Hit the music, cue the fireworks, and head to the ring.
by Greg Miller
November 8, 2008 - For as long as there have been videogame systems, there have been classic wrestling videogames. The Nintendo Entertainment System had Pro Wrestling, the SEGA Genesis had WWF Royal Rumble, the Nintendo 64 had a string of grappling hits that many believe peaked with WWF No Mercy, and the PlayStation 2 had WWE SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain. Since the release of the Xbox 360 in 2005, the videogame nation has waited for the defining "next-gen" squared-circle title to show up, and THQ and Yuke's are taking another shot at the championship this year with WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009.
On paper, it seems like SVR 09 should cruise to wrestling game greatness. The title packs more than 60 wrestlers, 14 one-on-one match types including the new Inferno option, the promise of downloadable content before the holidays, a new story mode, better AI, a focus on tag teams and the ability to save replays and create/share your own Highlights Reels. However, when you get into the punching, grappling, and slamming that make up the game, the world begins to feel like well worn territory. In the end, we have a game that improves on last year's outing in a number of ways but falls short of putting on the five-star bout many were expecting thanks to a noticeably stale feeling.
Don't get me wrong, SVR 09 is a fun game. The solid controls from last year are back -- left stick to move, right stick to grapple, reversals via the shoulder buttons, and so on -- and come with a few minor touches such as the game flashing "Signature Move" when you can set off a stored special as well as the ability to enter the ring via the steel steps. These are welcome additions, but it's pretty much exactly what you saw last year. Still, there are a handful of other bells and whistles to grab your attention.
For starters, the AI in SVR 09 doesn't suck for a change. On Legend, the computer's still going to be reversal heavy, but it's also going to store Finishers, break up pins in tag matches, and basically give you a run for your money. If you're not happy with how the AI is acting, SVR 09 finally gives us sliders to adjust the game's thinking. You can make Finishers more or less powerful, you can adjust how much the computer reverses, and you can even modify momentum rates. Customization like the sliders is a theme in this game. While you're messing with menu, a smattering of entrance music is playing as a soundtrack. If you don't like a particular song, you can press in your left stick and skip to the next track. Via the game's Roster Editor, you can mold the WWE as you see fit with a few button clicks -- change what brand people are on, give and take away championships, decide who is clean and who is dirty. There are alternate attires for the likes of CM Punk, Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho, and others; there are 19 arenas; and you can unlock the WCW brand and classic championship.
Of course, this wouldn't be a professional wrestling game if it didn't add some new gimmick matches. The Inferno Match is an interesting bout that looks good but always ends a bit silly. You and your opponent duke it out in a ring where the edges are set ablaze. As you pull off moves, the flames leap and the temperature in the lower left corner rises. When the magic number reaches 500 degrees, you're supposed to drag your opponent to the ropes and toss him (Divas still can't participate in the crazy match types) into the fire. When one of you is successful -- there's a button-tapping minigame to try and reverse the strong-grapple dragging -- a body flies over the ropes and that guy's clothing is set one fire. It looks a bit goofy to see CM Punk rolling around with his ass on fire, but it's still a fun (albeit simple) fight. Meanwhile, THQ and Yuke's dropped the Parking Lot Brawl from previous games and replaced it with the Backstage Brawl. Here, you can fight in a KO-only match in the locker room or the gorilla position. There are objects to interact with in these areas, but they're pretty barren in general. Plus, there are lots of awkward times when you'll whip an opponent into nothing and they'll get caught on the edge of the screen. Sadly, you can't access these areas via the entrance ramp in a Falls Count Anywhere Match.
While it isn't a new match per say, there's a definite emphasis on the tag team scene this time around. Now, the partner pacing around the ring apron is as much as part of the action as the wrestler on the inside. The illegal partner can grab the opponent, distract the ref, pull down the rope, make a blind tag, and even create a "Hot Tag." Now, if you've watched wrestling, you know what a Hot Tag is even if the name doesn't ring a bell. One partner is in the ring getting the crap kicked out of him or her, the partner on the apron starts a clap, the audience gets into it, the beaten down partner slowly crawls to the partner with his hand stretched out, the tag gets made, and the fresh person jumps in and just cleans everyone's clock. That's in the game. The partner at the turnbuckle holds down on the D-Pad, a little flame begins to grow underneath the team's shared momentum bar, and when it's full, the Hot Tag can be made. The new partner jumps in and needs to follow two button prompts to take down the legal man and take out the one stalking the side of the ring. Pull this off, and you'll have a full momentum meter so that you can drop the opponent once and for all. This is an incredibly effective move that can only be used once, so these tag matches actually become a thing of strategy as you try and wear down both opponents so that you can take everyone out with one move. The tag match isn't perfect -- when my opponents were building the Hot Tag, I stepped off the ring apron so that I couldn't be taken out only to find myself teleported back to my post when they started the ring-clearing maneuver -- but the new features, smarter AI that runs in when you hit a finisher, and double team moves make it fun enough.
See More WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 Screenshot at IGN.com
He hears voices in his head.
All that is good, but the biggest gameplay change is actually related to a Superstar/Diva's Fighting Abilities. Last year's game gave every wrestler two Fighting Styles that contained specific abilities so characters felt more like their real-life counterparts. Randy Orton was a Dirty superstar so he could remove turnbuckle covers and push the ref into opponents, Tommy Dreamer was Hardcore and could hit himself with a weapon to heal limb damage, and so on. This year, the broad styles are gone and are replaced by specific abilities. In SVR 09, every character has six Fighting Abilities that give them special advantages. Santino has the Dirty Pin ability so that he can use the ropes for leverage when going for the three-count, Big Show has the Hammer Throw ability that allows him to hurl his opponent over the top rope with a strong Irish whip, and pretty much all of the main eventers have the Resiliency ability so that they have an increased chance of being able to kick out of pins. I'm sure these sound a lot like last year's Fighting Styles -- and they are in part -- but the fact that each Superstar has these combinations of six out of 21 abilities makes them feel unique and varied.
Beyond all that in-match stuff, SVR 09's packing a nifty mode addition that is all its own; it's called Road to WrestleMania and it's one of the greatest story modes a wrestling game has had in years. In RTW, you choose to be one of seven playable Superstars (an in-house friend can join you for the tag team tale) and then take the grappler into his original storyline. See, Chris Jericho, Triple H, the Undertaker, CM Punk, John Cena, and Rey Mysterio/Batistia all have angles that are uniquely their own thanks to original voiceovers, branching storylines, cutscenes, and more. I can't thank THQ enough for this. Last year, 24/7 mode sucked. It had one generic story that forced wrestlers into situations that didn't feel natural -- enemies shaking hands in the back, WrestleMania being in the same place every year, etc. Now, you're getting original, interesting tales that last about two and a half hours a piece as you take each man to the biggest spectacle in Sports Entertainment. Each show starts with fireworks and an announcers' summary of what's going on in the federation, and each show ends with the WWE copyright logo and the usual dramatic scene you'd expect from WWE programming. Jericho has to figure out who the masked man that keeps attacking him is, Triple H has to choose between DX and Evolution, and Cena needs to figure out how to contend with MVP's new world order. Sure, a lot of folks are going to be pissy because this mode is only open to the seven folks the storylines have been written for, but once you get your hands on this mode and start having to make choices and unlocking entrances, characters, Create A Superstar pieces, and more, you should realize how awesome this part really is.
If you can't get over RTW's limited scope, Career Mode should soften the blow -- but it might add a few more issues. Basically, Career is a barebones spot for you to choose any Superstar, created player, or Diva and take them through the ranks of WWE stardom. No matter who you choose, you'll start out with a pitiful overall rating in the 30s and choose a championship path -- belts in SVR 09 include Cruiserweight, World Heavyweight, WWE, WWE Tag Team, World Tag Team, Intercontinental, Women's, United States, Hardcore, and ECW championships -- and begin challenging competitors on your way to the chosen title. See, when you start a path, the champion is a mystery. You're presented with a list of four Superstars (or four teams if you're going for a tag belt) and next to each is a star and a numeral. You'll pick to start a match from your private jet, choose a competitor to face, and then pick from a list of match types you've unlocked as well as rules such as DQ options and ring outs. You go face off in the match, and if you win, you're awarded a number of stars. These stars are then recorded next to the opponent and subtracted from the total number you need to face off in a match for the number one contender spot. Get the required stars, challenge the No. 1 contender, and when you win that stipulation match -- which always unlocks that match type for you to use in Career Mode -- you can go on to face the champ. Win the title, and you'll choose the next championship path you want to head off on and go after the next four opponents. If you want, you can defend your title, but there's really no incentive to do so. You're goal is to just win every belt in the game.
There's more to this mode, of course; after a match -- win or lose -- your nine attribute ratings that represent everything from Durability to your Overall pop up in a series of meters and begin to fill based on how you performed in the match you just played. If you rolled out of the ring, grabbed a chair, and went to town on JTG's grill, your Hardcore meter is going to fill and begin building toward the next numerical attribute level. If you ran around the ring a lot, expect your Speed meter to fill. All of these changes happen in front of your eyes, and you get to see your overall slowly climb from the dregs of the low 30s to the Hall of Fame marker know as 100. On top of this, your character -- if created -- will start with no abilities, and you'll need to unlock them as you go through Career. If you want Move Theft (the ability to steal an opponents Finisher or Signature), you need to defeat 20 Superstars; if you want to be able to recover health via Durability, you need to beat a Superstar rated 20 points higher than you in terms of his or her Overall stat and do it when you both have orange limb damage.
Clearly, this is designed to be a place where your CAS cuts his or her teeth. I say "clearly" because this is the only place to get that Overall to something worthwhile after creating a character and the only place to earn attributes. See, you can choose a real wrestler and have their stats set to the low levels in the mode, but that Superstar's real levels will still be available in exhibition. However, if you create a character and don't take him or her through Career, that Superstar will stay at that crappy rating and be attribute-less in exhibition. To improve your CAS, you have to play Career Mode. On the one hand, for players like me who generally only create one CAS a year, this is a cool setup. With five hours and 42 minutes poured into this mode -- which you can tell from my exact time tracks everything in its statistic section -- Gruesome Greggy is a 71 overall and has all six of his attribute slots filled. However, if you're one of the thousands of CAS nuts out there who love to create every ECW legend, everyone from Japan, and so on, this reliance on building stats in Career will most likely suck. Are you ever going to have time to go through the mode with each of your game maximum of 30 created Superstars -- especially considering you can only have one career going at a time?
[b][Editor's Note: THQ announced today that it's going to patch SVR 09 so that once you take one CAS through Career, you can give new created Superstars attributes without having to take them through careers. However, that patch doesn't have an ETA other than sometime before Jan. 31, 2009. That's a ways off, so my complaint about having to take every created character through the mode stands. However, if you're reading this in the future, you should know that things have changed.] [/b]
Oddly, even if you dig Career Mode, you don't know how to unlock an ability until you've unlocked it. This means I could be saving my final Ability slot for the Evasive Dodge ability but accidentally get assigned the Object ability because I used a weapon too many times.
If you are one of those Create a Superstar crazies I just wrote about, I'd love to be able to tell you about how the system has been revolutionized from the ground up, but that would be a lie. The tried and true create option is back, but it's pretty much the same thing we've been seeing year after year -- which is a good thing in terms of the ability to manipulate face and body parts as well as the massive amount of clothing options (26 jackets, 50 tops, 43 bottoms, 37 boots/shoes, and a whole lot more) but bad in terms of the old problems this series can't seem to shake. Ties clip through stomachs, championship belts clip through jackets, chokeslams become faceslams if your character is too short, and just about every other problem you've seen in the past is still here -- even the fact that the PS3 is getting shorted on layers with a maximum of 37 to Xbox 360's 64.
See More WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 Screenshot at IGN.com
To me, this is just the tip of the iceberg that sinks my enthusiasm for SVR 09. As pretty much the sole wrestling game fan in the IGN office, I have to put up with a lot of trash talking when a "nonbeliever" passes by my desk and catches me playing SVR. Usually, they'll start with reminding me that wrestling is fake, move to commenting on the clipping issues, and so on. I, living for these titles, tune them out and go on my merry way of slamming chairs into people's skulls and trying to hit my finishing move on the top of the Cell. Still, one of the most common complaints people announce while they watch me play actually hit home this year -- namely, it's the belief that "This looks just like last year's game."
Now, in last year's review, I touched on the fact that SVR 08 felt a lot like the SVR games of the past, but I told you I was fine with that. Wrestling is wrestling, and a Pedigree is going to look pretty similar year to year. However, there are times when SVR 09 doesn't just look like SVR 08, there are times when it is SVR 08. There's the same animation for dropping an opponent on the barricade; there's the same ugly Boston Crab and knee-to-the-back Struggle Submissions for a ton of the guys; there's the same guy in a Shane-O-Mac jersey as well as the guy in the green and white striped shirt in the crowd; a lot of the abilities are the same ones from last year; and Finlay has the exact same entrance from last year even though Hornswoggle is an unlockable character in the game this year.
For me, it's these little repeated tidbits that add up and take a toll on SmackDown vs. Raw 2009. By the time I reviewed last year's game, I had logged close to four months with the title and couldn't wait to go online with the public and have at it. This year, I felt like I had seen everything before the first month of the Countdown was up. Road to WrestleMania is fun on a story front, but the matches still feel like last year.
Now, I obviously liked SVR 08, so you could make the argument that the new additions to this year's title should propel it way ahead of the previous installment. Although I'll give you the fact that this is a better game than last year's, I have a few issues with the additions as well as what was subtracted to make room. For starters, you need to know that 24/7 Mode, Hall of Fame challenges, GM Mode, the Buried Alive Match, and Create A Championship are gone. Although a few squeak in due to storylines -- Ric Flair, Tazz, etc. -- Legends are also out this year presumably so that THQ can transition to next year's Legends of WrestleMania without any (much?) overlap. The ECW Extreme Rules match returns, but nothing's been added to the weapon wheel and you can no longer brawl into the crowd; why they don't just combine the weapon wheel with the hardcore match -- called a Falls Count Anywhere match this year -- and be done with it is beyond me, but they don't, and we get two watered-down matches.
What gets me is that the stuff that is replacing the cut items isn't completely solid. SVR 09 boasts the franchise's first foray into instant replay with the Highlight Reel. Here, you can record snippets of your match, save them, and edit them together with transitions, text, graphics and different camera angles. It sounds neat and it's cool that you can upload the videos to the SVR servers for the world to see, but it just doesn't do it for me. Maybe it's just me, but how many times do I want to watch Cena hit his FU or Matt and Jeff do their tag team finisher? I'm sure there's going to be some great clips uploaded, but this isn't what I want to do with this feature. I want to use the Highlight Reel to create entrance videos for my created Superstars; you can't do that in SVR 09. Online matches return in SVR 09, but just like the stuff above, the whole song and dance feels just like last year. It's a very similar setup screen, you can't do online Royal Rumbles, there are leaderboards, and so on. The Highlight Reel and screenshot gallery are basically the only differences.
Another new feature that doesn't feel fleshed out to me is Create A Finisher. Here, you get a maximum of ten animations to create a finisher that's all your own and THQ says that there are more than 500 moves to choose from. The problem I found is that as you begin choosing things, your options become more and more limited. When WrestleMania 2000 came out on the Nintendo 64, it had this fireman's carry that kicked out into a Stunner in the CAS screen. I began using this move -- which I dubbed the Greggy Guillotine -- in my backyard wrestling federation and have been looking for it in every wrestling game since that title. When I got SVR 09, this was the first move I set out to create. I started with a kick to the groin, pulled the guy into a fireman's carry, settled for a Diamond Cutter kick out, and then felt my heart drop. All I needed was a Stunner to finished the move, but my only options were a Dreamer Driver Drop, Forward Body Press Impact, and Forward Military Press Slam. Now, there's a Stunner in this game, but for some reason I couldn't attach it to finish my move. In fact, as I toyed around with the feature, it felt like I could really only just add garnishes to existing finishers -- y'know, spray some green mist in a dude's face before hitting an RKO or taunt a bunch of times before hitting a cradle piledriver. There are going to be a lot of people who think CAF is the greatest thing ever (and more power to them), but I could've gone with a few less restrictions and a few more original moves to really give this feature some teeth.
See More WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 Screenshot at IGN.com
On top of all that and beyond the clipping issues that are always present in these games, the graphics don't impress. Superstars look good -- really good -- but when they start interacting, things go somewhat south. The crowd in the upper deck is a mess sometimes; when I was in a ladder match for the Intercontinental Championship in my Career, I pulled the World Heavyweight belt off the hook only to have it switch to the IC belt in the after-match cutscene; when I put Undertaker and Kane into a ladder match that had no gold involved whatsoever, the brothers of destruction won but celebrated by hoisting and slapping invisible championship belts; and when Big Show walks to the ring with a belt over his shoulder, the strap visibly hovers over his shape rather than touching his skin. Still, 360 is the best looking version of this game thanks to brighter visuals; if you want to see the full breakdown of how SVR 09 plays across the different platforms, check out IGN Insider's Head-To-Head.
In the end, WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 is a good game but one that falls short of its potential. The Roster Editor is a welcome addition, Create-A-Finisher could be deeper but is a great first effort, the Inferno Match is over-the-top but fun, and Road to WrestleMania is one of the best story modes I've seen in a wrestling game in years. However, I can't shake the feeling that I'm playing last year's game when we get down to the nitty gritty match mechanics. Entrances, match list presentation, animations, and even a couple crowd members are recycled from SVR 08; pixilated audience members in the upper deck and bad belt detection haven't even been addressed; and the ECW Extreme Rules match has been gimped.
These issues shouldn't be deal breakers for fans of squared-circle action nor do they detract from the fact that this is better than last year's game, but the problems do leave me without ever feeling "wowed" while playing SVR 09.
IGN Ratings for WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 (X360)
The ability to adjust the AI is awesome and the game's a breeze to get around, but the match list has the same setup as last year and a number of other recycled visuals hold it back.
Generally, the wrestlers look great, but the blocky crowd, championship belts that hover on shoulders, and annual clipping issues aren't high points.
RTW's streamlined stories, voiceovers and commentary are actually intelligent and interesting. Outside of the match, the announcers are hit and miss, but it's great to be able to skip tracks.
Matches are fun, but they feel just like last year thanks to a lot of the same animations and same interactable objects. Still, Road to WrestleMania is a breath of fresh air.
8.0 Lasting Appeal
You're probably looking at around 15 hours to complete all the RTW storylines and bonus objectives. It'll take you a while to build up a Superstar in Career, but that's not necessarily a good thing.
(out of 10 / not an average)
Edited by Subrick, 11 November 2008 - 01:33 AM.