Wrestling games have been in a serious slump for the past few years. Unsure of what to do with all the new hardware at their disposal, developers have floundered, letting the fantastic precedents set by the 32-bit and 64-bit eras fall by the wayside, as they tried to get the presentation of the games to mirror the television broadcasts as closely as they could. While they made a lot of progress in terms of the flashy graphics and life-like characters, the core mechanics that really make up the meat of gameplay were loose and confusing. If THQ and company had any hope of putting together a meaningful WWE experience for the next generation of consoles, they had to put a lot of stock in doing their inaugural effort correctly this time.
And for an inaugural run, Smackdown vs. Raw 2007 is a fine example of what happens when one takes a pretty good game and just keeps adding layers of polish. The skeleton of the game is a fairly complicated grapple system coupled with area-specific damage and a momentum meter. Essentially, you use the right stick to get your opponent into one of four different types of grapples, and from there you can choose one of eight moves by pushing the stick in a direction or an interactive move by clicking the stick. There are also various kinds of strikes, Irish whip moves, turnbuckle attacks, context-sensitive attacks, double-team attacks, grapple reversals, strike reversals, ground moves, weapons, and so on. It can be a bit overwhelming, and it’s going to take even the most seasoned veteran a little time to get acclimated to the controls, which require an astute memory and intimate familiarity with the controller.
The end result, for those willing to slog through their first dozen or so matches to get familiar with the controls, is a game that comes as close to replicating a televised wrestling match as I have ever seen- not just in presentation, but in the way the game plays out as well. You can be losing a match soundly for ten minutes before, just like in the real thing, you swing the momentum in your favor, get the crowd behind you, and deliver a punishing blow to end the match. Everything from the referee interactions, to the managers, to the interferences is done exactly like you’ll see on TV, and for fans of the WWE, it’s pure magic.
The game itself is bolstered by the most comprehensive and engrossing story mechanic I’ve ever seen in a wrestling game of this sort. You take the roll of a WWE superstar and get to participate in all the backstage hoopla that makes wrestling so much fun to watch in the first place. You challenge people to matches, make alliances, and even attack people every now and again. All of this directly affects which matches you take part in and how the crowd reacts to you. Your character isn’t a face or a heel by default; it’s up to you to make decisions either according to what you would do yourself or what you imagine your character would do. The story will change and adapt to reflect that.
The graphics and the voice-overs also go a long way towards engrossing you in the story. The character models are nearly picture perfect and are animated in such a way that you may have a hard time believing that you’re not watching television. The entire cast delivers convincing performances (well, convincing for wrestling anyway), and you can tell that THQ is getting some really high-level support for this game from within the WWE. The two sets of commentators can be a bit repetitive at times, but they always have something to say for all the crazy new situations you get your superstar into, so in that respect it’s fairly forgivable.
Rounding out the Smackdown vs. Raw package is a fairly robust multiplayer mode that fully supports player-created stables and championships. As an aside, most of the achievements are in the multiplayer arena, so it’s clear Yukes is keen on getting players to jump into the Live arena. I think that player-created federations still require a bit too much work outside of the confines of the game to be put together correctly, but the pieces are essentially there for those willing to go to the effort of putting them together.
At the end of the day, while Smackdown vs. Raw 2007 is probably the most robust and complete wrestling game I’ve ever seen for this generation of consoles or any generation of consoles for that matter, I can’t help but feel that its audience won’t reach far beyond those already heavily invested in the WWE. The controls are simply too complicated for anybody without a vested interest in the material to really get excited about it. Where the No Mercy series on the N64 managed to woo casual players with its simplicity and creativity, Smackdown vs. Raw is really only for the fans. If you’re a fan, it’s a must-buy. For the rest of us? Give it a rent.