Review by Rottenwood

"When Men In Underpants Collide"

(I am not much for on-line play, so this review doesn't include that feature of the game.)

My friends and I love having wrestling games around for party-gaming night, even though most of us haven't watched the WWE in years. The PS2 wrestling games never really caught on with us, though. Not only is it more of a hassle to get them going (we've had more problems with PS2 multitaps then I care to relate), but the gameplay always seemed a bit off, particularly the collision detection and bizarre wall/table physics. We've mostly stuck with GameCube wrestling games, even though they've hardly been perfect either. But with this '2006' edition of Smackdown! vs. RAW, the gap seems to be closing. While this new title still has its fair share of gameplay quirks and annoying flaws, it serves up a relatively solid and entertaining game of grappling. With a zillion match types and top-shelf production values, it should go down easy for any gaming group who enjoys the wrasslin'.

As I noted earlier, I haven't actually watched the WWE in eons, so I can't comment on how up-to-date the roster is. Most of the faces seemed familiar, though, and the game assigns statistics to each wrestler so you know where they fall in the general pecking order. There's even a solid pile of legends you can unlock, from 80's icons like Andre the Giant to more recent superstars like The Rock and Steve Austin. These are great inclusions, especially for multiplayer party gaming where many of the participants are only familiar with wrestlers from their childhood. My only beef is that Jake 'The Snake' Roberts can only be unlocked by earning him in the PSP edition of the game, and transferring him over. Since the two versions of the game are nearly identical except for hardware limitations, there's no real compelling reason to own both, so ol' Jake will probably never see the light of day on many systems. The phrase "dude, we can't use Jake The Snake?!?" was uttered about five separate times when my group first started playing. Chalk it up as a minor bummer. Anyhow, you can also design your own wrestlers to use, and the creation system is quite robust. You can even make your own stables (allied groups of wrestlers) and championships. The ability to basically design your own little side federation, complete with its own titles, will be a delight to many.

Surprisingly, the game offers up some solid single-player content as well. There are two fairly-long campaigns (one for each show) featuring the sort of stuff you'd expect from a WWE broadcast: wrestling matches punctuated with ongoing storylines, sudden betrayals, and that trademark silliness you've come to expect from a 'sport' where grown men in little underpants hit each other with furniture. None of the plot lines are particularly gripping, but they do add a little authenticity to the proceedings, and are certainly preferred to the 'fight a bunch of times until you get the title' stuff you'd get in older wrestling games. You'll probably get tired of fighting the same set of guys over and over during a 'feud,' but they generally toss in enough gimmick matches to help shake off the repetition.

And if it is gimmick matches you seek, this game has them by the boatload. It even goes so far as to include the amusingly-named Elimination Chamber match, which is quite possibly the silliest and most convoluted thing I've ever seen in a wrasslin' ring. Half of the participants spend much of the match locked away in little plastic cages until the clock finally winds down and lets them out, while everyone else is climbing along the walls like Spiderman, leaping like madmen into the fray. It's just goofy enough to be fun. Buried Alive matches are pretty neat, too. The fight will eventually spill over to the coffin by the entranceway, and you've got to get your opponent into the coffin and slam the door shut while he struggles to get loose. Good stuff. You've got table matches, of course, and the fabled ladder match. If that's simply not enough, you can just throw it all into a pot and do a Tables, Ladders, AND Chairs match. There's even a Fulfill Your Fantasy match, where two WWE divas put on skimpy outfits and attack each other with pillows, spankings, or the brutal 'take her clothes off' attack. I'm not entirely sure if anyone actually lists two digitized women slugging each other in silly outfits as one of their fantasies, but hey, to each their own.

Alas, my favorite match type - the illustrious ladder match - is a complete mess, at least in single-player mode. Your A.I. opponent will, 99% of the time, always casually walk over to the nearest ladder, pick it up, set it up in the center of the ring, and start climbing. You can be standing right there waiting for him with a chair in your hand, and he'll still go through the routine as if he was all alone in the ring. So naturally, he starts climbing, and you pop him with the chair and send him painfully down to the mat. You then watch as he staggers back to his feet, and.... picks up the ladder, sets it up, etc., etc. It's like watching a ladder-climbing A.I. routine, rather than feeling like a match with a real opponent. You can race your opponent to the top of the ladder and fight it out up there, too, but things don't improve. You can literally spend three minutes or more trading punches up there, with no consequence. It's a pity, too, because the ladder is such fun to use. You can bash people with it, set them on top of it and leap onto them, or set it up in a corner and hurl your opponent into it with a satisfying crash. Thankfully, your friends will presumably have a lot more sense than the A.I. does, and ladder matches are still great fun in multiplayer.

Side note: here's my favorite lame ladder match memory. I was 'The Million Dollar Man' Ted DiBiase, taking on 'The Poor Man's Million Dollar Man', J.B.L. (Does the make him the 'Thousand Dollar Man?' The 'Middle Upper Class Man?') Anyhow, I was dominating, which is easy enough to do when your opponent does nothing but climb the ladder and fall down when you hit him. After a few power moves, I left J.B.L. on the mat and went to climb the ladder and get the belt. Alas, J.B.L. got up just in time to jump and grab my legs and pull me down, and we crashed onto the mat below. Here's the punchline: this fall apparently knocked me senseless, and I was completely unable to get back to my feet. (Bear in mind, I had no damage to myself, while J.B.L. was red all over.) J.B.L. got up rather quickly, though, and simply propped up the ladder, climbed it, and grabbed the belt while I layed on the mat, defenseless. Unbelievable. For future installments, the developers might want to make the down-time after a failed belt grab a LITTLE less brutal.

Ladder-related annoyances aside, most should be pleased with the playability of the game. The engine is pretty well refined, and the different little timing games or button-mashing to escape holds can be exciting in a heated match. Reversal times for both strikes and grapples have been extended a little, making them easier to pull off. This is a great move, as it helps casual players hang in there against the wily veterans. It also helps you to battle the A.I., which gets really reversal-happy on the higher difficulty levels. (More on that later.) All of the little things you can do - uncovering the turnbuckles, putting people through the announcing tables, taunt-stealing, etc. - really help to flesh out a solid package. New to the mix are 'possum pins,' where you can risk a stored finisher by attempting a sneaky pin while your opponent is pummeling you on the ground. I've won a few matches with the technique, but I've also squandered many a stored special, so let the buyer beware.

Collision detection is still a little wonky, sadly. Even worse, the wall/table/Cell physics are still shaky. Guys hit against the wall outside the ring tend to bounce all over the place, onto the wall, then onto the ground, then popping back up onto the wall due to the nature of the animation. You'll see guys literally laying on walls when only a third of their body is physically on top of them. Tables are equally annoying if you're on top of them, as players will fall off if they make the slightest move off of the edge, even during a grapple. This also holds while on top of the Cell in Hell in a Cell matches, with far worse consequences. Any animation that takes a player slightly over the edge of the Cell will send the guy hurtling to the bottom, taking a lot of damage. While it's probably more 'unrealistic,' I'd much prefer a design where players can only fall off of tables or Cells if they choose to climb down, or are thrown off (or through) them.

The game's four difficulty settings are a very mixed bag. Once you get the hang of the control scheme, the first two settings will be far too easy. The third setting is a pretty good default choice, though. The computer reverses a lot and can get a little psychotic with constant submission holds, but it offers a reasonably fair fight for a skilled player. The ultimate difficulty setting, unfortunately, is basically unplayable. The A.I. simply reverses EVERYTHING, making it next to impossible to get any kind of offense in. You might get lucky and land the occasional punch or weak grapple, but at that rate, you might need to shave again before the match is over. There might be someone out there who enjoys playing out two-hour matches where 99% of the action is reversals, but for most of us, it will be an exercise in frustration and tedium.

Graphically, Smackdown! vs. Raw 2006 is first-rate. The wrestlers look excellent, with lots of detail and plenty of their trademark mannerisms. Some of the brawling and grappling animations still look a little stiff, but you won't bother critiquing them much when you're in the heat of battle. The entrances look excellent, too, with the usual array of popular themes and pyrotechnics. Sound effects are about what you'd expect. The commentary, of course, is awful as always. To keep themselves from saying things out of context, the announcers spend most of their time spewing vague chit-chat like "so, King, who do you think is going to win?", even though you'd never hear crap like that during a WWE broadcast. Thankfully, the commentary is easily turned off.

All in all, Smackdown vs. Raw 2006 is a very solid wrestling game, with a lot of play options to tinker with. The nice mix of new stars and legendary wrestlers makes it a nice choice for Guy Gaming Night. I can't see paying a full $50 for it if you have any of the other recent PS2 grappling games, though. If that's the case, wait out for a price drop. Otherwise, if you need a party game for your PS2 with some decent single-player content, this would be a solid choice.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 03/14/06

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