Sweaty, oiled-up, shaven-chested men wearing nothing but a tiny pair of swimming trunks were a big part of my childhood. Thankfully, I’ve repressed those memories and focused instead on how much I used to love the wrestling.
For the record, I was a big Ultimate Warrior fan but Rowdy Roddy Piper and Brett Hart were favourites too. Even at the end of the 1980s when televised American Wrestling was in its first golden era in the UK I wasn’t silly enough to think it was real. I mean, they really hit each other, they really jump twenty feet in the air and land on each other and they used to really bleed but they also decide who’s going to win and they plot storylines long before shows are televised. I always knew I was watching the stories as much as the matches.
I lost touch with the world of wrestling for a while and gravitated back to it at the end of the 1990’s with World Championship Wrestling which now seemed to house all the old superstars from my childhood of watching the World Wrestling Federation. Around this time I first became aware of Extreme Championship Wrestling and the completely crazy stuff they were doing in smaller shows with barbed wire, ladders, tables and copious amounts of blood. I was captivated again, following Chris Jericho, Raven and Taz. The storylines seemed to have gotten a little weirder in my absence but the core mechanic of “light soap opera with some fighting thrown in” was still present and it still works.
Now we’re coming to the end of another decade and my latent love for wrestling recently reared its head again. I went back to my VHS collection a couple of months ago and re-watched some old Wrestlemanias. I found a DVD of highlights from the Undertaker’s career and watched that in silent rapture. It seems that I can’t escape the fact that wrestling and I are destined to always be recurring acquaintances.
This past week though, there has been nothing casual about my association with “sports entertainment”. I’ve been playing Smackdown Vs Raw 2010 and loving every minute of it. Twice this week I’ve been awake after four in the morning because of this game. That doesn’t happen to me very often. So now I have to be objective for the review and it’s going to be difficult. I will admit to you all that my nostalgia for the world of wrestling might leave me pre-disposed to enjoying anything based on that world. In order to make the review as fair as possible I have decided to discount anything in my review notes that is very positive without qualifying that positivity.
So where to start? Well, the game loads up through the credit screens and the warning not to try to recreate what you see at home (heed this advice, I tried to put my wife in a scoop-slam and ended up getting my eyes gouged and being suplexed into the coffee table…). You get one screen with the customary “Press Start” message and when you do you’re presented with a ring and two wrestlers. That’s it. This is the “Training Facility” which is a stroke of genius by the game’s designers. Probably heavily inspired by the Arena modes on games like FIFA you can play in this ring against a docile opponent straight from the start. The game prompts you with little tutorials that tell you how to perform all the moves in the game so it basically works like a training tutorial.
Press start from the Training Facility and you’re given the menus. Again, these are laid out in a similar way to the FIFA menus and a quick scroll around the user interface will demonstrate that there is a vast amount to do in this game. All the match types I could think of (and plenty that I couldn’t) are there, including new Royal Rumble modes, Mixed Tag matches and Backstage brawls. Among the other options you will find massive amounts of scope for customisation. You can create a wrestler, set affiliations and rivalries, craft storylines and customise almost anything you can imagine in the game. It really is impressive just how much scope for change they have allowed the player.
All of your customisations can be uploaded and made available for others to download and use. This is brilliant for those of us who don’t have the ability or the time to tweak all the parameters to get a faithful representation of Roddy Piper (or Superman) in the game. I found both (as well as Batman’s Joker and Harley Quinn) available for download. I imagine that some fans will spend a lot of time with the new “Create a Storyline” mode crafting story arcs that stretch over weeks and hopefully they will appear for download so we can all take advantage of their commitment.
The first thing that strikes you when you set up your first match is the size of the roster. I counted around seventy slots there (some locked but that number grows when you start including the created stars you can download). There are a lot of “Divas” in there too if that’s your thing but for me it was a straight race to find The Undertaker and someone for him to beat up. It’s worth noting that the roster is not totally up to date (they never are due to contract shifting and development times) but that’s hardly a huge concern. Anyone missing will no doubt be created and downloadable very soon and the few that are in the roster but no longer on the show could be seen as added bonuses.
When you’ve made all your match options you’re treated to the full show. Lights, video walls, pyrotechnics and full, brilliantly accurate, entrance sequences. The character models are fantastic but the faces are perhaps not as photo-perfect as in other recent fighting games. They are close though and the overall modeling combined with the textures look really good.
When the bell rings and you’re expected to come out fighting you will suddenly realise the value of the Training Facility you found before the menus. The controls are smooth and instinctual with the right stick serving for grapples and the face buttons giving you strike, whip and special moves. There is an extensive move list which is largely individual for each wrestler and you will gradually learn all the more complicated moves as you experience the combat. In truth though, there really isn’t much to it, everything feels very natural to control.
Collision detection is often key in games like this and Smackdown vs Raw 2010 is no different. There are occasional problems with the ropes or ring-curtain when you’re character is against them but with impact the collision detection seems to be as close to perfect as I’ve seen. Obviously there are some issues with clipping (when one texture disappears into another) due to the huge variations in character sizes and shapes that are permitted but it never interferes with the gameplay. There are odd animations sometimes when an opponent is halfway through getting up or is too close to the ropes for the move you’re performing but those are instantly forgivable as they don’t impede your enjoyment of the game other than having to watch half a second of awkward animation.
The only big in-ring problem for me was the referee. He goes translucent when the game predicts that he is in your line of sight. That’s the good thing; the referee is very rarely visually distracting. Unfortunately he has a habit of trying to be far too close to the action. I mistakenly attacked the referee several times, including a few when he literally walked in between me and an opponent I was striking. Maybe it’s there on purpose to simulate the real-life regular “mistaken” beatings that referees take. Either way, it was occasionally enough to annoy me.
I’m not sure anymore who the target demographic is for this kind of entertainment. In recent years the Mixed Martial Arts franchises seem to have pulled a lot of the older side of wrestling’s demographic away so WWE might be focussing on a slightly younger audience than they used to (some of those ECW matches were definitely not suitable for anyone younger than mid-teens). That certainly seems to be the case as this game is extremely easy. I got through my first few matches quickly, only taking a few strikes from my opponent before he was soundly beaten and humiliated. Using a created wrestler makes things slightly more difficult due to the way you have to build stats via a light RPG system. The game still never gets too stressful though.
At this point I discovered that I’d been doing it wrong. The point in Smackdown Vs Raw 2010 is not simply to beat your opponent, as I had been doing. The point is to win the match in the most entertaining way. Once you realise that it’s not just about squashing your adversary as quickly and resolutely as possible you will take more risks to make things entertaining and in the process you will leave yourself open to attack and make the game more difficult on the whole. The system awards you for playing the game how they intended without punishing you for just mashing the strike button and throwing in a few simple grapples to get your pin.
Throughout the storyline modes you have a minimum of options to make which basically consist of save, fight or listen to some voicemail. The backstage user interface you’re presented with for these modes is not great. It’s very simple and the background textures look like they were borrowed from an earlier game. This is a little out of place with the presentation of the rest of the game being so good but as it is basically a fancy three-point menu I think we can forgive it.
All things considered, Smackdown Vs Raw 2010 is a brilliant package. It will appeal to anyone with more than a casual interest in the world of professional wrestling and seems to build on previous iterations enough to make the upgrade more beneficial than just access to new rosters. There are a few issues with difficulty and some minor presentation concerns but when a game is fun enough, in so many different ways, to keep you playing through the night until the birds start singing then it must be doing a lot of things right.
Graphics: Clean and clear, no big problems but might have been a little bit more polished: 8/10
Sound: Predictably strong soundtrack of relevent themes and complimentary music. Voice acting is weak: 7/10
Gameplay: Lots of fun in matches and story modes but equal pleasure in create modes. Perhaps a bit too easy: 8/10
Overall: Smackdown vs Raw 2010 is a fun, well presented title which will appeal to core fans of the genre but shouldn’t be overlooked by casual players.