To anyone that likes to think human society has refined itself since the renaissance era, I present wresting. The 'entertainment sport' is the finest example of the modern day circus, with impossibly-sized men strutting around with a knowing wink and smile, ceaseless theatrics and giant widescreen tellies as the stage. There's plenty of money to be made here and, like the proverbial Golden Goose, THQ's annual tie-in video game Smackdown Vs Raw keeps laying lucrative eggs.
Now on its millionth instalment, 2011's update comes complete with an entirely new physics engine that allows tables to ruggedly collapse into lots of chunky bits. Ladders can be propped up against drooping ropes and - while nobody really wanted it, though it's nice to see it anyway - chairs can finally be flung at other players.
The most significant changes come from when you step outside the ring, however. Wrestling has always been about absorbing yourself into its pantomime spectacle, the feuds and rivalries of its rotating cast and the long-running soap opera of a make believe universe where friendship, love and rivalry are sorted out by not wearing a lot of clothes, getting really sweaty and pretending to clothesline each other.
To incorporate all that we have this year's Road to Wrestlemania, which plops your chosen superstar (provided your favourite superstar is either Undertaker, Christian, John Cena, Rey Mysterio or Chris Jericho) into a third-person WWE backstage. You can bicker with your wrestling amigos, check out some mini-games or boost your stats by pumping ginormous weights in the gym. Alliances and rivalries are quickly formed and broken, and interactive cutscenes frequently let you choose which specific gaudy wrestler, from a selection of gaudy wrestlers, you fancy elbow dropping.
It's hardly Dragon Age, but the infusion of RPG elements to Road to Wrestlemania helps forge (or further) a bond between you and your chosen wrestler. That's essentially what the WWE is all about, after all.
Complementing Road to Wrestlemania is WWE Universe, a compound of former Exhibition and Career modes. This generates endless reams of pre-selected matches for you to grapple through, tweaking alliances and rivalries in the background depending on the results. It's completely adaptable, allowing you to fiddle with the game's selection whenever you want - doing so will cause it to remember your favourite choices and make sure they're more likely to turn up in the future, too.
It's hard to gauge the overall success of Universe without playing it for a lengthy amount of time, but it's already clear to see the mode does an excellent job of opening your eyes to characters you might not normally use. If you're really not interested in a certain fixture, though, each match can be simulated with a tap of a button until something that takes your fancy pops up. Its success hinges on how complex its web of pairings and rivalries can become over time, but the potential is huge and the theory behind the mode is already more interesting than the bland calendar-style of games like Fight Night and UFC.
Universe also seamlessly adapts for single or online play. Your 'Online Axxess' code (free with all new copies of the game) gets you access to, amongst the familiar modes, online Royal Rumbles for the very first time. The selection of matches, as always, is extensive: the main menu gives you an option to dip into Normal brawls, Inferno, First Blood, Hell in a Cell, Iron Man, Ladder, Last Man Standing, Submission, Steel Cage, Table, TLC, Backstage and Extreme Rules. That's not even including all the multiplayer modes, such as Tag.
THQ is clearly having a pretty extensive attempt at capturing the world outside of the ring, then, but it's worth remembering the bulk of the action will always happen inside the ropes. Here the changes are less extensive, offering up the familiar clash of excellent and ropey.
Animations seem lumpy and stilled, for instance, with the series' familiar patchwork progression from one move to another. And the more powerful moves, as always, feel like they're lacking in any weight or power. It's a bit of a shame that, while these superstars spend years practicing the look of physical pain, the game still makes it seem like colliding with a table is something easily brushed off with a deep breath and a few seconds lying on the floor.
One of the problems is the engine, which remains (as always) in desperate need of a hefty update. This will never happen while THQ is going out of its way to support the PS2, but compare Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 to the likes of MMA and its age becomes more painfully noticeable every single year. THQ is doing a decent job with what it has, employing some decent character and stage modelling, but the current engine surely cannot go on much longer.
Still, Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 effectively shows that THQ has plenty of ideas left for its long-running annual franchise; they're not going to stop until they've created a digital recreation of the entire WWE, and this looks like a good first step in significantly capturing the staged feuds and backside antics that make up so much of the franchise. All we need now is to have a mode where a once-famous star grows old disgracefully and tries to stay in the ring for far longer than he should - roll on 2012.