WWE is a strange form of entertainment, acting as a kind of action movie soap opera for people bored of the events in Eastenders and Emerdale. Quite how a load of beefed up men (and women), performing orchestrated moves on one another and talking smack is entertainment, I don't know, but it is. Forget the fact that it's all fake, and that your family will probably label you an idiot for watching it, and it becomes good fun. Some of the storylines are over the top in the extreme, but it's hard not to be taken in by all the feuds and general happenings inside the WWE.
SmackDown! vs. RAW 2007 then is the sports entertainment industry in video game form, and the latest in what is one of the longest running series in modern video games. This history is also the game's biggest problem though. As a series which debuted on the PlayStation (sans the vs. Raw part) the cracks are certainly starting to become more and more obvious, and while changes have been made to keep the game feeling fresh, a new engine surely can't be far off.
This year marks the series' debut on a non-PlayStation platform (Xbox owners had to make do with some pretty average WWE games in the past), with the Xbox 360 being the platform to get the honour. Differences between it and the PlayStation 2 version are largely cosmetic though, as the engine underneath it all is the same. You still get the fairly clunky feeling gameplay, stiff animation transfers and some spotty collision detection. It's certainly a game that isn't easy to get to grips with if you're new to the series, but a little practice and you'll have most of the moves down pat.
New to everyone this year, though, is a new grapple system. Grapples are now controlled entirely by using the right analogue stick, with a push up, down, left or right starting a simple grapple move on your opponent, while the same actions on a downed opponent perform a different set of moves. By holding the Right Bumper on the 360 controller or R1 on the Dual Shock and moving the right analogue stick, you'll start a strong grapple; moving the stick again will then perform a powerful move.
But that's not all. Clicking in the right stick while in a strong grapple will give you a number of options as to what move you perform, and if you're near an environment hot spot (such as the steel steps or an announcers' table) you can use the environment to cause damage. Elsewhere the gameplay is largely the same as before, with a heavy emphasis on reversals for both standard and grapple attacks. Special finishing moves can be saved for use when you see fit, and these are often shown in glorious overly dramatic WWE fashion.
There's a lot of depth to the control scheme here, but it's by no means the best it could be. You can grow to appreciate what it is, but at times you feel almost helpless as opponents continuously pummel you, and the AI of tag-team partners is ludicrously poor - which is strange considering opponent AI partners seem to do their job just fine. A rethink to the core gameplay is definitely needed, but it's by no means awful as it is, just rather dated.
Yuke's and THQ certainly don't disappoint WWE fans when it comes to content. As ever, there's a ton of match types (although the Money in the Bank match seems to be the only new match type), a lengthy Season mode, a load of Create modes, a General Manager mode, and online play. Season mode is of course where the bulk of gameplay is found, and this year it features more than 40 storylines. These largely depend on which wrestler you enter Season Mode with, and along the way you'll get to make various choices that send you down different paths. The locker room, where you're be thrown out to after each fight, lets you access emails, check out the fake WWE website, take phone messages, and, rather strangely, decorate.
The General Manager mode is improved slightly over last year's version, but not greatly, and it still feels like a mode that's been tacked on. You don't feel any connection to what you're doing (even though you can wrestle in the matches you create), and actually creating a good show, complete with feuds and rivalries is really hard, mainly due to the fact that you're limited to twenty wrestlers on your roster at any one time. The addition of writers is a nice touch, allowing you to create shows to appeal to different audiences, but the whole mode needs a serious re-think.
Online play is solid, once again letting you go online and put your belt on the line. Both versions of the game only support up to four players, which is a bit disappointing as larger online matches would have been enjoyable. The PlayStation 2 version features offline support for six players (should you own a multi-tap), but the Xbox 360 version is limited to four. Testing found lag to be minimal, making online play great fun, especially if you go to the effort to create your own character. The Xbox 360 game ties a number of achievement points to the online mode as well, so there's an extra incentive to enter the online arena.
I've already touched on the rather aged game engine, but that hasn't stopped the 360 game looking very sharp. It's clear that the game is still a port from the PlayStation 2, but wrestler models are far above the quality seen on the PlayStation 2. They really do look superb, and the next-gen favourite, sweat, makes a welcome appearance. It's only really the animation transitions and the rather last-gen hair that lets the game down visually. Audio is excellent on the whole, with plenty of voice work by the real WWE stars, although commentary outside of the Season mode soon becomes repetitive.
What's also disappointing is the lack of custom soundtrack support in the 360 Create a Wrestler mode, numerous load screens before and after matches, a slightly outdated roster of wrestlers, and some rather atrocious looking Diva models. The Create a Wrestler soundtrack omission seems bizarre, as even the old WWE games on the Xbox allowed you to use your own entrance music, and the frequent loading jolts you out of the WWE experience.
In the end, WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw 2007 is a great game for WWE fans, whether you own a PlayStation 2 or an Xbox 360. The game engine is certainly in need of a makeover, and this might be the last year THQ can offer what is more or less a slight update, but it's a fun game and something that will get more than a few hours play with some mates.