Ah, professional wrestling - one true bastion of bona fide sporting competition, full of battles of epic proportions, the absolute purest form of gladiatorial combat this side of Caesar's Rome... oops, wait - Professional Wrestling you say? Ah, the multi-million dollar sports-entertainment-come-soap-opera. Yuke's Smackdown! series has been held in high regard ever since the first game was released way back in 2000, and Smackdown! vs Raw - the sixth in the series - has kept wrestling fans waiting with baited breath for yet another version of the 'best western wrestling game available'. The mandatory improvements were announced and people were happy. The game is now out, but it would seem the mandatory improvements don't do exactly what they say on the tin.
Smackdown! vs Raw is a good game - a very good game. The modified grappling engine, that Yuke's introduced in the preceding Here Comes The Pain, is present once more and has been left almost totally unchanged, save for a couple of very small adjustments - strong grapples take longer to execute, for example. So far, so good. A number of the new additions work very well, and in most cases add small touches here and there to make the game more like the total package it aspires to be; 'stare downs' (whereby the competitors... well... stare at each other) work very well, as players wait until a prompt appears on screen to strike the opponent. Whoever presses first gains the upper hand. Another mini-game, present on the opening of some matches, involves pressing the correct button indicated by an on-screen prompt, with whoever wins two out of three rounds gaining the advantage. The third and probably best of the pre-match mini games is a chopping battle, which employs a meter akin to golf games - a press to set the power and a press to set the accuracy. Three successful slaps in a row and you win it. The games are short enough to not be intrusive and add random factors along with elements of skill to proceedings.
One of the bigger additions to the game comes in the form of the dirty/clean meter, a bar that fills up according to how your combatant fights their matches. Opt for the clean option and actions such as refusing to submit, executing high-flying manoeuvres, or taunting an opponent will fill the gauge. When it tops out, the player is granted temporary invincibility and has much more powerful attacks. If, like myself, you opt for the dirty option, actions like arguing with the referee, using weapons or poking an opponent in the eyes, will fill up the naughty bar - satisfying the necessary quota of bad behaviour results in a number of super-powerful underhand tactics to be deployed, including a particularly crunching low blow. The addition of these meters makes for an interesting strategic angle, and definitely helps establish a more realistic air to the characters in the game, with whichever method you decide to adopt defining how the match will be played out. Another addition is a ring-out meter for the Royal Rumble matches, which basically means wrestlers don't immediately get eliminated if they are whipped into the ropes (as they did in previous incarnations). Instead, they remain on the outside apron until the bar is emptied by attacks or grapples. Unfortunately this meter ranks amongst the 'not-so-good' additions to the game, as though it does work, it feels clumsy - and as for aesthetic value, the extra meters plastered over the screen do nothing but clutter it up.
The remainder of the extras are, unfortunately, much poorer. In-match commentary by the correct WWE announcers adds a great deal of nothing to a bout, with many, many phrases being repeated numerous times in just one game. Yuke's obviously didn't learn their lesson from the prequels Just Bring It, or Shut Your Mouth. The commentary is horrible. Turning it off is highly recommended. As well as commentary, Smackdown! vs Raw includes speech from just about every real-life wrestler included in the game, which is meant to heighten the atmosphere in the season mode. Instead, it just proves that wrestlers are - much as they wouldn't want to admit it - very bad actors (bar the odd one or two, with Chris Jericho being a standout example). Most of the vocals come across as completely lifeless and do nothing but take up disc space - another waste of time on Yuke's part.
As we're on the subject of audio, special mention must go to the music, which is - to be fair - insultingly bad. In past iterations of the game the music has been acceptably poor, being original compositions. The fact that the latest title features licensed tracks that are actually worse than the already poor tracks of old is abysmal. So turn off the commentary, vocals and music. Nice. So much disc space has been wasted on these needless and downright bad additions that a large number of selectable characters have had to be removed. It is possible to appreciate what Yuke's have tried to do, but they really have failed in these respects.
One thing that wrestling fans have been calling out for is an online mode so they could take their battles online - fortunately Yuke's is a company that listens to its fans and they have duly implemented the requested modes for worldwide competition. But just like so many elements in this game, it falls flat on its face. The choice of modes available amounts to a gigantic two - a one-on-one or a bra and panties match. Lag is acceptable, though sometimes it does manifest itself quite heavily, connectivity is reliable, but the choice of either-or is ridiculously poor, as if the whole online mode was made on a lazy afternoon, with no real work put into it.
With all the poor additions it could be thought that Smackdown! vs Raw is lacking in quality. It isn't. The core experience is the same as it has ever been, with a solid engine and extensive selection of match types (offline, at least). The season mode has taken a dip in quality since the last game, with a lot of storylines rather embarrassingly attempting to appeal to the 14-year-old demographic, with 'sexy divas' who come onto the player's character, but the mode is still well worth playing through, featuring the usual branching storylines and character feud development. The create-a-superstar mode, another mainstay of the series, has once again been made much more in-depth and intuitive to use, resulting in many thousands of possible combinations. For some unknown reason the create-an-animation mode has been axed, but in its place is both a create a PPV (that's pay-per view, or main event to the uninitiated) and create a belt. Both are interesting additions, and whilst they don't radically alter the game they do add a few nice touches.
Overall, Smackdown! vs Raw is a very enjoyable game, but one cannot help but feel a rather strong feeling of disappointment with regards to the updates, most of which are simply poor. The core of the game is as reliable as ever, with the look of the game taking a step up - possibly being the best looking wrestling game on any system at the moment. The quality of this four-year series has always been high, bar a few hiccups, but unfortunately this is one of those hiccups. Not bad by a long shot, but not the improvement it should have been.