For years Yuke's Future Media Creators, the wonderfully named Yokohama developer of the hugely popular WWE SmackDown VS Raw series, has had it easy. Without any serious competition it has been able to pump out annual updates of the franchise with glorious abandon. But now things have changed. A new competitor has entered the ring. And that competitor is TNA Impact!.
And so the gloves are off. Strangely this November, when SmackDown VS Raw 09 is unleashed upon gaming wrestling fans across the world, it won't be the first new wrestling game of the year. TNA Impact!, due out a month earlier, will have already landed a suplex.
So what's WWE's response going to be? We jumped on a plane, toiled and turned for 12 hours, coached it from Tokyo to Yokohama and entered the hallowed halls of Yuke's' HQ to find out exclusively from the horse's mouth. The temperature is rising and the pressure is most definitely on.
"This is our 10th SmackDown title," explains Hiromi Furuta, senior vice president of Yuke's. "And we're very proud of it." Have there really been that many? Wow. Furuta-san's welcoming us as tech guys establish a live video link with Bryan Williams, creative manager of the series, thousands of miles away in the US. He begins to talk us through the Wii version of the game as it's being played by a Japanese member of the Yuke's team only a few feet from where we sit. We haven't got time to ponder this uniquely modern set up - Randy Orton and Triple H appear on screen and we're about to see an interactive entrance, the best new exclusive feature the Wii version of WWESDVR09's got.
It works like this. As your superstar makes his way towards the ring a countdown appears on screen along with up to six Wii Remote/Nunchuck choices. Each choice has three interactive points where you'll need to move the Wii Remote and Nunchuck in various directions and with perfect timing. Nail it and The Undertaker, for example, will roll his eyes up into his head - one interactive point - and then remove his hat - another - revealing the shocking Phenom in all his glory.
With good timing you'll complete the interactive entrance and fill up your momentum meter in advance of the fight itself - getting your wrestler pumped before the bell rings. When the momentum metre is full it flashes - that's your cue to press the C button to trigger the On Fire state. This opens up spectacular, slow motion signature moves, like The Undertaker's Old School (Arm twist rope walk chop) into a Tombstone or Jeff Hardy's Twist of Fate into the Swanton Bomb. You'll need to be quick though. Whenever you're not pummelling your opponent his health bar will increase and your momentum will decrease. The interactivity doesn't stop there. Once you've made a mockery of your feeble opponent and won the match, you've got interactive victory scenes to mess about with too. You can fake a handshake with the referee and then clothesline him instead (always fun) or pick up tables and start causing havoc (even more fun), among other options.
We see Mr Kennedy and Chris Jericho battle it out in a ladder match, a game mode not in the previous title. Mr Kennedy's interactive entrance sees him pull a microphone down from the roof of the arena and announce himself, as he does in real life. The A button picks up the ladder as well as grapples. The ladder is used for much more than simply climbing up towards the belt. You can place it in the corner of the ring and slam your opponent onto the cold metal. And, as you'd expect, you'll be able to push the ladder over when your opponent's at the top, switching the camera to a birds eye view so you can see him crash to the floor outside the ring. Grab the belt yourself (via a mini game) and you've won. And, of course, you'll be able to use the Wii Remote and Nunchuck to lift it in celebration.
Now it's on to Triple H and Jeff Hardy in a steel cage match. Triple H's interactive entrances include his now trademark water spitting. Jeff Hardy waves his arms about like a nut case. To climb the cage and escape you'll need to time movement of the Wii Remote and Nunchuck as if you were using your hands to pull yourself up. You can even slam the opened cage door repeatedly on your opponent's head, an attack not in the last game, with thrusts of the Wii Remote. Nice.
SDVRAW09 looks great for a Wii game. The quality of the wrestlers' faces is particularly good. The crowds, perhaps inevitably, look blocky and have that classic card board cut out feel to them, but you'll spend most of your time eyeing up the lovely looking wrestlers so it won't be too much of an issue for most. Unfortunately though, the Inferno match type which has been added to the next-gen versions of the game don't make it, but, like we said, the Wii version gets the interactive entrances exclusively.
Speaking of the interactive entrances, correct timing of Wii Remote and Nunchuck movement is difficult because there's no indication of when you're supposed to flick. But, in principle, we like it. Overall, it's a fun way of making what would normally be a boring part of the WWE experience a lot more interesting.
The innovations aren't reserved for the Wii of course. The 360 and PS3 versions have been given a generous splattering of tweaks, changes and updates. One of these is the Create a Finisher mode, a feature fans, we're told, have been asking for for years, going all the way back to the PlayStation One titles (remember that wrestling fanatics?). In this mode you'll see two faceless wrestlers, one green, one red, with which you'll be able to preview up to 10 linked moves from the game's extensive move list in real time. After you've selected a move to begin your finisher with, the game will automatically remove the moves that can't follow, making it an easy and quick process to play around with. Our demo signature finishing move begins with a knee thrust (flipped horizontally), goes into a grapple, then an Argentine clutch, an Argentine Backbreaker, then a taunt. Step five is a reverse DDT clutch, then a twist into the big finish - an old school DDT impact. You can adjust the speed of any part of the finisher and, when you come to name it, select from the pre-set finishers or come up with something yourself. And, even better, the created finisher will, we're told, be supported by in-game commentary.
By far the best thing about the create a finisher mode is the ability to import the finisher into an established superstar's move set and take it online. Our created finisher, called the FUJIYAMA, was added to John Cena's move set. When we see him perform it on arch rival Randy Orton we feel an enormous sense of pride. Expect to be able to create and save up to 30 of these bad boys in the final game.
Also new to the next-gen versions in the Inferno match, which sees walls of fire that surround the ring and prevent your escape (it's modelled on a video of a 2006 Armageddon match). Bryan says Inferno is "probably one of the most requested match types" from fans. Here, brutally, the winner is the first wrestler to burn their opponent. But to do that you'll need to raise the intensity of the flames to 200 degrees (there's a thermometer on the bottom left corner of the screen), and to do that you need to perform plenty of high impact moves or a finisher, which automatically fills the temperature gauge. Then all that's left to do is grapple and push your opponent into the flames, triggering a button mash mini-game to force your opponent's face into the fire.
SDVRAW09's most eye catching new feature, however, is the new, completely built from scratch tag team mode. Here each team has a shared momentum meter - as Bryan explains: "We're doing well together or we're doing badly together." To show it off we see the Hardy Boys go up against Randy Orton and Mr Kennedy. There are roughly 45 new double team grapple moves in the game. The illegal man can now grapple from behind the ropes - "the illegal man is just as important as the legal man" says Bryan. Orton, the devious devil, trips from behind the ropes. You can strangle, hold, distract the ref, pretty much anything you've seen in a tag team match you can do in the game. You can even force tag yourself in, which should make online multiplayer games a pleasant experience. You'll also be able to pump up the crowd, filling your momentum meter until you trigger a Hot Tag - you'll come steaming into the ring and decimate everyone in sight with QTE attacks.
Compared with TNA Impact! WWESDVRAW09 plays a very different game. Where TNA Impact! is quick and zippy with an emphasis on reversals and counters, SDVRAW09 is a more considered experience, with slower play based on grappling and high impact moves. The graphics are certainly improved, and, like in TNA Impact!, the wrestler models are incredibly detailed (each is made up of around 20,000 polygons). We're shown an actual photograph of hulking brute Batista next to the in-game model, and it's hard to tell which one is which. Each arena takes up to three weeks to create. For all you technophiles out there, the game's RAW arena is made up of an astonishing 60,000 polygons. Everything from neck ties to jacket hems now move about dynamically in 3D independent of other items. We're shown a skirt clothing part (there are 7,000 parts for customisation, 100 of which are brand new), used for customising divas, now flowing about realistically where before it was simply pasted onto skin.
Will SDVRAW09 fend off the TNA Impact! assault? We'll find out this November. From our time in Japan, however, we're convinced that Yuke's won't be beaten on effort. Looks like the inevitable VERSUS feature will be an interesting one indeed.
WWE SmackDown VS Raw 2009 is due out this November for PS2, PS3, PSP, Wii, DS and Xbox 360.