With regular circus performances on the wane, wrestling stepped in to take its place in modern consciousness. WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 brings this big top showmanship to your home console – and this year with a few new tricks up its sleeve.
I’ve always had a soft spot for wrestling video games, the focus on exuberant characters and outlandish outfits seemed to keep things straight forward in the ring. Whereas other fighting games went down the road of ever complex or tightly timed fighting moves, wrestling kept things simple. WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 continues this tradition with its well signposted branching string of moves. Picking just the right path through these moves to maximise damage is every bit as skilful as a Street Fighter combo, or Virtua Fighter frame count. Some may find this fighting by numbers style a little slow paced – but I really enjoyed developing my method brawling to perfection.
Ever since Rock n Wrestle (C64) showed us how good Wrestling games could be, there has been a flood of imitators, brands and franchises looking to own the space. The best of these games have always been those that managed to re-create the exuberant feel of the wrestling world, rather than those with the best moves.
Let’s be honest, wrestling is as much about re-enactment as it is about injuring opponents. Some will argue for the genuine physical nature of the encounters while other will insist this is all an act for kids. But both miss the point – wrestling is about a celebration of physical performance, story telling and (perhaps most of all) characters.
This is obviously understood in the WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 camp, as this year they drop the characterless 24/7 mode and replace with a bespoke Road to Wrestle Mania for a subset of wrestlers (Triple H, The Undertaker, CM Punk, John Cena, Chris Jericho). The result is much more appropriate to both the genre and what we have come to expect from a wrestling experience. This new mode involves 15 matches that include the usual one-on-one contests, tag team show downs and special events. Progressing here unlocks content to be used in the rest of the game. Do particularly well and some special moves and new characters are yours for the taking.
Other new modes this year include the Career mode – replacing the tired General Manager mode, the new Inferno match, the innovative Create-A-Finisher mode and a re-appearance of Backstage Brawls. The Career mode is available to the full roster of wrestlers who must fight their way up the rankings for a particular title in matches of their choice. Inferno tasks the player with the questionable job of setting their opponent on fire (here we remind ourselves that this is theatre) by performing devastating moves and increasing the ring temperature. Finally, Create-A-Finisher mode enables players to chain selected animations together to create custom finishing moves for their wrestler. It’s a mode that, like Create-A-Superstar and Create-An-Entrance, turns out to be surprisingly fun and imaginatively implemented.
It is in the ability to customise the various animated moves that we find this year’s Achilles heal. At times in the ring you can feel like you are directing a short wrestling movie than actually fighting in the pit. The staccato move selection has to walk a very narrow line between rewarding a well-rehearsed string of attacks and leaving the player feeling like they are only influencing play between the moves – Dragon’s Lair style. At its worst this can take the sense of exuberant fun away from proceedings and leave the player uninspired for the next round.
The audio doesn’t always help here either. The smacks and thuds of the various attacks are suitable fleshy, but the commentary (while well voice) is often wildly out of time with events in the right. Commentary in Football games has improved so much in recent years, surely some of this expertise would be well placed here.
In the main WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 does enough to win over even the most adroit of wrestling fans. The sheer level of energy involved in each round, combined with some excellent motion capture, and some appropriately clown-like cut scenes really endeared me to this sweaty leotard-clad fighter.