WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 Review
In every article I write about wrestling games, I always introduce the idea of a non-fan having fun with one of these games through a sheer biwilderment at the subculture, respect for the huge amount of content, and visceral fun of hitting someone in the stomach with a ladder. It's a strange thing too, because real wrestling superstars aren't actually trying to hurt each other, despite putting their careers and health on the line with dangerous and high-flying moves, but in video games, those same characters throw out all vestiges of safety and are really trying to do damage. It's kind of weird that the video games almost represent what wrestling fans want more than the real thing does.
There's a balance that the WWE has had to follow, one that showed a fragility in their best guys, but a longevity that has been the hallmark of nearly every legendary star of the organization. But the video games go a different route, it seems. Here, the superstars are more expendable, they get hurt for "real", and all those little things wrestlers do to protect themselves from injury are gone in the superstars' animations. It almost augments the experience, as if the wrestling we see on TV asks us to use our imaginations even more than the video games do.
WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 will wow you with the amount of new content seen over last year's installment, but the fun gets sapped out a bit by the core issues that a development team simply can't iterate their way through in a year's time. New features abound, though: from the new My WWE mode to the online Battle Royale system, from the new create options to the raised (or removed) limits on how you can use them, fans who love to make their own wrestlers and pair them up against the WWE's biggest stars will have plenty to enjoy this year.
Some changes made this year are small when it comes to designing and programming them, but have had pretty big impacts. For example, the fighting game-style character select screen is much more intuitive than that scrolling behemoth that was so annoying to navigate in years past. Additionally, you can now fiddle with the rules of matches to a pretty ridiculous degree, allowing your own special matches to percolate into several modes. In the create-a-story mode, you'll also have more freedom to include your own created characters, put them into branching storylines, and then share and rate them online (now with a rating system that thankfully has even more granularity). And on top of that, the game just looks better this year, with an even larger crowd and better textures and animations for the wrestlers.
The only place that the game starts to fall apart, unfortunately, is in one of the most important elements of the game: the wrestling. You'll not only have to learn your superstar's repertoire of moves along with the timing required to unleash them for maximum effect, but you'll also have to figure out how the game wants to allow you to unleash them - and on what opponent. Clipping and collision issues have built up over the years, and while they're not totally awful or anything, the increased quality of everything else is making these problems stand out like a sore thumb. Sure, the developers at Yuke's have introduced a new physics system, but it's still not really enough to make the superstars seem real in motion all of the time. Screenshots and portraits make them look great, but when you see a downed wrestler magically sliding across the ring towards the middle just to accommodate some ring-spanning move that requires the victim to be closer to the center, you'll know what I mean.
And it's not wrestling without a few chairs, tables, and ladders to crush people with (or on), but these items often make the physics look even more strange. Then put a few wrestlers into the ring at once, and we've got some really wonky physics, targeting, and rules for who can hit who with what and at what point. I don't pretend to have an answer to these issues - it is a hell of a lot more difficult doing all this compared to today's resurged 2D fighting game mechanics - but there's got to be a better way.
It is possible that this "generation" of wrestling games is coming to a point where they won't improve much more until a company (whether it's Yuke's or not) revolutionizes the way they look and feel. Maybe there's another year or two more still left in this team at this rate - and with publisher THQ - but at some point I think it's important for them to jump off of the yearly cycle, look at the more deep-seated problems with their game, and make sure they're going in the right direction. There's an opportunity here to make a wrestling game that's more realistic and possibly more compelling than the actual shows that it's all based on, but I doubt it'll be easy - or even possible - for any developer to accomplish that when they're constantly having to deal with shipping a game every October.
Despite all that, wrestling fans have a lot to look forward to with this year's iteration. There are a ton of new features as well as dozens of little changes that tweak the formula further and get that much closer to perfecting everything the SvR series has tried to do over the years. That doesn't mean it's perfect, though, and this game is still made almost entirely for fans of wrestling - almost entirely without regard to the rest of the gaming world. I don't know if a game that tries to satisfy both groups will be better than what we have now, and at some point, THQ and Yuke's should take a step back and re-evaluate. But not this year. This year, I'm determined to defeat the Undertaker in Road to Wrestlemania mode.