Last year's game looked great, but this year actually shocked me. It's not often that a PS2 game's graphics catch me off-guard. I'd seen the videos and screenshots on different sites, but the first time the RAW menu loaded up with Stacy Kiebler dancing around next to the options I was stunned. Sure, I'm sure part of that was because it was Stacy Kiebler after all, but honestly these might be the best character models in any PS2 game. And unlike past games, even the low-card guys have been given the royal treatment when it comes to in-game models. People like Mark Jindrak look as much like their real-life counterparts as people like Triple H . Another thing that has improved are the special effects such as lighting but especially the pyro. The facial animations are alot better as well. You can blatantly tell what someone's mood is just by looking at them. My only real complaint is that some collision detection issues still persist and load times are still relatively high.
If you've played SmackDown games in the past, you're going to feel right at home here. But that's not to say that they haven't added added a few new tweaks to the gameplay. The new tweaks are basically mini-games that happen during a match and help make the game feel more like a real show or match. The first few happen at the beginning of a match, where you may enter a Staredown, Shoving Contest, or Test of Strength as you approach your opponent for the first time. To complete these, you usually just have to press a certain button quicker than your opponent when it pops up on the screen like a Real Time Event. The other mini-game is the Chop Contest. Like Benoit vs Flair, you can go back and forth with chops until someone hits a big one. These are done with a golf swing meter (same as a kicking meter in football games). You set the power then try to stop the meter in the optimal zone for a fierce attack. If you hit it perfectly, you get to go again. Hit it perfectly a second time and your opponent hits the mat. But if you fail to do it perfectly, your opponent gets a turn.
Another big addition is the Clean/Dirty meters under your health meter. Each wrestler is labeled as either Clean (Face) or Dirty (Heel) and you earn points for playing the role. For instance, taunting and performing high risk moves will make your Clean meter go up because the crowd loves it. On the other hand, using weapons, distracting the referee, or calling for interference will make your Dirty meter go up. Doing the opposite of what your wrestler is meant to do makes your meter go down. Once it gets full, you can perform special moves appropriate for each side. The Clean guys will usually do something equivalent to Hulking Up while the Dirty guys will get a cheap shot in that the referee will inexplicably not notice. It's a cool feature and it's things like this show that Yuke's is still trying their best to capture the feel of a real WWE show, but in actuality, the gameplay is pretty much the same, and that's a good thing.
No more reading...well, almost. Sounds great right? Well, not so much. It is truly amazing that they got every single wrestler to record voice-overs for this game. I began to wonder how they found the time to do this, and then I heard the voice-overs and I realized how. The voice-overs are very very low quality even though most of the guys gave a good effort. It's not the wrestler's fault. But when Bischoff is in the ring doing a rant, he shouldn't sound like he's in a sound studio. And when Triple H is in his locker room talking to Batista, he shouldn't sound like he's in an empty warehouse full of echoes. It seems like THQ just ran up to a given wrestler at any random location, tossed them a mic and fed them a few lines. Disappointing to say the least.
The entrance music is as good as ever, and I'm especially happy that the Legends finally have their real themes. Commentary is back, and although I was not excited about this at all, it is better than before although that isn't saying much. They have recorded plenty of stuff from both the RAW and SmackDown guys which is impressive, but as in all other wrestling games that have ever tried this, too many lines get repeated over and over. I think it's simply impossible to replicate play-by-play and color commentary in wrestling. Lastly, they've added some licensed music, but some of it is taken from Day of Reckoning. Nothing spectacular either way.
Everything you've come to expect is here. A slew of match types with an almost infinite amount of combinations, a good story mode, and a Create-A-Wrestler mode which hasn't changed hardly at all in 3 years. Aside from these, Yuke's has added a Create-A-Belt mode where not only do you create a title, but you choose what type of strap, grade of metal and design the entire thing. They've also brought back the Create-A-PPV option and given a handful of "examples" which replicate the past year of real-life PPV's. The other mode that I like is Challenge. This works sort of like Milestones in ESPN games. They give you a task to do in a match and you earn money for doing it. They start out easy like Perform 2 Finishers or Deliver an Aerial Dive from a Ladder, but the difficulty increases to the likes of Win After Taking 2 Finishers and The Big Red Challenge, which means defeating Kane on hard difficulty after damaging all sections of his body until they are red. This mode adds a lot to the single player experience once you've finished story mode.
Online wrestling. We've waited for it for about 3 years and now it's here. I wish I would've waited 4 years. You would think that an Online SmackDown would have all the stuff that the offline SmackDown has, right? Think again. Once you sign in, you are given basically two options. One-on-one singles match or Bra & Panties match. That's it. No tables. No ladders. No nothing. As if this wasn't bad enough, there's no headset or even keyboard support. How do I know I'm even playing online? Honestly, I don't.
SmackDown! vs RAW really seems like a game in-between games. I think that Yuke's would've been better off skipping a year and finishing what they've started, which looks promising for next year, but I'm sure THQ wanted to cash in on another WWE game. Most of what was added this year was half-assed, but the core of the game remains the same and that's an excellent wrestling game that has remained at the top of the heap over the years. If you are a wrestling fan or just enjoyed previous installments of the series, you will undoubtedly like this one, but it will be hard not to feel like SmackDown! vs RAW could've been a whole lot better.
*** This review was written for Flamevault.com shortly after the release of the game. ***