Wrestling continues to rise in popularity, both in North America and around the round, and WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 is just first of THQ's next slew of wrestling games. Following this title will be WWE All Stars in 2011, followed by WWE SmackDown vs. Raw Online for the PC market. WWE SmackDown vs. Raw has been a title year after year from THQ ever since it first appeared in 2004. Every year they add more features and realism in an effort to bring the most realistic wrestling experience to your home console.
That's a lot of games for a sport that I used to deride as "fake." After spending time with some of these guys, I would now online call it fake behind their backs, and if I happened to be poised to jump into a very fast car to take me away at warp speed. It's definitely a theatrical experience, but these guys punish their bodies to the point of abuse, all in the name of keeping audiences happy. And selling tickets, of course. If you doubt that wrestling is a sport, check out Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler. If Mickey Rourke's performance can't make you believe then ... what, are you a robot or something?
At this point, THQ could probably just append a new year to the title and do minimal wrestler outfit updates, and the game would still sell. Instead, they take the opposite approach, and the team tries to cram as much new stuff as possible into each title. In fact, when I asked Creative Director Cory Ledesma if it's a struggle to keep the title fresh every year, he told me, "I get asked that question all the time. In fact, it's always the opposite, because we always have tons of ideas, and we aren't able to get them all in there each time."
- Allows players to sculpt the gameplay experience year by year, forming new rivalries, breaking up existing teams, and deciding who matches up against who.
- It's like Exhibition Mode Plus, with the addition of storytelling elements. You can change the brands of the wrestlers, and you can assign wrestlers to shows in your Universe. You can simulate as many matches as you want, and it feels like a robust Career Mode from other sports titles.
- As you play through the game, your decisions affect the Universe at large, meaning if you win a lot of matches with CM Punk, he'll start climbing the ranks in the Universe. Of course, you can turn the 'verse off at any point if you want.
Road to Wrestlemania
- Four characters, including John Cena and Rey Mysterio, have their own individual storylines here, or you can go down the Vs. Undertaker mode to challenge the big guy.
- The story-driven mode returns to the game with big updates, including the ability to free roam through the backstage areas of the arenas. You'll encounter other wrestlers, play through challenges, and gain points to upgrade your wrestler.
- There's a lot of campy humor in this area, for instance in Rey's mode, he encounter two of the Divas backstage who need his help. "Rey! Come quick! There's a fire!" And yes, a trashcan is on fire. They need help finding the fire extinguisher ... which is hanging on the wall immediately behind them. Funny stuff.
- You can break into impromptu matches backstage which could affect your alliances and enemies, and use some of the backstage items in your fights. Ever wanted to pound someone into a soda machine? Now you can.
- For the first time in the series, the game is bringing the massive Royal Rumble online. In Royal Rumble, you can stack up 12 players online against each other, with six in the ring and six in the stands as spectators.
- During our hands-on preview, this quickly became one of the most popular stations. Squaring up against another live wrestler is one thing, but going all-out with five other players trying to pound you into submission? Now that's fun stuff.
Match Creator & Community Creations
- Players can build their own matches, and customize everything to ridiculous degrees. You can even build in story points, and branching moments if you want.
- There's nearly an infinite amount of customization, and you can take any existing gametypes and tweak them however you want. Want to turn Hell in a Cell into a Table Match, meaning you need to throw your opponent through a table to win? You can do that. Want the match to have to be concluded by a Finisher? It's all up to you.
- Community Creations as back as well, and now you can sort through them based on the number of downloads. And not just the top 50 anymore, now you can track them all. There will also be Community Creations leaderboards.
- Download and tweak! Now you can download a Community Creation, and change it however you want. In the past, those were locked, but now you'll be able to put your own spin on someone else's wrestler.
Playing the game, I was able to immediately see the improvements over 2010, especially in the player models. There's a new physics system in use that makes each match feel more realistic, and you'll even see the wrestler's muscles moving under their skin. They've streamlined the controls as well, in many cases making it one button or one direction on a thumbstick to activate a grapple or pick up an opponent. Where 2010 could be frustrating at times, 2011 makes it easier. Especially when trying to chain grapples and attacks together.
My only real complaint came during a Briefcase Match, where a briefcase full of cash is suspended over the wrestling ring. You battle three other wrestlers, each trying to set up a ladder and yank the case down to win. The problem is, each time you'd carefully set up the ladder after knocking out your foes, you'd find that you had misjudged the placement ... after getting to the top. Your wrestler can't jump onto it even if he's slightly off-target, which is definitely frustrating. Since your'e locked into a one-camera view, there's no way to tell how close you are for situations like this.
But, we did spend a lot of time playing the new Hell in a Cell arena, which is much larger, and features weapons hidden under the canvas. There's a much larger ringside area, and of course you can scale the Cell and do battle on top of the cage, and hurtle unfortunate wrestler to their doom down below. There's something very satisfying about breaking a table with the falling body of John Cena. Fans of wrestling are definitely going to want to pick this up. If you do, challenge me to some Royal Rumble.
And of course, let us not forget that this game also features the WWE Divas. Naturally, Kelly Kelly is my favorite. I just pray that we aren't related ...