game’s creation tools, which you will likely spend more time on than you will with the main game. The Create-A-Wrestler mode has been revamped, with all of the art being redone as to not make your creations look like they came from an early Playstation 2 game. The load times have been scaled down too, as to ensure that your army of 30 WCW wrestlers are recreated in no time. If you so desired, you can use a basic Paint program to create your own logos, and record footage from matches to use in custom-made video packages for your entrance. Keep in mind that this video editor is basic…Baby’s First Final Cut-basic, but having footage of your creation is better than my previous alternatives of giving every CAW Kelly Kelly’s video. The Create-A-Move is also back, now with the option of creating top-rope finishers. I sought out to create the wackiest dive possible, and settled on “triple forward flip into the Low Ki foot stomp.” Something else that could never exist in the real WWE. My issue with the Create a Wrestler, and this has been recurring for the last several years, is that you still have to use your wrestler to grind his stats up if you wish for him to be stronger than Kelly Kelly. While this year’s game improves on previous iterations in that merely using your wrestler in any match as opposed to a broken career mode will elevate stats, the problem is that most players are going to create many wrestlers and the process of making one Man Up takes many hours. I get it World, grinding is the hip thing in games right now, people enjoy doing the same monotonous tasks over and over in the name of boosting a number or “level”, but said concept is very impractical in a wrestling game built around creating numerous personalities.
The most interesting and unusual of all is the new and ever threatening Create a Story mode. A potential hazard to the WWE’s writing team, this mode lets you design your own career mode storylines. The player chooses from a list of scenarios such as “people meeting backstage” or “car runs someone over”, chooses the pawns, the text spoken and/or the resulting matches. Created wrestlers have an annoying limit on how often they can be used, and your ability to keep your writing sharp will depend on the presence of a USB keyboard over the in-game text input thingy. But otherwise, the potential for the player to create wacky scenarios that could play out on real television is surprisingly strong.
And all the created stories, wrestlers, moves and videos can be uploaded and downloaded on an online server. If you so chose, you can download someone else’s Great Thrashmaster, or their rendition of AJ Styles before the moderators rush to take it down. The uploaded storylines may be of greater interest, for there are some decidedly wacky plots out there. I amused myself greatly on a downloaded story I found of Mark Henry’s turn to cannibalism. And you can claim that I’m out of my mind, but this more limited and yet so true-to-form Create a Story gave me many more hours of entertainment than the overly complex and soulless level editor from LittleBig Planet. There’s a moral about user created content to be had somewhere here.
Smackdown vs Raw 2010 is in the exact same rut that the series has been for years, and I feel that most fans will know exactly what they’re getting themselves in for. So fans of the series or the current WWE product should be satisfied with the package, provided they don’t expect anything more out of, say, the commentary. Actually, the user-creation tools help give this game some newfound life, and fans may find themselves divulging more in creating storylines about Evan Bourne actually winning matches than they will in the real WWE television. So in that regard, give the game a shot if you feel inclined.
But do you want to know the game’s greatest strength? No Monday Night Raw special guest hosts.
3 ½ stars