WWE Smackdown! vs. RAW 2006 is the inevitable follow-up to last year's WWE Smackdown! vs. RAW, and while the 'yearly rehash' alarm bells might be ringing in your head, they needn't be. Rather than simply throwing out last year's game with an updated roster, THQ and Yukes have added plenty of new content and improved most areas of the game, making Smackdown! vs. RAW 2006 one of the best wrestling titles to be released in quite some time.
For the most part the game plays like any other Yukes wrestling title on the PlayStation 2. If you didn't like the previous games, then you're probably not going to be a huge fan of this either, despite the changes that have been made. The grapple system has been shaken up a little, with each wrestler having four of the seven available grapples, and a heel or face grapple (heel and face are wrestling terms for bad guys and good guys) The biggest changes, though, come through the Stamina and Momentum bars. Stamina is affected by taking a beating and being on the end of or pulling off big movies, while Momentum depends on the type of match you are in.
How you manage these two metres plays a large role in the outcome of the match, with careful attention to each being vital. It's often necessary to take short rests to recharge your stamina, for example, but if you're not exciting the crowd they'll start to boo and your momentum will drop. With the ability to pull off a finisher directly tied to your Momentum metre, the importance of keeping this high is obvious. A number of smaller changes have also been made that all help make this easily the best playing wrestling game on the PlayStation 2. You'll still notice collision detection problems and you don't feel in control as much as you'd like, but these are only issues that hurt the experience in the short term.
Aside from actual gameplay mechanics the match types on offer are always an important part to any wrestling game. Smackdown! vs. RAW 2006 has gone to town in this regard, with hell-in-a-cell matches, table matches, TLC matches and many more. An awful lot of these have been improved considerably since the last game as well and now offer a far more authentic experience. The Ladder matches in particular are a lot more fun to play than in last year's game.
'Brand new to the series are fulfil your fantasy matches and buried alive matches.'
Brand new to the series are fulfil your fantasy matches and buried alive matches. If you've watched WWE for any amount of time you may well have seen the ridiculous scenarios they conjure up to get the female wrestlers (WWE Divas, to give them their proper name) in nothing but their bras and panties. Fulfil your fantasy matches are essentially the same as bra and panty matches, with the goal being to pull the clothes off of the opponent, with the fantasy coming from you dressing them in the first place. The buried alive matches are far more entertaining, and add to the already impressive roster of match types.
Lone players will be pleased to hear that the Season mode is far more impressive in this year's game. RAW and Smackdown! Superstars have their own storyline to play through, plus on occasion the story will play out differently depending on your chosen wrestler (although it was hard to pin down why this was happening). Everyone in the game is voiced by their real life counterpart and it all sounds great. Even your custom character can use one of five voices, and doesn't sound at all out of place. It's a shame that there's no branching storyline, but you can definitely play through at least twice with a substantially different experience.
Online play was somewhat of a throwaway feature in the previous game, but it's been improved no end here. Four people can fight together, either in friendly matches or for title belts. Virtually every kind of match can be played online and lag is also minimal if you get in with a good group of players. Stats are all tracked too, and stats like the number of disconnects a player has had during his time online help you see who is worth fighting. There's even a lobby set up to allow players to trade custom made wrestlers. It's still not perfect though, as there is no friends list and players are finding ways to cheaply win fights.
A brand new addition this year is the General Manager mode. Anyone who watches WWE will know that these guys 'run' each show, deciding who's fighting who and generally resolving disputes between wrestlers (although they are often part of the cause). In the game you attempt to run a successful show, signing superstars to fight and doing your best to set up matches that will please the crowd. It's a great idea for a game mode, and something that will probably be great in the years to come, but at the moment it isn't quite good enough to keep you entertained for all that long. The whole mode is predominantly menu based and it's often too hard to get your rookies to be loved by the crowd, meaning you'll soon get tired with what it offers.
From a presentation point of view, there's very little to complain about. Last year's game was already quite impressive visually, but the 2006 version captures the TV presentation feel perfectly. The wrestlers themselves are well modelled and have that sweaty sheen that all wrestlers have. All voice the voice work is, as already mentioned, pretty great, and the commentators also do a good job at describing the action. The soundtrack features the tracks you'll recognise from the show, and the whole package just oozes great attention to detail. It's easily one of the most authentic wrestling games ever made.
WWE Smackdown! vs. RAW 2006 is a great improvement over last year's game. It packs in a ton of features and game modes, improved core gameplay and a substantially better online experience. The General Manager mode doesn't work as well as it could, but as a bonus game mode, it's more than good enough and shows great promise for future games. If you indulge in a little Sports Entertainment now and again, Smackdown! vs. RAW 2006 ought to be in your collection.