Review by Vamphaery

"A large step forward from last year's game, with far fewer - but at times still significant - annoyances."

DISCLAIMER: All reviews are subjective opinions. The review that matters most to you should be your own. This review is only one person's individual opinion.

INTRODUCTION:

Last year's Smackdown vs Raw 2010 was a large step forward for the franchise, at least in terms of sheer potential. Unfortunately, much of that potential was squandered and frustrated by inexplicable and bothersome limitations and technical issues.

This year's game, like its predecessor, is replete with promise and potential, and even before its release, stood a decent chance of being the best Smackdown game in many years. Unlike its predecessor, this year's game comes a lot closer to hitting that mark and being exactly that. It isn't perfect by a long shot, and there are still some at times baffling and frustrating issues, but what I got far exceeds what I feel compelled to complain about, and virtually every one of last year's hugest annoyances and limitations have been resolved.

GAMEPLAY: 8/10

This is ultimately the heart of any wrestling game, and this year's Smackdown is no exception.

The first and most readily apparent change to this year's gameplay is the removal of the strong grapple modifier. This means that you cannot perform strong grapples at your whim, and must instead render your opponent into a “groggy state.” This can be done in a variety of intuitive ways, and when facing AI opponents, is not a problem at all (at least not in my experience with the game.) Against human opponents, who reverse much more frequently and with far greater success, and on the hardest AI settings, this can arguably become a problem. It boils down to how you like your matches to flow, and how frustrated you become when reversed frequently.

The pace of the matches is different, now. It's no longer about pulling off whatever move you want, whenever you want, with a slim chance of reversal. No. Now it's about using your weak grapples and strikes and reversing aggressively to wear your opponent down enough that they end up at least occasionally in that groggy state. Then you can apply your strong grapples, dishing our more damage, and eventually leading you to gain enough momentum to pull off signatures and finishers. The task of doing so is by no means as easy or simple as it was before. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on the kind of player you are.

If, like me, you love reversals, and feel they make matches more fun, challenging, lengthy, and wrestling-like in spirit, then you will not have a problem with this in all likelihood. If, however, you are primarily concerned with using the strongest moves in your arsenal frequently and don't like being constantly reversed as you try to wear your opponent down, then you are going to find this year's game very frustrating at times. When that happens, especially against human opponents, people have a tendency to begin spamming running grapples or strikes in a desperate attempt to overwhelm their reversal-adept rivals.

If you fall into the latter group, you are likely to find this year's gameplay fairly frustrating and annoying. And that is a perfectly valid and understandable complaint.

Another valid and perfectly understandable complaint is the reduction in selectable moves during matches. Because strong grapples are harder to pull off now, we only have four of them. We also only have one running strike. This might not be much of a problem depending on who you are and what you want, except that there are already moves likely to be repeated frequently due to the aforementioned desperate spamming, and the reliance on quick grapples. Having only four strong grapples only adds to the repetition. Still, the controls work, the frequent reversals are suspenseful and challenging, and if you're like me and just enjoy the flow of the matches as they are, you will find a lot to love here. That said, one big problem is the pinning system. AI opponents seem to have a lot of difficulty kicking out, and you may find that you have the same problem when facing human opponents. The pinning system feels inherently unbalanced, and would probably benefit from an unlikely to materialize patch.

The second, and probably most profound change to this year's gameplay, is the addition of interactive object physics. This has been a long, long time coming, and overall, it's very sweet. And it applies to virtually everything in the game. You can throw ladders, chairs, tables, and other objects. You can lean them on other objects, or on each other. You can run up them, and jump off of them. You can perform moves on to them, damaging your opponent (and, not infrequently, yourself) in the process. It looks great, it feels great, and it all works. It doesn't always work flawlessly, though.

There are often odd collision glitches, such as table debris jerking around wildly while colliding with a character model, causing both to animate erratically. Other times you may be frustrated when trying to set up cool looking spots involving ladders and tables, because they collide with one another and other objects, at times making it difficult to set them up properly before your opponent recovers and begins to attack, or more frustratingly, pick up one of the weapons you just took time carefully placing. My frustration level with this never rose above the feeling of awesomeness throwing someone off a ladder through two stacked tables, though. And that says a lot for how functional and cool these additions are, despite some rough edges.

Fortunately, we have some help pulling off these moves, in the form of the ability to guide our opponents toward the objects we're aiming at. We can now use the analog stick to aim in the direction of objects while performing moves. It's not always intuitive, but it generally works excellently, and really gives you the sense that you're in control of where your opponent lands. And when they land on a chair, or a ladder, or a table, or the steel steps... etc. ... it looks brutal indeed.

That isn't the only control tweak fleshing out the game this year. Moves like bridging suplexes that were intended as pinning maneuvers last year, now have the option to forego the pin. An indicator will pop up saying “Pin! B” telling you to press the B button during the move if you want it to end with a pin. Refraining means you'll perform the move, but won't go for the pin at the end of it. It's another nice addition that gives you more of a sense of being in control.

All in all, while there IS some frustration here, I found that there was a lot more joy than annoyance on offer this year in the gameplay department. And that “it's not perfect, and it's sometimes annoying, but it's ultimately more full of reasons to play than reasons not to” theme will become a mantra in every part of the game reviewed herein.

SINGLE PLAYER MODES (Exhibition, Universe, and Road to Wrestlemania): 8/10

The first thing I have to mention this year is Universe Mode. If you're reading this review, you probably already know what Universe Mode is supposed to be: a combination of exhibition and career or season modes generating entertaining events and relationships on the fly in an endless calendar of WWE events. By that standard, the mode does deliver what it promised, but as with most new modes introduced throughout the franchise's history, it is not without its problems or frustrating limitations.

First the bad news: you cannot create title matches whenever you want. They can only happen at Pay Per Views, and only the CPU can book them in Universe. If you try to set up a match between a number one contender and a champion, it will be a non-title match. It will only be a title match if the CPU books it itself.

More bad news: because the mode is centered around rivalries and alliances, interference during matches in Universe is all too frequent. So much so that it becomes annoying at times. Furthermore, its ability to create, change, and end relationships and rivalries, means that Universe will frequently alter or completely disband teams you spend a lot of time creating entrances for. It's yet another well-intentioned mechanic that ultimately leads to frustration.

Now for the good news: it really is a living, breathing WWE program. Events will unfold, and most of them will range from interesting and compelling to hilariously ridiculous. Either way, you're likely to be entertained at least. Rankings and rivalries matter, and booking in such a way that people you want to push eventually earn title shots is very satisfying.

Better news: all of the bad news above can be worked around and rectified. You can't book title matches in Universe (although there is a workaround for this involving assigning unlockable titles in addition to “official” titles,) but you can create matches against highly ranked superstars that will result in people eventually working their way up to becoming number one contender, and the AI will then eventually book their title shot at a PPV. Teams may get disbanded, but you can recreate them easily, and you can start or stop any alliance or rivalry you want at anytime in Superstar Management. You don't have total control, but you can set things up in such a way that nothing that happens that you dislike is permanent. You can also assign titles to anyone you want at any time without having matches.

The result is a somewhat frustrating and tedious experience which nonetheless, overall, provides (at least for me) an engrossing and fun simulation of WWE events, with a degree of unpredictability and flexibility that always leaves me wondering what will happen next. Again, I get more fun out of this mode than frustration. It's tedious, but not insurmountable, and ultimately it works if you want it to. Not that we should have to work so hard at getting it to function the way we want, and hopefully next year we won't. It's a HUGE step up from previous years' total lack of a season mode, and last year's barebones Career Mode, in which nothing happened at all but a series of matches.

Outside of Universe, there is traditional exhibition mode. In this mode you can defend unlockable titles whenever you want (although, again, you'll have to use a workaround by assigning them to those with official titles to make the major titles defendable outside of Universe.) You have the option of toggling Universe Mode on and off, and when it's on, exhibition matches will affect Universe rankings, and even Universe cards on future dates. Otherwise, it's as straightforward as you've always known it to be. With one major exception.

Underlying both Universe and Exhibition is the Match Creator option. An expanded means of setting up win conditions and match rules, this feature allows players to mix and match various match types and elements to create more varied matches. As always, there are limitations. You can't edit Royal Rumble matches. You can't go crazy and have ladders in Inferno matches. You can't have Hell in a Cell in a Cage TLC matches, etc. But you have way more options than you did last year.

The final single player mode is Road to Wrestlemania. This is the franchise's linear, story-driven “campaign” of sorts. There are several, and each follows the story of some of the WWE's most popular superstars as they make their way to a culminating confrontation at Wrestlemania. This mode too sees some changes and expansions this year. Between matches we can now freely wander around backstage, engage in side quests, get into conversations or fights, and earn attribute points to bolster your character on their journey to ‘Mania.

Unfortunately, these sections of the mode can become slightly tedious and repetitive. The actual events that unfold as well as the voice acting (including some surprising and very cool cameos) are all very cool. But the need to fight practically everyone you encounter in order to grind for attribute points that don't really seem like they matter that much, coupled with the desire to just get to the next part of the story, is sometimes grating. As other have said, the lip-synching during backstage encounters is very poor, in typical J-RPG style. That's fine with me, given the old Smackdown season modes' similar presentation, but for others I can see it being a detracting factor.

Overall, the stories are fun and engaging. You just have to put up with some minor tedium and repetition. Like the rest of the game, it isn't perfect, but it's an improvement over last year's game, and is fun and engrossing overall. And the “Versus Undertaker” story, in particular, is in my opinion among the best ever told in a Smackdown game, in terms of sheer enjoyment and cool factor.

ONLINE GAMEPLAY: 8/10

While we're on the subject of improvements over last year's game, we cannot ignore how unacceptably laggy and latency-marred last year's online portions were. You would press a button to pick up a weapon, and a second or two later you'd pick it up. You'd run at an opponent and try to perform a running strike or grapple, only to run right passed them, stop, and then strike or grapple at thin air. Well, one thing I can say for certain this year, is that you won't experience that again.

While there are occasionally what feel like framerate dips or resynchronizations, there is no real-time latency or lag that interferes with matches. With the exception of exaggerated stamina drain and injuries resulting in increasingly geriatric-seeming wrestlers late in matches, the online game really does feel quite similar to an offline single player match. Not identical, and not perfect, but definitely playable. I had multiple matches, and never once found myself complaining or even thinking about lag. And that's about as good a commendation as online gameplay can get in my book.

While that is true, and while there are many, many more match types available online this year (including six man matches,) there are some problems. The much hyped online Royal Rumble is unfortunately online play's weakest link, at least at the time of this review's writing. Frequent freezing, crashing, and spontaneous disconnections (often without even knowing that people have disconnected, as you continue the match in unwitting isolation,) all mar what has the potential to be an incredibly fun and addictive online mode of play in the Rumble. And while those issues don't seem to plague any of the other online match types, the ongoing inability to have tag team or other player matches against AI opponents is disappointing. It would be truly awesome to form a tag team with a friend online and take on the AI together on Legend difficulty.

USER CREATED CONTENT: 8/10

The popular and famous Create-a-Superstar (more commonly known as Create-a-Wrestler) mode returns this year. If you played last year's game, you know what to expect here for the most part. The actual creation interface is virtually identical, as are the parts (although there are some additions, such as the return of patterns to be applied to clothing, and more tattoos and designs.) The same can be said of last year's Story Designer and Paint Tool features. So what's different? The biggest and best difference is simply that last year's limitations are now gone, and you are much, much more free to create, share, and use your and others' creations.

For starters, any CAW you download can be fully edited this year. That includes entrances, and yes, that means custom entrance music from your hard drive. No longer will you download an awesome Kurt Angle or Macho Man CAW only to be stuck with a lame entrance or the wrong music. You can change EVERYTHING you download. You just can't re-upload it.

Likewise, created stories can now feature as many CAW appearances as you want. Last year's CAW limit was incredibly frustrating, as it largely hamstrung what had the potential to be an amazing mode. Now you can have up to 15 unique CAWs in any created story, but they can appear in that story - which can be up to ten years long if you want it to - as many times as you like, without limit. That is a huge boon for creative storytellers with a penchant for creating and using wrestling legend CAWs or their own original characters.

Paint Tool returns this year. Its interface has not been simplified or made more efficient, but you can now use it to create custom crowd signs. You can share individual Paint Tool files online as well now.

Last year's Create-a-Finisher returns this year, this time with a new position, with the opponent sitting on the top rope. This allows for the creation of some really crazy (and admittedly unrealistic) moves. It would have been nice if there were a wider variety of more straightforward creation possibilities with this addition - I tried very hard to make a true brainbuster DDT, only to be foiled, yet you can make dozens of different variations of hurricanranas and other acrobatic maneuvers - but it is a welcome and useful tool nonetheless.

Story Designer now features branching options so that scenes can play out differently depending upon player choices, and in-match triggers for scenes to play. This gives you a lot more flexibility and control over your stories, even if the new scenes added this year aren't much more diverse than last year's, and despite the fact that the interface is virtually unchanged. It does, however, benefit from faster loading times (as does the game as a whole.)

If there is one downside to this year's creation modes in my view, it is that the variety of moves available in Create-a-Moveset takes another significant hit this year. Not the number of moves, mind you, because when you consider all of the added moves for the new positions - sitting on the top rope, and the "tree of woe" position - there really aren't fewer moves than last year's game on the whole. But there is less VARIETY in the available moves. I found it incredibly difficult to create movesets for traditional grapplers or submissions specialists (although there are one or two more struggle submissions this year,) or to choose simple moves that were realistic to what I or my friends might be able to pull off in real life. I was forced to use moves I didn't want to for my movesets, and that's not a good thing in a wrestling game where individuality and customization are all important. You'll also see the same relatively short list of moves for different grapple types. More variety would have greatly enhanced my CAWs in my opinion.

Topping all of this off, is a much more efficient and user-friendly interface online. Creations upload and download MUCH, MUCH faster than last year. Community ratings can now be made in more increments, so reviews are more organic and accurate. And even downloading and loading paint tool patterns during online matches that use them is a lot faster than last year. The whole experience is greatly improved, and much, much smoother, even if the fundamentals haven't changed significantly. So, again, despite the lack of ove variety, I feel I'm getting a lot more than I'm losing overall.

GRAPHICS AND PRESENTATION: 8/10

Last year's game definitely set a new bar for WWE games in terms of television-like presentation. The game continues to improve incrementally but noticeably in this department this year as well. In addition to more impressive models and textures, arena lighting and modeling is much more detailed, animated, and mechanical in appearance.

In addition to the mini-trons, there is more scaffolding, light rigging, spotlight articulation, and other little details that really bring arenas to life, especially during entrances. In my opinion, this is the best arenas have ever looked in a WWE game.

Blood looks a bit more permanent and “splattery” that last year, but is essentially similar if not identical tech. It looks as great as it did last year.

The usual culprits like clipping, wrestler size mismatching, and other small blemishes make their yearly appearance, but overall the game looks amazing in my opinion.

AUDIO: 7/10

This was last year's weakest link from a technical point of view, and it remains so this year. Crowd reactions are simultaneous weak and inaccurate. Entrance themes sound great, but don't give the impression that they're being played in an arena. They sound like what they are: studio recordings being played line-level over what are supposed to be cable TV broadcasts. Weapon and move impact sounds are sufficiently violent.

The audio is more than sufficient, but in my opinion it could be better. It could significantly contribute to the feeling of actually being at a WWE event if it were improved. In particular crowd response, while slightly more organic this year seemingly, needs an overhaul to make it feel and sound more like a living crowd involved in a pro wrestling match happening in front of them.

Commentary is, unfortunately, as repetitive, inaccurate, and emotionless sounding as it was last year. I'm sure Cole and Lawler did their best, but it just isn't the same if they aren't really at a live event calling it on the fly. Maybe it's too much to ask for it to be anything close to that though when I think about it.

CONCLUSION/FINAL SCORE: 8/10

Smackdown vs Raw 2011 improves on its predecessor in almost every way. It resolves the most problematic of last year's game's shortcomings. It adds new modes and features that are fun and workable, if imperfect and at times tedious, and certainly salvageable for those willing to put up with them. It gives us some things we've been demanding for years now - in particular weapon physics and attacks. Online is finally fully playable - with the exception of Royal Rumble at the time of this review - which in and of itself is a huge step forward from last year.

The game is not perfect. However, unlike last year, I truly feel that this year's game is giving me more that I can enjoy and be immersed in than it is giving me reasons to be disappointed or frustrated. People are different, and many will no doubt feel differently. And I respect those people's opinions and standards. The one thing I can say for certain is this:

If anyone from THQ is reading this, please take note: if you want to please both me and those who are much more disappointed and frustrated with this game than I am, the solution is the same for both. Give us a game in which WE decide what we can and can't do, with more freedom and flexibility, and less of what YOU THINK we should want to do in the game. This will please everyone, and next year I might be playing a game I can fairly and honestly score a 9 instead of an 8. (I scored last year's game a 7, so progress is being made in my opinion.)

As it stands, this is the best WWE game I have played in five years. And for now, that is more than good enough for me.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/27/10, Updated 10/29/10

Game Release: WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 (US, 10/26/10)


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