Not only am I better looking, I’m just plain better!
Let’s not tiptoe around the ring and get right to it, because you probably know as much as I do that reviews for WWE titles lean toward carbon copies of each other. They’ll run down the checklist – the enhanced modeling, tweaked match types, revised modes, and new unlockables – and WWE Smackdown vs. RAW 2011 does not inspire an exception. But for the sake of those who want a straight answer, simply treat this year’s WWE installment as an extensive patch, a giant boot to the head, for last year’s innovative but restrictive features.
[image1]The most potentially confusing mode this year, W Universe, is officially described as a fusion between Exhibition and Career modes, and essentially constructs match recommendations in the form of event cards based on your play history. Though its recommendations tend to be random, you can always opt out and pick an exhibition match of your choice, even creating a match type from scratch using the Match Creator. The mode occasionally throws some curveballs in matches, like an enemy sucker punching your character at the start of a match, but by and large it runs in the background – noticeably but not forcefully.
Some adjustments have been made to the slapping and grappling in the ring, but not so much that the fighting is unfamiliar. Every wrestler now has a toe kick in their arsenal by default, a new four-hit combination, and added moves while on the ladder, on the top rope, or near the steel cage. In lieu of weak and strong grapples, the strength of the grapple depends on whether the opponent is groggy, which can be done with a swift toe kick to the gut. Nearly every maneuver can be reversed as usual, so the tide can turn easily and often. Unceremoniously, though, the ground and pound has been removed when it doesn’t need to be and a small portion of moves have been taken out of the create-a-moveset list as part of the graphical overhaul.
If Match Creator is any indication, where this year’s installment sets itself apart is in its attention to flexibility and speed. Not only are the loading times cut down severely, but the interfaces are much easier to navigate, especially the superstar selection screen which is now a rectangular grid. W Universe’s second purpose is to act as a quick and easy menu system for changing the roster of characters – their brand, allies, enemies, superstar abilities, and even their attributes if you download the editor in the W Shop for the low price of $1. The attributes and superstar abilities for created superstars can be changed freely as well without having to go through the pesky Career mode from before. Downloaded characters from the online network aren’t immutable anymore, either, and can be edited as you see fit.
[image2]Story Designer, instead of allowing only 10 created characters in a limited amount of scenes, now allows 15 created characters an unlimited amount of times. You can even put in branching points in your story to have multiple decisions and endings, adding value to the near endless amount of user content. (I happened to create a skit where my create-a-wrestler version of Guile from Street Fighter and uncanny lookalike John Cena chat at a fancy Italian restaurant. It was about Chun-Li… the chat didn’t end very well…)
This year’s Road to Wrestlemania – featuring John Cena, Rey Mysterio, Jericho, Christian, and Undertaker (versus one of the preset characters or a created character) – marks a throwback to what many fans have secretly pined for years: backstage exploration. With an over-the-shoulder view, you can briskly run through the stone hallways and rooms behind the scenes, and converse with your fellow wrestlers and divas whose mouths don’t sync at all to the dialogue. That goes for your wrestler too, and the option to change your voice is strangely absent. Like before, some matches have optional goals that if completed award a special unlockable (alternatively, you can download an “all unlockables” code for another $1).
Unfortunately, backstage exploration is tiresome and monotonous. Most of the spandex-clad meatheads don’t have anything interesting to say and tell you to scram or get out of their face. Though you can push any douchebaggy smartasses three times to initiate a backstage brawl, you only earn about 50 SP (or 200 SP if the enemy starts the fight) for upgrading story-specific stats. That might sound like a lot, but each stat requires 1500 SP per level up, so by the end, you’ll only collect enough SP to level your character about four times out of a possible sixteen. Not that wandering around the same hallways and rooms is terribly exciting in the first place, but they could have made the interaction and extra battles more enticing and more rewarding.
[image3]As for online modes, the number of players for Royal Rumble has jumped to twelve, and players can earn Online Prestige just by providing popular content. In addition to the superstar attribute editor and “all unlockables” code, the W Shop includes Online Axxess (or is it Axxexx?) that comes free on the back of the manual mainly to reward those who purchase the game new. The $10 Fan Axxess (…or is it Axxexx?) not only includes the editor and code, but also acts as a full down payment for nearly all future DLC. For players with tighter wallets, THQ promises at least one piece of free content in every pack.
With the exception of the underdeveloped exploration in Road to Wrestlemania, WWE Smackdown vs. RAW 2011 takes the franchise one firm Irish whip in the right direction. Its attention to detail is a quality not often associated with a franchise about brawny, aggressive men wearing outlandish, skin-tight costumes – manly cosplay, if you will. That THQ and Yuke’s have finally decided to let players do what they want with their content by loosening their restrictions shows how much they’ve listened to the fans. The ones with good ideas at least... you know how some of them are...