WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 Preview
The stars of World Wrestling Entertainment are always changing their attitude and appearance, just like the way the organization itself is constantly having to reinvent and innovate. Unlike with traditional sports, everyone involved knows that when a wrestler wins or loses, it's only one small part of the story, and the rest, that narrative, is what keeps people coming back. Sure, it's silly, and yeah, everyone knows it's fake. But so is House M.D., and some people take that very seriously, too.
The stars with the most popularity have to exhibit a combination of athleticism, confidence, attitude, acting, and storytelling when they get in the ring, and they have to do it live, almost always risking their health (and therefore their careers), all without the ability to yell "cut!" and do a second take. Professional wrestling is a strange thing, but it's got millions of fans that are rabid and very enthusiastic. And THQ is the publisher that's stepped up to the difficult job of making a video game that caters directly to those fans, because mass appeal for their WWE series of games is not something they can really rely on.
For a yearly franchise, the developers (at Japanese developer Yuke's, along with a lot of people at THQ) behind the WWE Smackdown vs. Raw game are some of the hardest working guys in the industry. Not only does this game have to cover a massive range of both male and female wrestling stars, but it's a moving target; often, by the time the game ships, at least a few of their stars have drastically changed their appearance and their allegiances to the various "organizations" of wrestlers that come and go in the WWE. Still, the developers push on, adding tons of wrestlers every year and improving some of the game industry's most impressive creation tools for players to use.
This year, SvR 2011 offers a full revamp of just about everything from the menus to the matches to the stars. There's the character-select screen that now resembles a fighting game's array of portraits. A new mode called My WWE replaces old career modes and uses AI to dynamically create an infinitely-long season of rivalries, matches, and more for you to participate in. And one of the biggest fan-requested features is the new online Battle Royal mode where up to twelve people (six playing at any one time along with up to six spectating and waiting for their turn to run into the ring) can beat each other up in a huge testosterone-fueled Charlie Foxtrot.
While I haven't really followed wrestling in most of the last 20 years, it's still easy to see the huge amount of effort and fan service that goes into these games. You can create completely over-the-top and ridiculous wrestlers in the Create-a-Superstar mode (both male and female, if you want) and then take them into places like Road to Wrestlemania mode, where you'll even get to freely roam backstage and start brawls if you want. You can take on a custom-written story for several of WWE's most interesting stars through the Road to Wrestlemania mode. You can create your own match with a huge range of win/loss conditions, rules to adjust, arenas to fight in (like Inferno, Hell in a Cell, or a regular old Cage), and more. You can put together your own story with a number of cutscenes, improved this year with branching systems and much better support for putting and keeping your created wrestlers coming back in this mode.
All of the creation elements can be put online, too, for posting, voting on (the voting system has been improved, allowing for things like 4.94 stars and such), and downloading to play. One of the nicer features I saw with this was the ability to download and then edit people's creations - that's especially handy if you want to adjust or maybe improve on someone else's work without recreating it entirely. There are tons of other features and little changes, almost all of which came from the SvR community's demands, and it all adds up to some of the best fan support in a game franchise so far.
But when it comes to the actual wrestling, things have improved, too. Now, the grappling system allows for strong grapples without a modifier, and moving your opponent around in the ring when they're on the floor or disabled is easier, too. You'll still have the counter system on the RB/R1 buttons, and it still requires precise timing rather than button-mashing to use properly. And the best part of all is that the superstars themselves look better than ever, with even smoother animations, more detailed textures, and an overall level of realism that no other wrestling game has achieved yet.
One interesting feature is the ability for six players to play locally on one PS3; while I don't know anyone that has that many PS3 controllers, I can see it being fun for a few friends that bring their own PS3 controllers to one guy's house for a big WWE party. Unfortunately, Microsoft's strict adherence to their four-cornered "Ring of Light" on the Xbox 360 means that only four people can play on the same console there, but luckily, both versions have pretty much identical online capabilities.
Few games can say they offer nearly as much content, both from the developers and from the community, in one console game. Even if wrestling is not your thing, you can get a lot of laughter out of the silly characters, cutscenes, and other gimmicks that the community cooks up. Serious fans of wrestling probably already have this game pre-ordered, but if you're not one of them, then think of this as just a fun game that has dozens of characters actually trying to hurt each other - something that the real performers don't do when you see them live. It's like a build-your-own-wrestler fighting game without health bars. (And cutscenes you create. And ridiculous custom-made costumes. And tables to throw people onto. And setting people on fire. The list goes on.) So if, like me, you can't find it in yourself to take wrestling seriously, there's a whole other level of comedy in a game like this. If you just give into the sheer entertainment value of it for a moment without worrying about how fake it is (as if there's anyone left who thinks otherwise), then there's a damn good chance that you'll have a blast.
WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 Shockmasters its way onto store shelves (just kidding about the wording, it's looking to be a great game - I just needed an excuse to link to that video again) on Xbox 360, PS2 PS3, PSP, and Wii this October 26th.