Let’s make something clear right away before it crops up in the comments, professional wrestling may be sports entertainment but wrestling games are very much sports games. The matches you wrestle in don’t have pre-arranged endings and the gameplay is more like a very fleshed out fighter than a simulation of what actual wrestling is like. With that out of the way let’s talk about the 2011 entry in the WWE SmackDown vs Raw series of games.
The biggest update to the yearly franchise is a huge overhaul of the in-ring physics engine. This is immediately noticeable when you play any match featuring weaponry. If you take part in a Tables, Ladders and Chairs match the amount of fun you can have with the new system is pretty much limitless. Knock a ladder over and it might bounce back to upright off the ropes, hit your finisher next to a table and you can drive your opponent through it.
The flexibility that this introduces is a much needed breath of fresh air for the series, up until now if you wanted to drive someone through a table you had to set them up in a very awkward fashion. Putting people through tables with ease is just fantastic, as is being able to lean ladders against the ropes or each other to create a violent looking mesh of metal.
To go along with the new physics system, the controls have been tweaked a reasonable amount to allow you to take advantage of the more realistic weapons. You can use the left stick to modify a move’s direction midway through, making the combat feel more dynamic and less like you’re just performing completely scripted moves. This feeling of control is boosted a lot by the fact that no move ends in a pinfall by default; you’re given a quicktime event whilst the move is taking place allowing you to chose whether or not you want to pin at the end of the move or carry on beating on your opponent before you try to get the three-count.
The controls also feel deeper than they have in previous iterations, with a huge variety of grapple and strike combinations. Sadly this depth of control is let down by move-sets that feel a little bit limited. Some characters have the same move multiple times and it can make you feel a bit frustrated to see John Cena hit the same backdrop over and over again.
Aside from the standard quickplay mode, the two big focuses of attention are the WWE Universe and Road to Wrestlemania modes. Road to Wrestlemania featured last year but has been updated significantly since then. You now have five stories to play through; Chris Jericho, Christian, John Cena, Rey Mysterio and Vs. Undertaker, and they feel a bit more involving than last year. What really helps this is the ability to free-roam backstage before your match, adding an RPG-esque element. The backstage area does feel a little bit like the traditional RPG town, with other characters wandering around that you can talk to and the WWE trainer with whom you can spend the XP you earn through matches.
Sadly, whilst it does feel like an RPG town, what the area doesn’t feel like is the backstage area at a WWE event. For a start, everything is eerily silent, even though the door to the arena filled with tens of thousands of screaming fans is open most of the time. There’s not nearly enough hustle and bustle, aside from the trainer there’s no support staff at all.
There’s an interview area with an operator-less camera and buffet table (sadly you can’t eat from them) that just seem to have been filled by magic as there’s no hint of any catering staff. The Divas even have a makeup area that doesn’t have anyone to actually do the makeup.
The slight ghost town feeling you get isn’t the worst thing about the backstage area, that honour is reserved for the movement and camera. The controls aren’t terrible; it just seems that your animation doesn’t have very much relation to the speed you’re moving at. On top of that, the camera is simply abysmal. Whilst you can move the camera around your character, the distance is stuck at about three feet, making it incredibly frustrating. Sometimes you’ll be looking for someone in a room, someone you know is there, and miss them because the camera is so difficult to use.
However, the issues with the backstage area are nothing compared to the absolutely terrible voice acting. Apart from one or two notable exceptions (Randy Orton is brilliant) all of the voice acting lacks any passion at all, normally sounding like it’s being read by a robot. Considering these are performers who are on TV week after week it’s surprising just how awful the voice acting is, something which is further dragged down by lines that don’t feel natural for the characters. There’s also the issue that on two of the cutscenes the audio was missing entirely, although subtitles were still present so you could still tell what was going on.
Luckily, it’s not all bad in the Road to Wrestlemania mode. Whilst the backstage area is hard to use, it does give you a feeling that other storylines are taking place alongside yours. Sadly, the five different stories available to play don’t seem to overlap or run concurrently, but other characters you talk to backstage will gripe about their opponents or other things that are happening. This is only a little touch, but it does create the sense that you’re not the only person on the show.
Whilst the previously touched-on dialogue may be awful, the overall story writing is more of a mixed bag. Some of the stories are great and close to what you see on TV, even producing some emotion, whereas others are just awful and very ‘gamey’. The big plus here though is the introduction of branching. You’re given options and you don’t have to win every single match, some can be lost and produce different consequences. It’s just another thing that makes Road to Wrestlemania feel fleshed out.
WWE Universe is a career mode on steroids, tracking everything you do. That does mean everything and is pretty surprising when you realise just how much it does. Decide to just play a quick match with a friend? Guess what, that was now the opening match on SmackDown. The win/loss records will be updated and if you play with the same characters a few times they’ll build a rivalry. That means when you go and play matches in the WWE Universe mode your rivals may well run in on your match. If you play through a number one contender’s match the champ may well come and watch to scout his competition.
Even the commentary progresses, so as you build up cards and move through the year the commentators will mention that this is the first SmackDown after Backlash. It’s genuinely impressive and the amount of work it does without you is wonderful. The lineup for a show is automatically generated based on character rankings and rivalries, and you can play as many or as few of the matches as you want to. It’s really is a great addition and has terrific potential for future outings. Sure, the storylines are nowhere near as deep as Road to Wrestlemania, but for a dynamic system it’s impressive.
Online has received a much needed upgrade from last year’s lag-heavy offering, and now runs as smoothly as local games. On top of that, the game now supports the 30-man Royal Rumble match online, something that will surely please long-time fans of the series.
Finally, a word on creation: growing up from the simple character creation of the original games in the series, the title now supports creation modes for storylines, finishers, entrances and a vastly opened-up character creation mode that includes clothes creation and a paint tool that lets you create everything from show logos to crowd signs.
The main focus does still seem to be on character creation and it’s incredibly deep but can be kept simple if that’s the way you want it. Everything has templates you can use as a base but the extent that you build on them is up to you. Want to age your character’s skin? There’s an option for that. Want them to wrestle in formal wear? Well, you can have that. Pretty much anything you want is there and with the WWE Shop that’s been added it looks like Yukes and THQ will be bringing you even more options via DLC. The only issue here is that, when choosing an option, it takes an instant longer than you want to load the change onto your character, meaning it can become tedious.
- New physics system makes the title feel more real and flow better
- Tweaked controls make you feel in control of the action
- Storylines in Road to Wrestlemania feel deeper
- WWE Universe works well to create a dynamic world
- Backstage area in Road to Wrestlemania controls awfully
- Voice acting is terrible for the most part
- Movesets feel pretty limited on some characters
Despite some shortcomings in the Road to Wrestlemania mode, SmackDown vs Raw 2011 is definitely a new highpoint for the series. The new physics system makes the whole experience a lot more fun and characters perform generally as you expect them to. The balance of simplicity and depth throughout is impressive and should draw in new players without disappointing old fans of the series. It may not be perfect, but it’s a huge step in the right direction and very enjoyable overall.