WWE Smackdown vs. RAW 2011 Preview

I’m the future of this business.

Last year’s Smackdown vs. RAW introduced a flurry of new features that belie the usually marginal changes in annual sports video game franchises. However, some of those features, especially the ho-hum career mode and restrictive Story Designer, were not as well-executed as fans wanted. WWE Smackdown vs. RAW 2011 is THQ’s attempt at reconciliation, and with just three hours of an on-hands demo of the final build, it already looks to be a successful one.

[image1]The most apparent change in this year’s title is also the most difficult to explain. Replacing the droll career mode, whose only purpose was to boost a create-a-wrestler’s attributes, W Universe is effectively the equivalent of an Exhibition+ mode. Briefly, it presents a calendar of event cards pre-loaded with matches based on your preferences, by tracking the characters and the match types you play the most. If you consistently play as one wrestler and choose royal rumbles, the event cards and the rankings toward each belt – that is, the universe of your game – will transform accordingly. Not only are you allowed to change each wrestler’s brand, allies, and enemies as you see fit, but you’re also not obligated to follow its match suggestions. You have full control.

Also offering more customization is Match Creator, which opens the entire ruleset for exhibition matches. Some additional rules, like momentum speed, are taken straight from the options menu to make the interface quicker, but the full range of win conditions and ring parameters are now ready to be combined. If you’ve ever wondered what an ironman match where only finishers count in a ring with flames around the edge would be like, you don’t have to wonder anymore. As a side note, the wrestler selection screen has taken the form of a spiffier Tekken-esque rectangular grid that severely cuts down on navigation time.

Fans longing for the (PS2) days when you could explore the backstage arena in between matches will be pleased to know that the Road to Wrestlemania stories – featuring Christian, Rey Mysterio, Jericho, John Cena, and The Undertaker against another wrestler (it can be a created wrestler, too) – allow you to do just that. Controlling your chosen wrestler in third-person, you can roam around the halls and interact with objects and other superstars (as in shove repeatedly until they fight you) to your heart’s content. Doing so earns experience that will increase story-specific stats and lets you view some hilarious outtakes.

[image2]One example during the demonstration highlighted Rey Mysterio helping a Diva put out a fire, though the fire extinguisher was about a few feet away (does it mean anything that she was blonde?). Almost immediately, The Hurricane then jumped in to praise Rey’s heroic efforts but not before admonishing himself for failing to get the girl help sooner. Regardless of whether these cut-scenes are campy with a capital ‘C’, it’s refreshing to see this year’s game not take itself so seriously. I mean, it’s wrestling entertainment, not Oscar-worthy drama about pain, retribution, and a lack of clothes.

The main overhaul for the creation modes, apart from the usual additional parts and moves and enhanced “muscle flex” modeling, focuses on removing irritating restrictions. Where you once had to build each created wrestler’s stats individually by going through the career mode a seemingly endless amount of times, you can simply set those stats immediately, in most cases anywhere from 5 to 90 in increments of 5. Instead of only allowing a limited amount of times a created wrestler can be in a scene, Story Designer now allows fifteen created wrestlers an unlimited amount of times, as well as branching points for the script. Before, a character downloaded online would be immutable and fixed, but now you can change anything and everything about the character. It’s just great to see THQ trust the players enough to do what they want with their content.

Some other notable changes are the 12-player online Royal Rumble matches, a trimmed Abilities list that’s fully unlocked at the start, a deeper moveset for the corner position, a corner-specific Create A Finisher, and a Hell in a Cell with a larger cell, cage-specific finishers, and weapons beneath the ring. Controls have been slightly altered to focus more on groggy positions for strong grapples while removing the need the hold down a button to maintain a grapple. It’s not clear why the ground and pound has been removed, but the addition of more ladder and cell moves as well as a four-hit strike combination is sure to please.

[image3]The W Shop now centers on downloadable content, which includes the “new game-friendly” Online Pass that works the same way as the one in UFC Undisputed 2010 did. On the strictly positive side, the shop also contains an “unlock all” code for one measly dollar and the ability to change a superstar’s attribute through an editor for another dollar. THQ promises that every future pack will have at least one piece of content that’s free.

Although it’s not too uncommon to find a developer that listens to its fans, it’s rare to find a developer that listens well. Nearly every misstep in last year’s title and the franchise in general has been corrected and thrown out of the arena. WWE Smackdown vs. RAW 2011 slams into stores October 26, 2010.