Another year, another WWE game from THQ. They arrive like clockwork and despite their big build up prior to release, more often than not the game we get is nothing more than a slightly tweaked version of the previous year's effort. WWE Smackdown! Vs RAW, more than any other franchise out there, really needs a reboot, with the team at Yuke's seemingly being stuck in a rut. Sadly that isn't what we got, so this year's game is likely only to appeal to long-time hardcore fans, as the series' persistent problems remain.
With things largely as they were, it's only right that I point out what has changed. Of most significance is the introduction of eight fighting styles, which essentially groups the WWE Superstars. They are each pretty self explanatory, but worth detailing so you know what you're getting. Powerhouse wrestlers can perform stronger attacks, Dirty wrestlers can cheat, Brawlers can get down and dirty on the mat, Showmen can get the crowd going in order to gain stamina, and so on.
Also new is the way the right analogue stick can be used to manually control the pressure in submission moves. Both the offensive and defensive player can use the right stick to apply pressure or to counter the pressure, and it makes for a decent little mini-game of sorts that plays out during a match. It's not so revolutionary that you absolutely must rush out and buy the game, but it's a nice addition, especially if you've been playing the series for a long time.
The roster has obviously also seen some changes, most notably by the inclusion of ECW for the first time. ECW fans will be thrilled, but whether as a side effect or simply down to lack of resources, the actual number of wrestlers (RAW, Smackdown!, Divas and ECW combined) is down on last year's game. It's a strange one, considering the roster is seen as one of the most important aspects to the game by hardcore fans, and will likely leave more than a few gamers a little disappointed.
Season mode, the core game mode of the previous games, and the relatively new General Manager mode have been combined into what is now called 24/7. Here you can either guide a WWE Superstar (existing or user created) through a career, eventually reaching the lofty heights of a Legend - hoping that Legend Killer Randy Orton doesn't ruin your party. The manager portion sees you organising matches and trying to please the crowds with interesting storylines, but it's simply not as engaging to play as the standard career mode.
Xbox 360 gamers can even add their own music to their custom wrestlers' introductions. It's a nice touch but we couldn't figure out how to choose individual tracks from our albums stored on the Xbox 360, which meant only the first track in each was chosen. Odd, but some truly original and amusing entrances were still achievable. The usual array of WWE Superstar creation options are available, with perhaps a little too much detail for the Divas (I'm not sure allowing us to add body hair was a wise move) and the only real negatives are the inability to add your own entrance videos.
Visually the game looks great, when it's not being played. The wrestler models are incredibly good, but the animation when they're in the ring is verging on dire. Given the quality of animation we're seeing in other sports games, the clunky, robot-like motion of these guys in the ring is laughable. This is something THQ and Yuke's need to get sorted as it can't go on throughout this generation of titles.
The game mechanics also feel decidedly fiddly, with novices unlikely to get to grips with things until they've had some time with the game. Considering WWE has such a young audience the game's awkwardness is sure to put a large portion of potential gamers off, as is the often stupid AI and horribly bad loading times that crop up before and after each part of a match. Online play and numerous game modes for offline multiplayer are good, but it's not enough to push the game into great territory.
In the end, WWE Smackdown! Vs RAW 2008 will sell regardless of its quality, but it's not going to get many newcomers if the series continues to stagnate in what can only be described as last-gen gameplay in new-gen clothes. It's a reviewing cliché, but this is one for hardcore fans only.