It’s coming up to that time of year again. That time when the shops get all their Christmas decorations ready before Halloween products have even hit the shelves. That time when the lists start to get written and the eagerly awaited top titles enter the fold in the hope of finding a spot under your tree. Again this marks the time in which another set of the EA Sport’s catalogue’s collection of updates hit the stores, alongside their rivals from 2K Games and a certain title from the infamous Konami wizard Seabass. Funnily enough this time of year has also come about to represent a new event marked on the calendar annually, the latest title arising from THQ’s profitable WWE franchise? With the mix of angst and fury arising based around the echoing complaints of recycled ideas and the hints of the term cash-in; it arises again in the form of the latest in the already swelling Smackdown Vs Raw series. Aptly named Smackdown Vs Raw 2008, you’d have to have been spending along while with your head in the sand to have not heard of the title by now or it’s cohorts.
With Yuke's seemingly developing the Smackdown series as a whole for an age now, and THQ themselves holding the rights to the WWE franchise for an overly prolonged period, it is not exactly beyond belief that more than a few people would be verging on boredom. Particularly when the series retains so much from way back to the first incarnation on the humble PS1 from what almost seems an age ago. So as here we sit sitting upon the precipice of the release date in early November, a simple question rears it’s head again. It has been doing the rounds related to this series for a while itself now; can (in fact will) more of the same be a good thing?
I’ll leave you to ponder your response as I detail the early facts that every man and his dog probably know by now. The roster isn’t as huge as many would hope, nor is it up to date with the current happenings in the WWE. Of course with the fast changing WWE climate this would be tough, but with it coupled with the news that THQ and Yuke's will not be offering updates to the roster via downloads on the higher end consoles, it is something that is needed to be mentioned. Particularly when you have fan favourites such as the team of Brian Kendrick and Paul London left aside at the expense of the likes of Snitsky and Chris Masters. No knock on the names I’ve mentioned, but it only takes a quick gander around to notice that some player feedback towards the roster would have changed them more than a great deal. But of course the old adage can be raised that a smaller roster means Yuke's have had more time to polish and hone the talents they do have and keep everything up to scratch on equal level, rather then quickly adding new talents and not honing them appropriately (Rey Mysterio’s addition to Raw 2 springs to mind). I think you’ve had enough time now to ponder your first response to the former question so it’s time to move onto the crux of things.
So how has THQ spruced things up and brought more things to the annual party? Well first things first, the title has again branched out onto new formats. Quite obviously the money to be made plays a major factor in this (as was raised last year, the development cost difference between the PS2 and the 360 is relatively minor allowing it to happen more often), but with the title branching out onto the Nintendo family of wares we have the genuine opportunity for some much hoped for individuality to at least two versions of the title. The possibilities for Wii-mote and stylus control boggle the mind alone. Yuke's and THQ have looked to define their experiences on each medium into two categories: the hardcore experience of the 360 and PS3 versions with everything they wish included and the more arcade esque experience with the straight playability and fun of the Wii and DS versions.
The PSP and PS2 versions offering the best they can offer on their formats, with the PS2 version being as much of a parallel as possible with the versions upon the big two.
The PS3 and 360 offer a new form of season mode this time around in the form of the 24/7 mode, a combination of the GM Mode and the season mode. This offers the chance to handle your superstar funnily enough, 24/7, with you handling how your days off fare, your sponsorship dealings and such like and it features a mobile phone to contact fellow superstars and such like. To the dismay of probably most gamers, only a certain number from the roster can be controlled in the 24/7 mode. This maybe down to something as simple as Chris Benoit being integral in some of the superstars storylines, meaning when he was removed a lot had to also be removed, or even more simply due to laziness and lack of access to stars for voice overs. Either way, there will not be many happy bunnies.
The Wii offers the main event mode, which utilises the mobile phone again and offers a more standard fare for the season without the extra new nuances offered on the two afore mentioned formats. The Wii utilises the Wii mote for control, allowing for taunts and moves to be performed for example by throwing a fist by flicking either the mote forward, or performing a Cena taunt by waving it in front in the obvious mention. This is greater put into example by the happy Japanese Yuke’s representatives showcasing the game a tad back, as can be found on a former news item.
The DS handles in a strange way and seems to be flawed from the get go by just reading alone. Following the control mechanism’s made famous on the dual screen console by Ouedan (or Elite Beat Agents in Europe), the player must tap certain circular buttons on the touch screen to complete moves from grapples and to perform other tricks. Seems to be tacking on stylus niches for the sake of adding them, but the proof will be in the pudding.
The PSP version holds more in line with the PS2 version offering scaled down versions of the modes on the PS3 and 360, with the returning uses of tournaments.
With the demo being unleashed recently via the medium of Xbox Live Arcade, it is inevitable that the majority of you reading have had a play and got your impressions of whether to buy or not on the big two formats. With the only difference on the whole being the much-vaunted decision by Yuke’s to include custom soundtracks on the 360 version, while compensating the PS3 crowd with a first person entrance view; the demo has allowed us outside the gaming world with our first real taste of skin and bones of year’s affair. So with myself being one of these gamers to get my mitts onto the title, it’s at this point I bore you with my opinion while you flick to another page or spit at the screen in disgust. If you’re still reading by this point though, I thank you and will continue on. Now firstly, it looks great. The character models do resemble last years game engine to extent, but now have the extra polish that should have been achieved last time around. The Benoit situation might have played a part in this, but whatever was the cause it is to great benefit for the product on offer. Animations have improved both upon entrances (although it is hard to spot with it seeming a by numbers process) but particularly in ring with selling of moves being a particular point of improvement. Interestingly it doesn’t match what has been seen thus far of the TNA Impact title, but it is sound enough for the current point in time.
The demo itself gives access to four superstars from the array on the roster, in the form of Bobby Lashley, The Undertaker, Rey Mysterio and current WWE Champion Randy Orton. With their various fighting styles it allows for experimentation with the new forte of this years affair, and it makes for a healthy blend. Controls have shuffled around to make room for the new nuances, with RB and Y marking the controls for an array of specific moves for your chosen grappler based upon their fighting style. Other changes such as now having the freedom to run around the ring rather in set paths, and the stamina system being tweaked to the point where by your wrestler does tire but the game will not require you to fill up a stamina bar to get him back up to speed; are subtle but perfectly executed to improve the experience. One minor quibble, but it is bound to be a marmite factor of this title is previously mentioned change of the running mechanism. Players must hold onto the button this time around as well as point their chosen direction to run, and while the freedom of movement offers variety, it does get very fiddly; particularly when trying to set up some of the more intricate running attacks. Personally I wasn’t too aggrieved and slowly grew used to it, but it is bound to be a healthy point of debate.
As afore mentioned also, the change of the use of stamina is welcome. The focus is more on damaging body parts akin to ‘Here Comes The Pain’ without the need to break flow to hold the B button to regain your breath. Also appearing this time has been the addition of moves utilising the thumb stick such as when throwing punches to a downed opponent. These have most likely been thrown in because of their inclusion on the Wii version to make use of the Wii-mote, but happily fit into the fold and are nicely handled. Ultimate Control also returns, but this time has been more toned down in its presentation and settles in more nicely with the rest of the action on offer. The arena itself remains pretty much on tact with last year’s version, with the same hotspots recurring (the big niche of last years title), but each arena does look slightly more polished. The inclusion of ECW’s own arena again is a nice enough (if inevitable) touch, but this is the only part of the title (from demo play) that I would mark as a downer in the afore mentioned case of more of the same being a good thing. With many avenues already being explored via online fun with the hotspots from last year, it would have been pleasant to get a variety of unexpected new ones when exploring the possibilities with the newly added ECW talent on offer in their hardcore realm.
The Three Count
So that is what we have so far, with not long now until the titles release. Can more of the same be good? Well in my book it can. The 2007 edition was not a bad starting point, and with extra polish and flair it was more than enough to compensate for a wrestling game free market at current. Fan’s are never satisfied, and rightly so; but in the SD Vs Raw series we have a franchise that is obviously well loved by it’s creators and polished well to be honed to suit our needs. The engine is starting to creak, but the nuances added this time around help to add a freshness to affairs, and while it will take a wait until we get to grips with it the 24/7 mode sounds intriguing enough to fill the void until the next pretender to crown in TNA Impact arises to mount a challenge. Yes the title is not the second coming of No Mercy from what we have seen, and what we have got to grips with; but SD Vs Raw 2008 offers enough to the mix to be defining alternative. The proof will be in the pudding of the final product, and early editorial reviews have been promising. So just as we await to discover whom our saviour is, and whether Jericho will be a shade of his former self or the second coming of a wrestling messiah; we await to see if SD Vs Raw 2008 can be the title that saves us from the doldrums of an overall tiring franchise. The countdown is on.
UK: PS2 / PS3 / PSP / Wii / DS / XBox 360
USA: PS2 / PS3 / Wii / DS / XBox 360