Personal tastes don't matter when you're getting the Smackdown.
Is wrestling entertainment a hypermasculinized sport posing as a soap opera or a hypermasculinized soap opera posing as a sport? Of course, the answer depends on the person you ask, and more specifically, on whether that person understands the notion that rule-bound physicality is the hegemonically acceptable playground for male anxieties (hint: nearly every “M”-rated video game out there). But then again, the answer probably depends on whether that person thinks this is all just a bull-load of intellectual psycho-babbling WTF.
[image1]The discussion of why there is a need for wrestling entertainment is not a new one, and as long as there are people who mock it as the fake, aggressive, toxic, non-sensical male equivalent of cock fighting; and other people who wish they could shut the first group up with a throat thrust and a dragon sleeper hold, the discussion will continue. I, on the other hand, couldn’t care less whether everyone can come to a consensus, as long as I get to use this topic selfishly every year as an introduction to THQ’s annual installment in their venerably venerable WWE Smackdown! vs. RAW franchise of venerability.
Like many other sports titles, WWE SvR games can usually be summed as last year’s installment, plus better character models, plus some necessary updates to the roster, plus some new match type (in this case, Inferno Match), plus some fidgeting with how the gameplay works without really changing the way you beat each other to a bloody pulp. This is what people expect and what people demand, which puts critics like me in a tight spot. How much can you ask for change when the underyling foundations shouldn’t? That would be like asking Kane to be more social and be himself.
WWE SvR 2009, however, makes several substantial changes by dismantling the overwhelmingly involved and repetitive 24/7 mode from last year’s installment, and returning to the hard-hitting basics. Instead of having you slug through a generic and generally irrelevant storyline for every wrestler on the roster, Road to Wrestlemania mode focuses on six character-specific storylines featuring seven high-profile wrestlers (Batista & Rey Mysterio’s path is optionally co-op). Where Batista and Rey Mysterio pair up as an odd tag-team couple that demolishes everyone that gets in their way, John Cena “5-Knuckle Shuffles” his way from the Tribute to the Troops event through MVP’s self-conceited secession from the United States to form the oppressive Better-Than-Utopia state. I don’t think Cena, the star of The Marine, is all too happy about that.
This restructuring of the story mode comes under the presumption that the main base of people who love the franchise are those who also follow the wrestling entertainment canon - and they would be right. Though Road to Wrestlemania is limited to a small section of the full WWE roster and forces you to go through each of them just to obtain all of the unlockables, it’s far more relevant for fans who follow the superstars that carry the weight of the brand on their shoulders. Still, there should have been more co-op opportunities than just the Batista and Rey Mysterio path, and it doesn’t really consider people who don’t necessarily care for the ins and outs of the real-life faux-drama and just want to make one up for themselves. That is, people who are obsessed with the create-a-wrestler (CAW) features... like me.
[image2]Any other wrestlers, created or not, who aren’t represented in Road to Wrestlemania have the indistinct pleasure of being relegated to a Career mode that is just about as generic as it gets. Every fight turns into a simple exhibition match: You select a championship belt path, choose an opponent from among four, select a match type, set the rules, fight, win, get up to a five-star rating based on your performance, recover limb damage, keep fighting until you collect enough stars to unlock the championship match, and then move on to the next championship path. Wash, rinse, spit out blood, and repeat.
Career mode is certainly a clean, streamlined process, but it’s the antithesis of excitement. The main purpose of going through the mode is to level up the stats and gain abilities for your CAW character. Using a variety of attacks and keeping your health and stamina high steadily increases attributes like Durability, Submission, and Technical, while completing specific goals (which aren’t divulged) earns your character abilities that either give them extra moves or make existing moves more powerful. But all of the fun of developing a story for your character, something that disguises the fact that you’re just grinding, has been unceremoniously stripped away.
THQ has the right idea of de-branching the fighting styles from 24/7 mode and allowing wrestlers to obtain up to six abilities freely from each style, as well as making you increase your character’s stats by performing well during a match and getting the crowd behind you. But everything would have been easier if there was just a pool of experience points you can spend so that you could gain the stats and the abilities you wanted. Here, you’re stuck with any abilities you've gained, and improving your character from a 30-overall wannabe to a 90-overall wrestler who actually has a chance against the likes of Undertaker and Randy Orton takes at least 20 hours of solid grinding. That’s 20 hours for each CAW character you make.
Fortunately, THQ has announced that a downloadable patch in the works that will “give all of their created Superstars full attributes after completing the new Career Mode one time through”. The bad news is that the patch is slated some time before Jan. 31 of next year. I would actually suggest THQ to take a cue from Fight Night and have the player be able to either create a normal low-stat character for any achievement-granting career and online modes, or a character with full attributes and free reign over any abilities, as long as that character is restricted to local exhibition play. Not everyone who spends the time to craft a wrestler with the right proportions, the right gear, the right look, and the right attitude should have to be forced to play Career mode hours on end.
[image3]Thankfully, plenty of new additions and updates bump this year’s installment up to a higher standard. A roster editor now allows players who follow the canon or who just want to create fantasy tag teams to update the roster as they see fit. Tag teams sometimes break up, new ones form, and wrestlers move to other brands within the WWE family (or just retire), so it’s great to be able to keep the game fresh. Fans will also approve of the Highlight Reel (restricted to the PS3 and Xbox 360), which allows you to add sound, graphics, and text to any replay footage and upload them to a server. Though most players probably won’t spend more than a couple of hours diddling around with the features, it’s still an addition that’s hard to argue with, especially since it replaces the Create-A-Championship and Create-A-Belt features that hardly anyone used.
Even CAW players have few features to shout about, despite some odd restrictions and old complaints. For some reason, you can’t add multiple belts and accessories to a character even if there are plenty of unused layers to add, and you can’t add any non-preset tattoos without having the character blocked from playing online. It’s a rather drastic but understandable move to prevent any online bouts from turning into tests of “Who’s the bigger bigot?”
Better yet, the fighting has been polished and has a much better balance. There are no more unblockable attacks (at least as far as I know) for noobs to exploit. A rising-up defensive stance, which hails back to WWF No Mercy, gives players the ability to dodge moves that would otherwise knock them back down. Your partner A.I. for tag-team matches also now has the wits to take care of any possible interruptions by the other tag team while you go for the pin. And if you ever find yourself in trouble, you can crawl over to your partner and “hot tag” your friend into the match just like in “real-life”.
[image4]Otherwise, much of what makes WWE Smackdown! vs. RAW tick remains. It’s still difficult to learn all the various moves and variant rules for every match type, and the heavy rock soundtrack and repetitive announcer return to be turned off once more. But that just comes with the territory of having every match type ever (I shouldn’t have said that - no emails please) while having a fixed amount of commentary.
Although WWE Smackdown! vs. RAW 2009 caters more to the fan than the casual player of fighting games, it marks a turning point in the franchise. Based off the changes made here, I can see future installments carry more character-specific storylines in the Road to Wrestlemania mode as well as a revamped Career mode that allows for more co-op and better CAW development. The fighting mechanics have been enhanced and edited to the point that any room for improvement is nearly all in the extras (and if TNA iMPACT! has anything to say, in the animations and the clipping). WWE Smackdown! vs. RAW 2009 is the strongest next-gen title in the franchise, no questions asked.