WWE SmackDown vs RAW 2008
The WWE doesn’t need any more bad press at the moment. The Benoit tragedy, numerous government investigations and serious allegations of steroid abuse have all done their bit to chip away at wrestling’s already rather fragile reputation. And with the McMahon corporation promoting ever more contentious storylines, it seems that little is being done to raise the profile of the business. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see that THQ and developer Yuke’s are collectively doing their bit to improve and restore wrestling’s good name in the world of videogames. Not that the SmackDown franchise isn’t used to bearing the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune itself. Last year’s game attracted a fair amount of criticism for its revised controls, bewildering stamina system and reliance on battering buttons clean off the pad in order to get up from the mat. So, regardless of World Wrestling Entertainment proving to be a particularly rabid monkey on its back, this year’s iteration (and PS3 debut, lest we forget) needed to be something special. It needed to cleanse the mind of ‘push any button repeatedly’ and re-create the game’s former glories, which we’re pleased to reveal it does with absolute aplomb.
Not tempted to turn about face and revert to the classic SmackDown staples of D-pad controls and straightforward ‘slobber knockers’, in a daring move Yuke’s has made 2008 even more intricate and intense by implementing new elements that not only vindicate – but enhance – the analogue control system. The changes not only make for a much more fluid fighting experience but one that’s much closer to ‘real wrestling’ than we’ve played in several years. At the heart of these core changes are the new fighting styles, a feature that ran a genuine risk of falling into the ‘fun-but-expendable’ category, but in fact, completely changes the way you play the game, enabling you to choose a combination of traits that best suits you or the match type you’re competing in. The different styles available range from High Flyer to Hardcore and each superstar is gifted two of the eight styles that closest match their real-life counterpart. For instance, Edge is a Dirty fighter but also Hardcore and so has the benefits of each style’s attributes. If things aren’t going your way in the ring, you can improvise using a Dirty move by hiding behind the ref and then flinging him into your opponent, felling both in the process. Then, while the man in the stripy shirt is tasting the sweatstained canvas, you can bring the Hardcore element into play by fetching a steel chair. Or, if you’re feeling particularly sadistic, grab a barbed-wire baseball bat and go to work on your opponent, leaving him battered and bruised before the ref even stands up… the perfect crime.
This system works incredibly well in practice and unearths an additional level of depth we weren’t aware existed in the SmackDown formula. It seems strange to be talking about depth in relation to a wrestling game, but there is certainly a trace of substance and strategy here. If you’re playing as a Showman, for instance, and need to finish the match in a certain way but don’t have the moves in your skill set, then the Showman ability allows you to steal your opponent’s finisher. This could really help you out – we were particularly proud of ourselves when we made Ric Flair tap out to his signature figurefour leglock. It’s elements such as these that make WWE SmackDown Vs. Raw 2008 a much more calculated affair: you have to weigh up whether or not to store a Fighting Style icon or go for the finisher; to play fair or go get the tables; to kick Cena in the face or kick him in the face again. The new styles lead to many more exciting moments during a matchup and help even out advantages that one wrestler has over another.
The introduction of these styles will no doubt encourage gamers to specialise in one particular field, and probably one wrestler, too. This brings the game much more in line with traditional fighting games, so expect some genuinely exciting matchups online – it’s not only your Fighting Style selection that makes a difference, but also your choice of superstar. Rey Mysterio may be able to jump around the ring like a crazy circus freak, but his size is a double-edged sword. Because he is small he lacks reach and has to move in close to perform strikes and grapples. And, as most of the guys (and, most probably, girls) backstage are bigger than him, by moving closer he leaves himself vulnerable to opponent grapples; so once you have the masked man from San Diego locked in a tight squeeze or pinned to the mat, all the West Coast Pops in Mexico won’t be able to save him. That said, if you’re in a tight spot it is now much easier to struggle free as, despite implementing the same reversal system as last year’s edition (L2 for strike attacks and R2 for grapples), counters are much more intuitive and easier to perform. In fact, you can even counter the various strong grapples and Ultimate Control Moves. If an opponent has you lofted high in the air and takes too long deciding where to cause a blood puddle with your head, then you can counter with a few rabbit punches to the face to discombobulate him and then finish the job with a swinging DDT. Though reversal moves are somewhat limited, they are all well animated and look extremely realistic. The exchanging of reversals really helps ‘sell’ a match, especially in one-on-one play as neither player ever has the advantage.
As in a real matchup, the upper hand can be gained by beating your opponent down so bad his momma can feel it. The longer a fight continues and punishment is dished out, the more your opponent will physically and mentally wane, finding it harder to reverse moves, or even get back to their feet. Yuke’s has sensibly dispensed with last year’s woeful stamina system, which somehow managed to tire out the aggressor more than the poor sap on the receiving end, and replaced it with a new animationbased system that shows superstars visually struggling to move around the ring if they’ve taken a few too many chair shots to the head. However, as a result of this change you can no longer regain stamina manually, and if seriously hurt you have to wait it out until your wrestler gets his second, third and fourth wind. This new system generally works out fine during one-on-one combat, but can be very punishing when you’re placed in brutal hardcore and ladder matches. Let’s face it, it’s going to take you a lot longer to recover from a trash can to the skull than a half-hearted clothesline, but it does make these particular types of matches more challenging and incredibly difficult to win.
This situation can be remedied, however, in the new all-singing, all-dancing WWE 24/7 mode which is the amalgamation of both Season and General Manager modes. Choose to be a WWE general manager or superstar and start out on the road to legendary status. If you select a superstar who is already close to the top of the card, you can either choose to accept their current status and try to push them even further, or opt to drop down the rankings and take them on the journey to championship contender. Either way, you have to perform the same feats in order to earn the respect of the superstars and backstage staff, whether you earn it or beat it out of them. 24/7 mode will hold few surprises for SmackDown veterans once you’ve learnt how to navigate the new front end. It conforms to much the same conventions as previous career modes – variations of match types spliced with backstage feuds and more ludicrous goings-on – much of it involving ‘respect’ and ‘puppies’, of course. But there are a few definite differences here, as now you get to experience every day of the wrestling year by micro managing your day-to-day activities. Options include extra training on the microphone to improve your promos, a spot of rest and relaxation to prevent injury or quick sparring bouts to level up your skills. Yes, we said level up because, and we can’t believe what is coming next, SmackDown Vs. Raw 2008 contains an RPG element. Is nothing sacred? Attending events like autograph signings and photo shoots improves popularity because you’re getting your face in the public eye; fighting back from a beating can help improve your recovery from fatigue faster and there’s even a class to become a better heel by performing a set amount of taunts within a predetermined time limit… brilliant, you actually get awarded for being a dick.
While all these separate mini-games and challenges are a bit of fun at first, we can’t see the fun lasting, after all, how many of us have the time to play out every single day of the wrestling year? So, more often than not, you’ll be reaching for the ‘simulate day’ option that skips you straight to your next fight and even further, in fact. This is where things can get very confusing because, as any grapple fan will tell you, things are constantly changing in the world of wrestling. If you skip too far ahead without checking your messages you could have little idea of what is happening or what type of match you’ve been signed in to. Take our advice and be sure to check your messages the day before every fight, otherwise the whole thing turns into an unfathomable mess. Not that the action on screen is that straightforward even if you know what’s going on, as the opening to most shows starts with you either entering the arena and shaking hands with randomly generated superstars (most of which are your current foes) or watching an interview with Mr McMahon before getting an ear bashing from your general manager for no reason whatsoever – bizarre. Considering one of the game’s boasts was that hundreds of hours of dialogue had been captured, a little more explanation wouldn’t go amiss. Much of the backstage banter takes place via email, voice messaging and between the pages of WWE magazine, so these are the best indicator of what’s actually going down.
On the whole, visuals are a very mixed bag; the character renders and entrances are the best we’ve seen during a match and the foreground is crisp and clear, yet the crowd in the background seems diffused as if shrouded in a cloud of mist. Whether this was a deliberate style choice or just sloppy programming it’s difficult to tell, but at any rate it doesn’t look good. The same can be said for the commentary – the team has done an impeccable job of keeping the likes of Jim Ross and JBL up to date with what’s going on in the ring and, despite some recycled material from last year, dialogue between the announcers is accurate and punchy. On occasion, though, the timing is a little off, with Jerry Lawler’s tossing of his crown and with calling a devastating Spear before Bobby Lashley has even left the comfort of the corner, or worse still, getting the call completely wrong and announcing a DDT or Unprettier – a minor fault, but an irritating one nonetheless.
In terms of the actual move set and controls there is even less to complain about, as the Marmite nature of the analogue control system really comes into its own with a pleasing mix of strikes, quick and strong grapples and Ultimate Control Moves. The button reshuffle helps to make movement and attacks feel organic and there is also a limited range of contextsensitive moves to perform depending on whereabouts in the ring you’re standing. Of course there are some niggles; the targeting system, for instance, can be rather troublesome when you first get up from the mat or reverse a move, with your wrestler striking air a good few times before finding its mark, which can prove frustrating if you need to land a vital blow. An element that should bring the smile back to your face, though, is the welcome debut of a struggle submission system, which is a simple-yet-smart mechanic used by both players when in a submission situation. The player on the offensive just needs to move the right analogue stick to apply more pressure, while the player locked in has to do the same in order to literally break the lock that appears as a symbol on screen. Not the most sophisticated system, but it works pretty well in practice and it does away with all the senseless button bashing.
Needing to hit back and hit back hard, WWE SmackDown Vs. Raw 2008 achieves what it set out to do. In need of a little more refinement in some areas, this is still a vast improvement on last year’s iteration and sets out the stall for further enhancement over the years to come. Not that you’ll be thinking very far past this game any time soon, as it contains enough raw energy and enjoyment to become the gamers’, if not the people’s, champ.