THQ's WWE Smackdown vs. Raw series has been something of an annual tradition for wrestling game purists - around the October/November period of every year, those itching to powerslam some jobbers have awaited with baited breath for each new installment of the seasoned grappler. Over time, the basic formula for the series has largely remained the same, with tweaks here and there that sometimes better the previous year's installment.
WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 is constantly reminding you of its new features at every turn of the menu, with several of its options emblazoned with a flashing bit of "new" text. On the surface, it would appear that these changes give promise to a revolution in sports-entertainment, and while this latest Smackdown game can't quite be classed as revolutionary, there are gameplay changes and new areas of content creation that enliven it to ensure that it does not simply trade off past success.
The basic gameplay of WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2011 remains unchanged and falls in line with the basic principles of professional wrestling that have remained constant through several decades. Against one or more opponents, you will have to fight for your life in the squared circle and ensure your victory via pinfall, submission, disqualification or a count-out. Of course, there are also several specialty matches that shake up this formula that wrestling veterans have come to expect; such as cage, table and ladder matches. It is in some of these specialty matches that Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 touts one of its new features; its improved level of physics, and in this instance their self-assessment is right. You can do so much more with ladders and tables than you could do in the past, which better reflects some of the more insane moves that real-life WWE wrestlers pull off in the ring. Ladders can be stacked in a multitude of ways and react with the environment in a much more fluid fashion - they will bounce off ropes when pushed over and can interlock with one another while still allowing themselves to be assembled to reach for your goals, or as a weapon against opponents. Likewise, tables react differently this year - depending on how you decide to smash your fellow brawler through them, they will break up in a different fashion. Not to be outdone, Hell in a Cell matches have also experienced a bit of an upgrade - instead of simply using a door to exit the structure, you can now utilise a saved-up signature or finishing move icon to literally shove your opponent through the Cell's wall. On top of these match changes, the grappling system has also undergone a slight refinement. Instead of pressing a button in conjunction with the analogue stick, strong grapples are now initiated with a flick of the analogue stick when your opponent is groggy. Though these modifications may not necessarily reinvent the game, they are welcome additions that help to keep the matches fresh, exciting and unpredictable.
Another change to the formula is exhibited via the newly introduced WWE Universe Mode. Scrapping the career mode of past titles, Universe Mode gives players the freedom to start and stop feuds, swap around title belts and throws in a few cut-scenes for good measure. It's so simple and easy to use that it can often supplant the exhibition mode in its richness and interactivity - while each week will see a selection of matches already in place, you are able to simply modify and skip through these at your leisure to get exactly what you want and more out of the game. You could set up someone like Jack Swagger to be at the top of the mountain, feuding with the top tier of the WWE in the form of the Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, or make him be a jobber for the likes of Vance Archer and Chavo Guerrero.
Complementing Universe Mode, the Road to Wrestlemania campaign returns with a new selection of wrestlers to choose from. You can pick individual stories for Christian, John Cena, Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio, or choose from Dolph Ziggler, R-Truth, Kofi Kingston, John Morrison and a Created Wrestler to try and end the Undertaker's Wrestlemania winning streak. When you enter a wrestler's story, you will find yourself being able to walk around the backstage area for the first time since Here Comes the Pain. It is here that parts of the storyline shall play out, and it's essential that you carry out some conversations and objectives before you hit the ring. The potential also exists for you to be embroiled in the lives of other wrestlers that you come across walking the halls. Initiating conversations or pushing other wrestlers can result in a backstage brawl or set up a match on Superstars, while in other cases you can gain insight into the storylines of other wrestlers, such as Sheamus' quest to woo Maryse and Santino's losing efforts. All of the interactions and storyline matches will earn you points which can be used to raise several of your wrestler's attributes, such as durability. This RPG element is by no means intrusive, but on the whole it is unnecessary as you can handily defeat your foes without any upgrades. Even though each story can be finished promptly, every path feels very compelling and enriching, to the point where the Road to Wrestlemania storylines become far more appealing than what the WWE currently has to offer.
The customisation options of this latest Smackdown game return in full force, and have also received some additions and modifications. The most expansive of them all remains the create-a-wrestler mode, which is as robust as ever, and the create-a-finisher mode. Create-a-finisher has been improved to include more animations than ever before, as well as the new ability to create corner finishers. The corner finisher options don't quite have the variety of high-flying or front finishers, but it nonetheless remains a welcome addition. Overall, the create-a-finisher mode also seems to be a lot more fluid and realistic, with it being far more difficult for players to create any cheap finishers to lay waste to opponents online. Other custom modes such as the storyline, entrance and thread creators also make their way back into the ring, with many of these creations allowing themselves to be uploaded to the online community.
Speaking of which, the online experience also has been slightly altered and smoothened out a for a more comprehensive playing environment. Perhaps the most impressive and long-awaited addition is the ability to have online Royal Rumble matches, which can handle up to twelve players competing six at a time. Impressively enough, there is little in the way of freezing or lagging despite the frantic action and tyranny of distance between players. Likewise, other match modes also run smoothly. It does sometimes take a while to find opponents, but there is little in the way of disconnecting or slowdown. This particular reviewer was astounded at the speed and grace another fellow staff writer exhibited in beating him senseless in several online matches.
All of these changes make for a long lifespan for the game. There are a multitude of things to unlock, and in different ways - the Road to Wrestlemania mode will have you unlocking many past WWE greats, while playing through Universe Mode will unlock current superstars not available to play as from purchase, as well as many different arenas and belts. Unless you choose to use cheat codes, game guides, or pay to unlock everything, it will be some time before you have every last wrestler and arena at your disposal. By a similar token, the create modes will have you occupied for a mind-boggling number of hours with all the possibilities presented.
Even with so many new additions and the core gameplay being as solid as ever, there are nonetheless some flaws and bugs which prevent WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 from being spoken of in as revered a tone as past games like Here Comes the Pain. Sometimes the game will lag within exhibition mode if there is a lot of movement going on at once, though it it still a rare occurrence. As well as this, some of the facial models for already existing wrestlers can seem a little off from their real-life counterparts - and it's not restricted to lower-tier wrestlers. There is something about the faces of John Cena and Christian that just doesn't mesh with their actual visage. On the other hand, the models for the Undertaker and Randy Orton are almost flawless in every detail, especially when looking at them during entrances. Luckily these flaws are nowhere near as game-breaking as the infamous bug in first run of No Mercy cartridges so many years ago, which had many a wrestling fan staying up at night in a cold sweat, wondering if their save files and created wrestlers would still be there in the morning. Outside of these details, all of the visual, aural and presentation elements remain as consistently high-end as ever for the Smackdown series; with a bounty of licensed tracks, great lighting effects and some fine voice acting for the story segments of the game. Special mention has to be given to the work of The Miz, Santino Marella and the ever-enthusiastic Chris Jericho, all three of which sound like they had a lot of fun in the recording booth.
As a complete package, it's very hard to go past this latest installment of the Smackdown series. It's brimming with new features, the Road to Wrestlemania mode easily trumps the current state of WWE television and the creation and customisation qualities of the title equate to limitless possibilities for user-generated content. On top of this, the new physics system for tables, ladders and chairs brings a welcome level of detail and accuracy that helps to bring the series in line with the reality of such weapons in the actual WWE. Lock up with a copy of WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011, and you will be going one-on-one with a great one.