Another year, another highly anticipated edition of THQ’s perennial Smackdown Vs. Raw. This year, a lot of changes have been made the the extremely successful, but aging Smackdown engine. Some of them are for the best, and some of them will be disappointing to longtime fans of the series. It all adds up to a flawed, yet very enjoyable experience for SVR vets and newbies alike.
In June of 2006, everyone’s favorite egocentric billionaire Vinnie Mac brought back the tribe of extreme. ECW (or at least the watered down WWE version of the Philly original) was reborn, and it makes its first major appearance in this year’s SVR. The big players on ECW’s current roster make an appearance, as well as several ECW legends like Terry Funk, Sabu, and Tommy Dreamer.
The ECW Extreme Rules Match has also been added this year, and the developers have done their best to make sure it lives up to it’s namesake. The WWE lives by crowd reaction, but ECW thrived on crowd interaction, and this new mode takes that to heart. As you fight around the outside of the ring, the fans can give you weapons. Don’t want to get your hands dirty? Drag your opponent over near the barricade, and a fan will hold up a weapon for you to ram his head through. Even taunts take the crowd interaction concept to heart, allowing you to lean against the rail while the fans go nuts for you, or celebrate with a fan’s sign.
Another fantastic feature of the Extreme Rules match type is the Weapon Wheel. No more blindly fumbling under the ring, crossing your fingers that you’ll pull out the dangerous implement of your choice. Now, when you reach under the ring you’ll pull up a wheel of “don’t try this at home” playthings like barbed wire boards, tables, chairs, and Singapore canes. Best of all, if you have a full special meter, you can break fire code by setting tables and barbed wire boards ablaze. This is something that fans have been clamoring for for years now, and it’s very well executed. The fire looks great, and the different ways you can give your opponents the “Spike Dudley Treatment” are sure to keep the Philly Faithful warm on these cold winter nights.
The gameplay outside of this mode has made some pretty big changes this year as well. Gameplay is once again tied heavily to the right analog stick, although it feels slightly more fluid than last years version. The pace of matches also seems more deliberate this year, allowing for more realistic ebb and flow. Both these changes lend themselves to a more user friendly wrestling experience, and the gameplay is certainly the better for it.
Also new this year in terms of gameplay are superstar Fighting Styles. Each superstar is assigned two of these styles depending on the kind of wrestler he or she is. Brawler, Hardcore, Dirty, Showman, Powerhouse, High Flyer, and Technician are the available styles, and they affect the traditional SVR gameplay in a pretty substantial way.
For instance, wrestlers with the Dirty fighting style can remove the turnbuckle cover, argue with and shove the ref into other wrestlers. Showman can steal finishers, Powerhouses can power out of pins-etc. Also, if you fill up your momentum bar, you can perform a special move related to your style. Brawlers can activate it to make their strikes unblockable for a period of time, Hardcore wrestlers can regenerate some limb damage by activating it while holding a weapon. These styles really make each wrestler feel and act more like their real life counterparts and helps to add to the strategy involved in a match.
For all the steps forward that this years edition makes in terms of gameplay, it also takes one unfortunate step backwards. Bringing back last years well received GM mode was a great idea, however combining it with what used to be the career mode to create the brand new 24/7 mode was a big mistake in my opinion. Rather than a branching, storyline driven career mode like the past games in the series, 24/7 is more like the career mode in more traditional sports games.
You begin by picking a superstar from an unfortunately truncated list that does not include anyone from ECW. While I understand that this was done due to the voiceovers, it’s certainly disappointing due to the large amount of influence and presence the brand has on this years version. I personally would much rather have a full list of superstars with text only dialog than a shortened list with so-so voice quality. Once you’ve selected your superstar, you will begin your path towards becoming the most popular superstar in the company.
You’ll accomplish this goal, not just by fighting in matches, but by doing things in your off days to increase your popularity. You can star in movies, participate in interviews and press conferences, and even donate a little cash to charity in the hopes that it will bring you fame and adoration. You can also train in different skills on your days off. Some of these training exercises require you to perform certain actions (Perform a certain number of taunts in a set time limit, make your opponent bleed before time runs out) in order to boost your stats, while others simply require you to plunk down some hard earned moolah (and not the Fabulous kind).
All this sounds great in theory, in execution however it doesn’t live up to its premise. The interviews, press conferences, movies and assorted other tasks you can do for popularity are not interactive. You simply pick the one you want, and wait for the screen to tell you how many fans it got you. If they stick with the 24/7 idea for the next version, it would be nice to see them flesh these out by including different mini-games for each selection. The selection to star in a movie tells you that doing your own stunts wears you out, so why not a mini-game using timed button presses to simulate this. Or maybe during the press conference you pick certain responses to questions, which would affect your personality rating and fan response. Things like that would add to the gameplay experience and add some life to this mode.
Also hampering the 24/7 mode is it’s repetition of not only actions but cutscenes. You can be sure that you’ll see the same 5 or 6 scenes repeated countless times during your march toward greatness. The biggest glaring flaw of all, however, is the inability to skip wrestling on your primary show even when injured. The doctors will keep telling you to rest, and you can choose to do so on your days off (at the severe cost of your popularity), however once your show rolls around there you are again, out there wrestling with back spasms. This can be really frustrating with severe injuries, when your character starts out with substantial limb damage. The ability to skip a show at the cost of popularity and cash should definitely be an option, and its omission seems more like an oversight than a conscious design decision.
Graphically this game is incredibly impressive. The character models are superb and, barring a few exclusions, look identical to their real life counterparts. The arenas are lively and the crowd looks and responds better than previous entries in the series. Some of the clipping and collision detection issues that plagued prior versions have scampered their way back in to 2008 however, and I hope that next years offering will finally iron some of these out.
On the audio side, SVR 2008 is kind of a mixed bag. The wrestler themes and sound effects are very well done. The voiceovers and commentary however certainly need some work. I understand that commentary is very difficult to nail in a game like this, but after this long you would think they would find a way to at least make most of it match the action going on in ring.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that, while slightly better than last years version, the AI in this title is still disappointing. Several times I witnessed computer controlled grapplers just standing around not doing anything. I saw AI controlled grapplers pick me up in an Ultimate Control move-only to do nothing but walk around the ring with me on their shoulders. These issues aren’t prevalent enough to be game breaking most of the time, but it would certainly be nice to see them fixed in next years version.
SVR has always been more fun when you gather your buddies around for a good old fashioned slobberknocker, and this year is no exception. You can either take your friends on head to head in the same room, or via a very smooth online system. The differences between the two next gen versions are pretty negligible, with the exception of the long sought after inclusion of songs from your custom soundtracks as create-a-wrestler themes on the 360. This is a fantastic addition, and one that I wish the PS3 version would have incorporated as well.
SVR 2008 is definitely a step ahead for the series from a gameplay standpoint. The new controls, fighting styles, and ECW content really take the series to the next level in terms of in ring action. However, the disappointing 24/7 mode and the return of some nagging problems keeps this title from being the truly great experience it could be. If you can look past these issues however, 2008 will certainly provide ring fans with hours of entertainment. After all, it’s all the fun of lighting a table on fire, with none of the scars or sirens.