There goes the pain.
With Sequelmania sweeping the nation, it's hard to keep track of which wrestling game can be rightfully called the champ. Unless you're that wacko patriot who needs to have Kurt Angle in his newest lycra jumpsuit, small changes to a game's engine or content don't usually warrant another $50 slam. So each year, the decision to go further into debt begs the question: "How many minor updates amount to a major one?"
The answer, it turns out, is found in WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2006. Though it doesn't add much we haven't already seen in past wrestling games (or even in Yuke's other grappler, WWE Day of Reckoning 2), the plethora of tweaks make all the little pieces snap into place to form a great new game while keeping the franchise's arcadey, fast-paced roots deliciously intact.
The momentum meter is back, but this time it reacts to your specific moves list. If you've only got a few stunners in a shallow sack of tricks, your momentum will start to drop as fast as the crowd's yawns are long. Being that you have to max out your momentum meter to earn a special move, your potential for damage is reduced and, at even lower momentum levels, your opponent's chance to reverse a hold or strike gets a buff. Because crowds hate losers, the wrestler getting beat down has low momentum too, and if he reverses your attack, the two of you can find yourselves in a chain of reversals, which is really, really fun.
Until, that is, your stamina dips to where you have to stop the action for a bit. Unlike in Day of Reckoning 2, the stamina meter can be actively recharged, so you don't have to let go of your controller and get a beer while you wait for your mega-athlete to catch his breath. The stamina meter is hidden from view until it becomes an issue, making it an invisible yet omnipresent concern, making it a more effective gameplay balancer than in past attempts.
Yuke's was certainly going for championship gold with more gameplay refinements. Special moves can be stored for later use, meaning you can play possum and reverse a pin at the last second. The dramatic three-count for sleeper holds has been implemented as well in a timing meter, lending extra drama to tight contests. These both serve as terrific additions.
The A.I. hasn't quite caught up with the features, though, as it's determined solely on how many reversals your opponents can chain together and how often they stand idle. Nailing the timing on reversals is really the crux of the gameplay, and since you can reverse everything, it can be a walk in the park. Storing moves and playing possum is especially effective. It feels as though the A.I. is mostly susceptible to the game's new gameplay features, since reversals of pins and submissions are more effective against the CPU than humans.
The spotty collision detection also leads to some problems. Closer to Backyard Wrestling 2 than Day of Reckoning 2, oftentimes you'll wonder how a strike went through an opponent just because he's going through a particular animation. It has been improved over last year, though not by much.
The overall content, however, is markedly better. You'll be playing SvR2006 more than any other wrestler before it if only to dig through all the goodies. As before, you can run through Season mode in both the RAW and Smackdown brands. Either linear path you choose has its own decently-scripted story, but the more promising mode is the General Manager mode, which plays itself out as a menu-based Franchise mode like in those other less oily sports games. Sign wrestlers to contracts, balance budgets and manage noob talent in an effort to get more asses in seats for your main events than the other leading WWE program. Getting big stars like Big Show will gain a load of fan interest for your brand, but more important is the drama he's involved in. You can then find out what other grapplers he's having a feud with and pit those guys against each other night after night to build up the drama to a Main Event or PPV climax.
It's a great addition, but the menu heavy interface can bring the pain to the wrong spots. You don't get all the data you need to determine how popular a certain feud is nor how all of this affects your bottom line, so you're left with more instinct than number crunching. Training noob talent up to a decent star status is entertaining but counterproductive, since you have to beat your star talent with the rookies, which puts a major a hit on your popularity for little reward and no guarantees. Despite these issues, though, the mode bodes well for the future.
Thanks to improvements to the Create a Wrestler tool, building your noob is good fun. The system is remarkably faster than it was in past versions; hours spent scrounging through the huge amount of doodads you can sprinkle on your gorilla, from skull faceplates to customized entrance themes, come without most of the loading times that plagued earlier games. The same holds true when you're changing your dude's move sets, which is key since you can also customize your fighting style to include three of seven available types, and then make him a clean or dirty wrestler on top of that. It goes big.
You can then dump your freakish baby into the ring and play through more modes than you can flex a pec at. Aside from the previous fare of Hell in a Cell, TLC, Ladder, Royal Rumble, and Cage matches, a new Buried Alive match is available. The object is to dump your opponent in a casket far outside the ring and shut the lid once he's beaten beyond resistance - nothing groundbreaking (pardon the pun), but hey, it's an extra mode. So is the Fulfill your Fantasy mode, which lets you dress up two Divas in scanty costumes and set them loose on each other, spankings and all.
Last year's online mode was riddled with lag and disconnects while being slim on options. This time around, you can play basically every mode except Royal Rumble with up to four players and will experience far less lag. Records and titles held by other Wrestlemaniacs are now accessible, so you can better measure up. Additionally, you can now preview and download their created wrestlers. Gamers may be lazy, but boy, can we conserve energy.
We also know a pretty thing when we see it, and this game qualifies thanks to top notch delivery. All the character models have been smoothed out, just like the rock solid framerate, and retain a high level of detail in the costumes, faces, and musculature. It just looks great. The dialogue for each of the Season mode's storylines are voiced by the real talent, and match commentary is by none other than J.R. and The King Lawler. It provides an authentic feel to the whole experience, except that match comments get redundant quickly and the two cut each other off awkwardly whenever there is a reversal, pin, or submission. The background music is beefy when you're going through all the menus, including a remixed version of Megadeth's "Symphony of Destruction" among other big names.
Yuke's and THQ obviously invested a lot of time and effort to make WWE Smackdown vs. RAW 2006 a worthwhile buy, and amazingly, they succeeded. Let's hope they take the lessons they learned from this steroid-fueled installment and carry the tradition of tight content additions and smart gameplay tweaks into the next generation.