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WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2010

WWE

Of late, to train your eye on the faults of the Smackdown vs. Raw series is to send them scurrying out of focus, only to return once your attention lies elsewhere. Evidently we are not looking at videogame perfection; campaigns of Smackdown vs. Raw 2010 aren’t about to dispose of your time in the way other sports games’ season modes so gleefully do, and upon completion the quest for championship gold isn’t going to make the same lasting impression as a Half-Life or Metal Gear Solid title. Despite this, the yearly servings of WWE software have become deceptively difficult to fault. Practice, as the say, makes perfect, but that’s not really what has happened here. With the Smackdown vs. Raw canon, Yuke’s have followed a less traditional adage, namely that serving up changes which technically address the faults of your game but in reality are complex and unworkable will at least make your audience appreciate what they had in the first place. Smackdown fans have learned to be careful what they wish for.

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An example: anyone who watches a real-life WWE event will notice that the participants go through a large variety of physical conditions between full awareness and being knocked out on the canvas. Indeed, much of the excitement of a bout lies with our curiosity as to who’ll climb the ropes and make it to their feet in time. While it might be tempting to hope for a construct in the game to recreate this gradient of composure, you only need to cast your mind back to the wholly irritating ‘hold B to regain stamina’ formula – still hidden within the depths of the game but, mercifully, switched off from the start – to see the dangers of this train of thought. Cravings for more layered, realistic combat have seen the series take a ponderous pace in comparison to the collection of instant high-impact moves found throughout the PlayStation 2 era, and whether this has improved the gaming experience has been a source of much debate.

When faced with the possibility of having a not-entirely-useful addition to play forced upon us as soon as we indicate disquiet with the current system, us videogame smarks have hitherto had a reliable gripe: “Man, the WWE roster just ain’t what it used to be”. Enter Community Creations.

After a year a little short on supplementary superstars (WWE Legends of Wrestlemania was the destination for a full contingent of halcyon grapplers), Smackdown vs. Raw 2010 offers a handful of unlockables, but more important is the ability to pop online and have a world of shared creativity at your fingertips. Anyone with a copy of the game and an Internet connection can upload their created superstars, finishers, highlight reels, and even storylines for public consumption. The depth of the output is impressive, allowing for just about any grudge match that takes your fancy – not just Hogan vs. Andre, then, but also Superman vs. Luther, Bush vs. Gore, and Biggie vs. Tupac.

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Oh, it’s easy to get your fingers burnt. It takes a prohibitively long time to load a preview of anything you’re attempting to download, and powerful is the irritation of wasting time viewing yet another low quality create-a-wrestler. The system that indicates the quality of each item is also flawed, to say the least – without any incentive to accurately rate downloads, any score which falls between two and four stars becomes meaningless in the context of a catalogue of player creations, reported on only by those who loved or loathed what they received. This is not to mention the ulterior motives which likely lie behind that glowing report on a squint-and-you-might-see-it likeness of Diamond Dallas Page: though the fame of having your efforts ranked amongst the first results for any particular search is fleeting, it’s temptingly easy to gain if you have a handful of friends who also own the game. For the Community Creations connoisseur, it really comes down to having your wits about you when fishing through the mountain of mediocrity for a flawless gem. Develop an eye for telltale spelling mistakes and unlikely references, and you’ll be adding full rosters of quality recreations in no time.

It’s hard to overstate how much replay value is added to Smackdown vs. Raw with this feature, and Yuke’s have really made a rock for their back when it comes to future game development: having limited their ability to trade on updated rosters, one would assume the kinds of incremental gameplay differences traditionally offered will no longer fly amongst fans. If features as significant as this year’s Story Designer mode continue to be added, however, having taken away such a selling point is unlikely to prove problematic. That’s because the Story Designer is amongst the biggest changes to be made to the Smackdown recipe since its inception, adding a layer of interaction with the events of WWE never before seen in a game.

Wrestling games rarely feature career modes which tie up every loose end or clearly explain the motives of every character involved. If you’ve played more than one, you’re no doubt a dab hand at filling in the gaps yourself – perhaps your championship-winning star is being trundled out to face a succession of cruiserweight nobodies because he recently made disparaging remarks about the division, or maybe he’s suddenly being paired with that tag partner because they’ve just discovered a blood relation. You know the type. Smackdown vs. Raw 2010 encourages this by handing the pursuit its very own game mode, where such ideas can flow from your imagination straight onto the game.

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Well, maybe it’s not quite that easy. Inserting any serious length of text is a headache with a USB keyboard and nigh on impossible without, and if you opt for an epic tale spanning numerous Pay Per View events, some of the available scenes are going to be used a few times too many. It should be noted that the grand vision you have for your masterpiece may take some considerable compromises to make it to the Story Designer format, but there’s plenty of cheap laughs and silly fun to be had both in designing and viewing user-built storylines. It’s easy to picture this part of the game evolving into a powerful tool in future versions of Smackdown vs. Raw, and for the moment it does a good line in bringing the more frivolous aspects of your imaginary WWE universe to life, especially when used in conjunction with other creative updates. A story I directed saw the Undertaker shake off his depressing wardrobe to usher in more colourful garb – specifically, an eye-catching pink and white leotard which added a delicious layer of humiliation to every one of the Deadman’s conquests – and eventually enlist the services of an entire Ministry of Campness. Spielberg it isn’t, but it was humourous enough to move the action towards WrestleMania at a cheerful pace and only made possible thanks to new Smackdown vs. Raw addition Superstar Threads, which allows for the limited altering of wrestler attire.

Those more interested in smacking the taste out of Dave Batista’s mouth than designing him a nice new singlet will be pleased to hear of the extensive work done to improve the experience inside the ring. The whole thing flows like a match should thanks to some clever touches you’ll soon wonder how you got on without. The ‘strong grapple’ system makes its return, but now each of the opening holds available can be switched at will – from having your victim in a headlock, you can move easily to a wristlock or a front or back grapple, opening up the chance to perform every standing move from one hold. Play with a character for a while and understanding the most effective grapple at any given time will soon become second nature. A heap of attacking options has been added to the apron, too, further reducing the occasions where stock manoeuvres are employed by the game. It can become something of a chore grinding through all of the new choices when creating a move set for a superstar, but the result is character individuality which never slips. Pick Rey Mysterio for a match, and you get Rey Mysterio: every leap, flip, and lunge is just as you’d expect.

Sadly, on Xbox Live this progress is squandered, with combat boiling down to who can best deal with industrial quantities of lag. Countering is ruined, because as soon as you’ve pressed RT to deal with the right hand coming your way, another attack has been lined up. Get the first strike in, and the match is in the bag. More than ever, Smackdown vs. Raw 2010 is a game reliant on timing, and when your timing can’t be trusted the heart is ripped from play. It’s a real shame, as with creative energy holding so much sway this year, online competition could have been a real melting pot of fighting styles and character presentation. As it is, online multiplayer is broken where it matters, and this is without doubt the game’s greatest disappointment.

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Offline, a host of match types have been tweaked and tightened. Smackdown’s Royal Rumbles have long been a sticking point amongst fans of the real thing; limitations on the number of superstars in the ring at any one time are just the most obvious factor making the interactive version a very different beast to the actual match. For a long time eliminations simply occurred too easily, turning what should have been a nervy struggle for survival into a moment of catastrophe, and one often brought about more by a lack of concentration than a lack of stamina. Royal Rumbles from before the series gained its ‘Vs. Raw’ suffix were reckless fun, but desperately required some depth. Of course, there are issues which prohibit a completely faithful recreation of the January pay-per-view, amongst them the fact that gamers rarely want to dedicate an hour or so of their time to a single match. In-game Rumbles are by necessity a compromise, but never have they come so close to perfection as in Smackdown vs. Raw 2010.

On the first play, the most noticeable additions are the elimination minigames. Though themselves only amounting to variations on button-mashing and quick time events, the three mechanisms – taking place on the apron, at the turnbuckle and below the bottom rope – bring a realistic sense of drama to proceedings, and it’s not clear until they finish just who has the upper hand. Those without the dexterity to make a consistent success of these might want to use the new finisher eliminations to end an opponent’s night the stylish way. Be warned, though: finisher icons are like gold dust in Royal Rumbles these days, perhaps due to their ruthless effectiveness both as a weapon and a tool for survival. There is plenty more ceremony surrounding the match this year, too. Cuts to stare downs between the final combatants herald the final moments of the event, and each new entrant has their own individual walk to the ring, complete with specific commentary sound bites indicating their arrival. It’s the most realistic portrayal of the Rumble yet, and with further editing somewhere down the line it could become the showpiece match type it deserves to be.

Other stipulations have not been treated with the same reverence. In the new Championship Scramble match, for instance, it’s all but impossible to score a win after more than two superstars get involved. It’s a far cry from the frantic gold-swapping antics seen in the WWE, and a big enough fault to effectively ruin the stipulation wholesale, making the Scramble a complete write-off, at least until next year. The mixed tag match turns a newfound conservatism for the series (back in the day Triple H could hit Torrie Wilson with a chair in any match type and not an eyelid was batted) into an excuse to market new content, when really nothing new has been added. Given that the opening menu is only too happy to indicate every change to the formula as ‘NEW,’ this could have been seen as clutching at straws. In light of the vast, real improvements made elsewhere, though, it doesn’t warrant a second moment’s notice.

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Topping off this year’s package are six of the most entertaining Road to WrestleMania storylines yet seen in the series. All are well explained, believable (in the context of sports entertainment, of course) and most importantly, hold interest between power slams. Each one (including the first ever Diva campaign) gives players clear motivation to apply themselves, and though they’re short when taken individually, together they offer the most substantial slice of wrestling in the game. The decisions you make here hold real significance these days, as well, and agonising over a career move is suitably intense.

Recently, wrestling fans have had plenty of reason to be cynical. Asked to pay more money, more frequently, and for a product generally considered to be of a lower quality than a decade ago, there’s a distinct weariness to following the sport felt by enthusiasts far and wide. It’s nothing short of joyous, then, that Smackdown vs. Raw 2010 is so much more than a lazily thrown together update of last year’s game. Plenty expected such an offering and, indeed, would have handed over their money religiously just to keep up, but the high production values and quality of content showcased here could well have heralded a golden era for WWE videogames.

9 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in May 2009.

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