Review: WWE SmackDown vs Raw 2011

Being my first foray into the virtual wrestling ring since the awful 2008 TNA iMPACT! game, and my first game from the SmackDown vs Raw series this generation (with my last being back in 2007, on the PSP), this title had a fair bit of hype in my own mind as the one that gets me back into the wrestling genre. Has it?

First off, I need to clarify something that I didn’t mention above, and that’s that I’ve actually played the 2010 edition briefly at friends’ places, so the new generation control systems weren’t entirely alien to me starting out. The system’s pretty much as-is from last year, with very little changed, save for a few grapple tweaks, such as turnbuckle positioning (having to manually place your opponent on the top turnbuckle for a Superplex, or in the Tree of Woe position) and a few of the quick grapples linking in with each other.

While I’d regularly play last year’s game at my friends’, we had a load of created wrestlers and our own little mini-franchise going, with spreadsheets of rankings, rivalries and so on, to keep tabs on who needed to face who. Thankfully, WWE Universe now takes that responsibility into its own hands. Universe acts primarily as a pseudo-combination of the Season mode from the earlier games in the series, and the now-defunct General Manager mode. The event calendar stays largely consistent to real life, with the 4 weeks of TV and ending the month with a Pay-Per-View format that we’re all used to at this point, and the event cards are generated on-the-fly based on rankings and rivalries.

You can manually change tag team assignments, rivalries, or even champions (though somehow, not the rankings themselves), as well as re-assign wrestlers to different shows, since the roster is always split into the titular two brands. You can play as many or as little of these generated match-ups as you want, or change the card to fit your choosing, but you cannot change pre-billed #1 Contender matches, or Title Matches, otherwise their significance to the rankings will be deemed null. The whole package comes together well, with match commentators passing remarks about big events scheduled for later, in-match rivalries, even pre-scripted events like match interference, pre-match assaults, and other such happenings that you’d expect to see on your TV.

The meat of what’s considered “solid-state storylines” in the game come in the form of the Road to WrestleMania, the biggest event in the WWE calendar. There are 5 of these stories to choose from, based around particular wrestlers, namely John Cena, the Undertaker, Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho and Christian. You control your chosen character backstage and can interact with others around you, picking fights and forming alliances, before heading down to the ring to get the job done. While most of the backstage fights seem to serve no purpose other than to be a distraction and a cheap stat-point booster, the main guts of the stories are well-written and executed, although a little more effort from the wrestlers providing the voiceovers could certainly have helped, some of their lines really lacked the conviction that you’re used to hearing on TV, and just seemed to fall flat.

Gameplay-wise, it’s pretty solid. This year sees the addition of the Inferno Match, where the goal is to set your opponent on fire in a ring surrounded by flames (Extreme, I know). The Royal Rumble returns with the same elimination mechanisms from last year, and both the Hell in a Cell and TLC matches have seen a revamp, with a wider gap between the cell wall and the ring – enabling access to weapons stowed underneath the ring – as well as the ring steps, and the removal of the cell door, meaning the only way to leave is to send your opponent through one of the side panels via a new area-specific finisher. The area-specific finishers also appear in TLC matches, with special moves performed with both wrestlers on top of a ladder. Other TLC improvements have been made, such as upgrades to the physics engine, allowing for more realistic occurrences of tables breaking. For example, slam him to one side of the table instead of dead centre, and there’s a good chance the legs will buckle, rather than make the clean break that’s usually needed to win Table matches. Wrestlers better react with grounded weapons also, with regular grapples, slams and suplexes being performed on top of grounded weapons doling out additional damage and reactionary animations that sell the moves well.

On the whole, it’s a pretty complete title for someone who hasn’t picked up the series in a while, but if you own last year’s edition, there may not be enough here to convince you that this latest entry in the SmackDown vs Raw series is an essential purchase. Universe mode will have its moments, and the Road to WrestleMania stories are well written, but if you’re waiting for that one wrestling game in the series – that No Mercy or Here Comes The Pain – that’ll totally blow you away all over again, this isn’t it.

Developer: THQ/Yuke’s

Genre: Wrestling, sports entertainment, whatever the WWE’s been marketing itself as these days.

Time: Again, being a sports game, its time is whatever you wish to sink into it. That being said, each of the Roads to WrestleMania I’ve done so far have taken me a day to go through, so there’s that, and however long you wish to tinker around in the Create modes, or play in either Online or the Universe.

Gripes: Difficulty seems to be at far ends of the spectrum to each other, with Normal being too easy at times and Hard being frustrating with the CPU continuously reversing your moves. Some of the commentary is also off, with my testing of the Hell In A Cell in a one-on-one match being called a tag team match by Michael Cole, as well as a few miscalled moves that escape me at the moment.

Additional comment: While there’s inevitably going to be roster complaints with since-released wrestlers still included, and active wrestlers not, the rosters were finalised for development somewhere around the time of the WrestleMania and Backlash pay-per-views last year (~March/April) so I guess some slack has to be given to the developers for this. After all, they’re not going to have the foresight to include new signings from rival companies or free agents, or have no say in creative or contractual decisions with the WWE themselves, so they have to be given a little bit of leeway for this. If it’s one consolation, at least released wrestlers were still included and not scrapped completely, right?

Get it for the: Procedurally generated stories in Universe, or if you happen to be a fan of wrestling in general.

By James Henderson

James grew up with a Commodore 64 at the tender age of 3, and has practically had a controller of some description stapled to his hands ever since. He also enjoys watching sports in his spare time, which makes him PXOD's de facto sports guy. He's been with Press X Or Die since June 2010.