Whipped into a turnbuckle.
When it comes to proven sports franchises, you know the drill. Any new installment in the series updates the roster, tweaks the gameplay without making it too unfamiliar, and sharpens the graphics to match the day’s standard. WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2008 meets all these expectations and that would have been acceptable, if some of the changes it made weren’t so unacceptable. Even though its foundations have remained solid, the spit and polish expected from a veteran series like this aren’t all there.
[image1]Frankly, there’s not much new content to grapple with. The extensive list of match types including hell-in-a-cell, ironman, and parking lot brawls are back, as is the two-button system for strike and grapple reversals. The create-a-whatever modes, unlockable movesets and characters in the shop, the general Xbox Live online matches and leaderboards – it might seem like WWE vs. Smackdown 2007 all over again. Or 2006 or 2005…
Many minor changes such as the newly added escape attempts from ultimate control grapples, the relevant addition of the ECW superstars, and the challenge-based “Hall of Fame” mode are a great step forward. But none of the major changes capitalize on the gameplay that has made the series consistent. In fact, they mess it up.
Superstars are now split by their type: “brawler” for hand-to-hand strikers, “hardcore” for steel-chair enthusiasts, “powerhouse” for rampaging giants, and so on. It sounds like an idea that would make sense, but since Superstars can only be assigned two types, they are denied moves that would otherwise have been shared equally among the entire roster. Why can’t a wrestler be great at taunts, submissions, and weapons? We know these jocks probably aren’t the brightest meatheads around, but they should be able to mangle your face in every way possible.
Worse, it becomes obvious that certain superstar types have an edge over the rest. Whereas “brawlers” can ground and pound (and tenderize) their opponents on the mat, strike with instant three-hit combinations, and make their melee attacks invincible for a limited time, “dirty” specialists can use the frail referee as a shield, remove flimsy turnbuckles, use a “super” dirty move, and ignore useless rope breaks. Before the match begins, John Cena manhandles Randy Orton just on leverage. Being evil has never been so wimpy.
It’s also tough to compare the mediocre extra moves for “high flyers” and “technical” specialists to the grappling invincibility of “powerhouse” wrestlers and the ability of “showmen” to gain and steal momentum through taunts. Though anyone can dish out the pain with any character type, as it can be said with most fighting titles (Dan can beat Shin Akuma if you try hard enough!), the character roster is inherently more unbalanced than it should be.
[image2]The submission system has been redone as well, but not in an intuitive way. While an opponent is locked in an “SS” type of submission, you can control how much pressure you apply by how far away you move the analog stick from its central position. A pair of hands appears in your HUD that shows your grip, and if it begins to slip, you have to let go. This allows your opponent to unlock the hold and break free by moving the analog stick in the same way. It’s supposed to be realistic, but if it takes so much time just to explain how it works, it’s just complicated. Not only are the “pair of hands” icons difficult to react to quickly, but the simple system it replaced - button-mashing your way in and out of submission holds – actually felt like a struggle, as submissions should, instead of just a struggle with the controls.
The new 24/7 mode, which overhauls the general single-player campaign with some RPG elements, is a rather mixed bag. The point this time around is to turn a superstar into a muscle-bound, now-in-a-reality-TV-series legend by achieving any number of set goals such as winning in a pay-per-view event or achieving a fifteen-win streak. Helping you through matches week to week, beyond general stats which you can improve through training, are special skills that can boost your popularity, heal fatigue quickly, and earn you more cash during special events. Any weekday when your superstar isn’t tied up in a match is an opportunity to attend different functions - hitting the red carpet, doing a charity event, or starring in a hero movie – and having special “on-camera” or “microphone” skills will rake in the dough.
Unfortunately, the issues that plagued past campaign modes haven’t been addressed, the most glaring of which is your inability to control much of the storyline. Whether you win or lose, the events that occur every month feel like set-ups. One cell-phone message you receive in particular describes how all the “I want to marry you” brouhaha was all fake, just hype to sell more tickets. We know that a lot of “sports entertainment” is fabricated behind the scenes (sometimes not), but you are supposed to be playing the game, not the other way around.
Not counting the number of times you have to watch pre-set cut-scenes over and over again, only with different filler voice-overs, you just feel like you’re wasting time. You can spend an entire month impressing, kissing, and vibrating a sexy chick (off-camera, of course), and then watch her leave you just because the next month’s storyline is beginning. What ever happened to flow? Vince McMahon can hate your guts one month and then wish you the best of luck in the next. You can even win a match, crushing your opponents until their ancestors feel it, and they will still lay the smackdown on your sorry ass in a fixed cut-scene after it’s over. So if you’re wearing the jumbo-sized title belt around your waist, expect a lot of moments that put you in the role of a mini-sized punching bag. What’s the point of winning when you feel like a loser?
[image3]Surprisingly, the presentation doesn’t fare much better. Yes, the soundtrack is licensed and models have better triangularization and all that window-dressing, but there’s much to be desired. Though the noticeable differences between the last-gen and current-gen versions are unexpectedly minor, clipping still remains rampant, whether it’s wrestlers embedding themselves into the ropes surrounding the ring, the bodies of other wrestlers, or their hair. Loading times, which take up about five percent of your playing time, are egregiously long, no matter the platform. Music tracks cycle as frequently as the voice commentary – that is, a lot. And the voice-overs sometimes don’t match the subtitles that run on the screen.
With all this negative talk about WWE Smackdown! vs. Raw 2008, you might be surprised to know that I’m a long-time casual fan of wrestling and wrestling titles. I still treasure WWF No Mercy for the N64, and my childhood is full of eyes-glued-to-TV memories of Hogan, Sting, Ultimo Dragon, and Bret Hart. But this only makes this year’s installment, though passable and tolerable, that much more deserving of a missile dropkick back to where it came from.