When I interviewed TNA wrestling star Kurt Angle in February about upcoming wrestling game TNA Impact!, in which he appears, he had some interesting things to say about rival series WWE Smackdown VS Raw. Here's a summary: "Smackdown's game is going to look like all the other games in the past. I've been there. I know how much effort they put behind it. For each wrestler they usually take about two-and-a-half minutes and that's it. They (Midway) have actually spent hours with wrestlers to make this happen with TNA Impact! You're going to see it's so much more authentic. It's a no brainer. We're going to win the war, definitely." Fighting talk.
Or, as THQ, publisher of the upcoming 2009 edition in the long running WWE series, tells me at their recent Gamers Day in San Francisco, "trash talking". But that's OK. This is the world of professional wrestling after all. It's all about trash talking.
But then I dig a little deeper and find that THQ, and developer Yuke's, have a little bit more to say about what will be the first genuine alternative to WWE in years. "We monitor, we see whatever they release," Mitchell Cameron, associate brand manager for WWE says over the Gamers Day din. "Whenever a new trailer comes out we're dying to see it. I know that our creative team and our developers are itching to see what comes out. We really haven't had a competitive wrestling game on the market in quite a few years. Competition is always good. Yuke's are dying to see where it puts our game."
The bell has well and truly rung and the match is under way - a match that's shaping up to be one of the most bitter video game rivalries in recent times. Fans of each show - WWE features regularly on Sky One and Sky Sports and TNA is currently on Bravo - have already come out in force to either defend or attack Angle's outspoken comments. But right now the two opponents are just circling each other, sizing each other up. The next move will be the most crucial, and Cameron isn't afraid to make it.
"He's an outspoken guy," he says. "As far as our expectations for the product, from what I've seen the visual aspect of it looks really nice, but our game's been around for so long that the depth of the game, I mean we're adding on it over and over, it's like layer over layer, tonnes (30) of different match types, that I don't believe they'll be able to match us this year."
While it's easy to get wrapped up in the TNA! VS WWE video game face-off, since it's just as strangely compelling to watch as semi-naked grown men who pretend to knock lumps out of each other, I'm here to find out whether the next WWE game will be any good. Tom thought last year's effort felt dated, and gave it a disappointing six out of 10. So, the pressure's on this time around to turn the series around. What's Yuke's got up its sleeve?
2009's big hook will be tag team battles. While hands-on wasn't available at Gamers Day an extended trailer showing off the tag team fighting was. Tag team fights have, of course, always been in WWE games, but this time it's different. This time you'll be able to play the story mode as one of two as well as off the cuff matches, and your options as part of a team match have been expanded, too. Now it's more than simply a case of waiting by the ropes for your turn in the ring. There will be special tag team moves and spectacular tag team finishers, you'll be able to hold your opponent against the ropes from behind, jump in at the last minute to stop pins, distract the ref and even pump up the crowd. Hot tags, when a wrestler who's being pounded into oblivion crawls to the ropes and just about manages to touch the fingertips of his partner, who then steams in and beats the living crap out of everyone, are designed to allow drastic changes in momentum and dramatic back from the brink moments. Everything you see when there's more than two wrestlers in a match on the TV show, you'll be able to do in the game. And it actually sounds quite fun.
SVR09's other headline feature is the create a finisher mode, where you'll be able to make your own move by incorporating bits of all the moves in the game. In this mode, a wire frame image on the right of the screen shows you what the move will look like, and on the left you have a list of all the moves in the game, from which you can string together 10 parts to form your custom finisher. Whenever you chose one part, the game opens up a sub set of moves that can follow on from that, ensuring there shouldn't be too much wasted time. You can change the speed type, integrate taunts, name it and apply it to your own superstar or any of the pre-existing ones. And, once you've done that, you'll be able to take them online so you can lay down the smackdown with moves opponents will never have seen before.
Without getting our sweaty hands on with Smackdown VS Raw 2009, we have no way of knowing if the animations have improved, or whether the clunky combat has been tweaked. The WWE games have always been hard to get into if you're new to the series, so we don't know whether any moves have been made in this area either. These all important questions, as well as others (the final roster is still unconfirmed - "we've a lot of stuff we're keeping back" says Cameron"), will have to wait to be answered. But we do know that the pressure is on Yuke's to deliver, especially now that TNA Impact! is on the scene.
Does Yuke's feel any added pressure "Sure!" says Cameron. "You know we passed your article around our office, we've got that printed out and hung up with paper-clips. Just because, Kurt Angle was... I mean he was talking trash! We put it on the wall and it's like, let's look at this, this is motivation for us! He's a competitor in the field, we're taking notice of what he's got to say and we're going to try to respond in our game. We threw that around!"
Has Kurt's comments bothered the development team? "We welcome the competition," says Cameron. "We're very curious to see the product, I'm dying to play it myself just to see how their game stacks up. Hopefully it will raise our game! Hopefully it will be inferior so we'll be OK, but whatever they bring to the table will help push us."
Soon enough we'll see just how much this competition has helped the game.