Review: A Microsoft console actually gets a wrestling game that's worth playing?!?
With so many bad wrestling games populating the original Xbox library, it's nice to start out the wrestling scene on the Xbox 360 the right way. While Smackdown! Vs. RAW 2007 doesn't really change the formula, it does bring the successful PS2 franchise onto the Xbox 360, and it does so with a couple of new features and added graphical muscle. The game certainly has its issues ? most of them holdovers from the PS2 iterations ? but the experience is still quite a bit of fun, and should also bring something new to the table for those who've been struggling away with the paltry previous offerings on Microsoft's Xbox brand.
The Smackdown! Series has long succeeded on the PS2 console because of the emphasis on frenetic gameplay and expansive match types (in particular, season mode). The formula pretty much stays the same for this release (which is also available on the PS2, probably for the last year), as SVR: 2007 offers up plenty of ways to get your grapple on, whether offline or online.
To be fair, though, the formula ? gameplay wise ? hasn't completely carried over from previous versions, as the game now plays with a stronger emphasis on the ?simulation? side of wrestling. Grapplers will move with a much more deliberate pace, and they will be required to rest from time-to-time in order to not ?gas? themselves; this goes hand-in-hand with the limb-specific damage and move structure of previous Smackdown! games and creates a much more methodical pace. Generally speaking, the ?selling? of moves by the WWE superstars is much more pronounced as well, and you'll often see wrestlers hold their heads, grab their knees, and gasp for air when damage is inflicted upon them. This all being said, the game still has a decidedly ?Smackdown!? feel, and you'll still be able to store finishers, counter grapples and strikes, and take the fight to your opponent in a slightly exaggerated fashion. It can't really be said that this blend of arcade and simulation styles achieves the level of games like No Mercy or Fire Pro, but the action satisfies in a similar way that it has for years.
The control setup of the game on Xbox 360 is a bit different as well, since you'll now be using the analog sticks to execute grapples. You can still use a conventional button setup, but the analog style comes as the default layout. Essentially, nudging the right thumbstick executes basic moves and weak grapples, whereas holding down the right bumper and then hitting the right thumbstick executes a strong grapple. From the strong grapple situation, you can then choose from the various moves by picking a direction on the thumbstick. Strikes are handled with the X button, and countering is accomplished by hitting the L trigger for strikes and the R trigger for grapples. The countering still remains a bit of a mystery, as you won't always be sure why you did or did not execute a reversal, and this is made even more difficult because of the game's use of the triggers which require a longer ?pull.? Just the same, using the back button to switch focus is somewhat awkward and this feature should have definitely been mapped to another button and executed more concisely. The analog sticks handle well enough, but it's hard to say if they really add any real layer of depth to the action; the sticks serve as a workable input and they do manage to work in conjunction with the new ?Total Control? moves.
In regards to said Total Control moves, they add a bit of variety to what would otherwise be a fairly standard ?grapple? layout. You'll still be able to execute various strikes, grapples, and submissions as mentioned above, but you'll also be able to place your opponent in various ?intermediate? positions where you can do whatever you like. For instance, you can hoist your adversary up into a standing suplex position, and then do things like taunt the crowd, walk around, or do squats while holding the guy. Just the same, you can have someone in a chokeslam hold ? the ?goozle? as it's known by wrestlers ? and then walk around and tease dropping him down (you can even chuck him over the ropes and out of the ring). These Total Control moves don't come into play too often, but they are a nice little wrinkle to changeup the usual grappling system.
The ?environmental hotspots? are interesting because they allow for many cinematic (and heavily damaging) moments all around the ring. When you grab a wrestler in a strong grapple, you can drag him towards almost anything inside or outside the ring. Want to bash his head off the stairs? Drag him over there and be sure to taunt the crowd while doing so. Or maybe you'd rather choke him out with some coaxial cable near the announcers' table? Go to it. There's even a fighting area over the crowd barrier and you can hurl your opponent in there and get your hardcore mojo going with giant speakers, tables, a huge scaffold to leap off of, and even some weapons from the crowd. All of these environmental hotspots work very well, and they really help create a sense of cinematic flair (Wooo!) and drama that is found on WWE broadcasts.
The match types available satisfy the usual demands, and you'll be able to play in Ladder, Hell in a Cell, Elimination Chamber, TLC, Royal Rumble, Buried Alive, and First Blood matches, among others. As it stands, the match types available are highly customizable, and you really aren't missing out on any meaningful variants that the WWE currently uses. The one new match is the ?Money in the Bank? ladder match, and this allows six combatants to vie for a briefcase hanging above the ring, ladder match style. There are definitely some cool things you can do with ladders in this game (prop them in corner, lean on one another, push over, etc.) so it makes this match type an entertaining addition. It would be nice to see a few more tables, ladders and chairs in matches that feature these items, but the couple you get of each are usually enough to fit the bill.
Of course, match types are only as good as the A.I. that powers them, and the A.I. of the wrestlers is fairly average. You certainly won't find any A.I. reminiscent of the Fire Pro games or akin to something like No Mercy, but at least the opponents will attack you fairly consistently, hit their finishers, and go for pins. The A.I. doesn't ever really use weapons or ladders too much, but they certainly know how to take advantage of the game's reversal system, even a bit too much. The reversal system doesn't really seem all that logical, as the indicators that represent the moment to counter aren't all that accurate, yet the CPU seems to get many reversals out of nowhere that seem more like a crutch so that the A.I. doesn't get stomped. Still, reversals are possible from an actual human player standpoint, but mashing away on the triggers almost seems more effective than trying to time anything. The harder the difficulty, the more your opponents will reverse and attack you, so at least that can up the challenge.
While the CPU manages to achieve mediocrity, it's hard to be as positive about the collision detection and, to a certain extent, the animations. These elements are quite obviously holdovers from the PS2 roots of the game, and they do show their flaws while playing through pretty much any match you'll play. Strikes actually land better than in some wrestling titles, but there are still plenty of times where a strike will flat-out miss. Now, there are times where two other guys are in the middle of some submission animations or pin, but the strike should still break those situations up, which isn't always the case. Just the same, grapples will inexplicably miss when you're facing in the direction of your opponent, but this also shows the faults of the focusing system, which just isn't very functional on the back button. Things can get quite cluttered when there are multiple opponents, and the default focusing system and back button input really make it hard to track your opponents, and you'll often start focusing (automatically) on the wrong guy for no apparent reason. On top of this, the animations for focusing, getting up and generally executing lots of ?bridging? moments (turning, exiting, etc.) just don't look as clean as the animations for power moves, taunts and ?selling? of injuries. These are smaller issues on their own, but they do add up, and they make you wish they were ironed out by now (the franchise has had many iterations to do so).
Those issues aside, the main thing you'll be doing when playing SVR: 2007 is going through its season mode. Thankfully, the season mode is quite worth your time to check out. In this mode, like in previous years, you can go through as a created superstar (the best way), a WWE superstar, or as a champion. The rosters in the game is quite plentiful, but there are some incorrect gimmicks (Booker T, DX, JBL), plus a few people who aren't really on the shows anymore, or at least they aren't on WWE shows. More often than not, some of these wrestlers should be under a ECW branding, but ECW isn't really even acknowledged in the game. The roster is about as good as can be expected, and you wonder if THQ will start exploiting DLC to augment this in the future. When you go through the season, you'll be participating on one of the weekly shows, and you'll be communicating with the GM of each brand in order to get your marching orders. In a given week, you will usually participate in one match, as well as have some sort of confrontation, interview or backstage argument. Each of the angles play out over several months, and they usually culminate in a pay-per-view match in order to settle the feud. There's plenty of memorable stories to be had (JBL becomes a nice guy, Trish trying win the WWE Title, Mysterio wanting to play with the big boys), and each angle is played out through wrestler voiceover and e-mails to your ?office.? The voiceovers are all quite well done, and even the few that aren't as good still remain passable. Generally speaking, the WWE superstars make the angles come to life with their believable reads and they're aided by some funny writing in the e-mails (Mr. Kennedy's stuff is great) and on the ?website.? Essentially, your office is a customizable area that you can outfit with various decorations, posters, belts and trophies, but it's also where you read your e-mails from fellow wrestlers and where you browse a mock version of the WWE.com website in order to gain more insight into the feud you're involved in. This all stitches together pretty well and it's fun to move from week-to-week and see how the stories play out. The only real detriment to the season mode is the poor loading times, and these are a problem for much of the rest of the game, too. Overall, this is a season mode worth checking out.
If you want a more hands-off approach that lets you be like Vinny Mac, the GM mode is also available. This mode was available on the PS2 last year, and it proves much of the same this time around. Essentially, you have a menu-based simulation of weekly shows where you can book matches and setup feuds between your stable of wrestlers. This year you can hire in writers who specialize in certain feuds and setup specific storylines (jealous partner, David vs. Goliath), but unfortunately none of this really addresses the fact that the mode just isn't very engaging since you don't get to see anything play out in front of you. Plenty of people like these sorts of management/simulation-style games, but this one just doesn't really have any meat to it. The only reason to check it out is for the bonuses and rewards it gives you (such as unlimited skill points for created characters).
Creation features remain ubiquitous in this Smackdown! entry, and you'll be able to create wrestlers, entrances, belts, and stables. Creating a superstar is about as functional as it has ever been, and it can take some time if you want to get the look, style, and moves of your wrestler to be just right. There are plenty of options for clothing and moves, and many more items are available in the WWE Shopzone, as well. Creating an entrance can also be time consuming, and adding fireworks, camera cuts, name plates, and animations will provide lots of value for those who want it. Creating belts and stables are really just supplemental additions to the game, but the fact they are in there is definitely a positive for the game.
Online play is also present in SVR: 2007 on the 360, and it proves to be a worthwhile addition. The main curiosity is that the PS2 version supports six players and the Xbox 360 only supports four players, and this is especially odd since the 360 is broadband only and has the vastly superior online setup. That being said, the online plays quite well for the 360 version (provided someone with a decent connection is the host), and you'll be able to execute all moves with relative fluidity. There is a slight delay ? comparable to online play in EA Sports games ? but the action proves serviceable, and you won't really be able to cry foul because of crippling lag or massive delays. Fighting games usually have a hard time doing online smoothly so it's nice to see one that works well enough, especially with four players at once. You'll be able to participate in most of the match types from the offline portion, but obviously there's no online season mode, and you won't be able to do variants like the Elimination Chamber or the Royal Rumble. There are settings for ranked and unranked matches, plus you can even have matches for created championships. A small nag is that you can't use bots online, and that would've been especially fun for co-op tag action. There's certainly room to grow for online in wrestling games (Royal Rumbles, online season mode, leagues), but this effort is certainly respectable.
The area to benefit most from the 360's horsepower is ? not surprisingly ? the visuals. The wrestlers themselves are the true standouts, as they sport some impressive poly counts and some crazy sweat and blood effects. The level of detail and expressiveness in the faces is particularly good, and you'll really get a sense of the effort that went into detailing these guys when watching the entrances. The entrances themselves contain some great lighting and special effects, and you'll appreciate entrances such as the Undertaker's, as they look better then they ever have before. The aforementioned sweat and blood is done quite realistically, and the sweat will accumulate as the match goes on. It helps that the grapplers don't have the overused ?sheen? look seen in games like WrestleMania 21, and this makes the sweat seem all the more accurate when it does show up. Blood will flow when you crack a guy particularly hard, and it will progressively stream down the wrestler's face and then end up on his chest ? pretty convincing. The spectators have a much more 3D look to them in the 360 version, and this allows the crowd interaction and fighting in the crowd to look convincing enough so that you won't be distracted by some ugly 2D model.
All this said, every aspect of the presentation isn't wine and roses. Still present is the garish PS2 hair modeling (which is only slightly improved for the 360), and it kind of clashes with the heavily upgraded character models. Also showing some age are the animations used within the game engine. They certainly aren't bad, and there are damn lot of them, but they still present too many problems for collision detection (as detailed earlier), aren't as fluid as one would expect from the new generation of game consoles, and just generally need to be updated from their PS2 roots. Also of note are the menus and load times for SVR: 2007, as both of these areas could use work. The load times are particularly egregious for an Xbox 360 game, and it's clear that the team did no real optimization to take advantage of the hard drive or faster disc drive. When it takes several load screens to load a match, then having to wait through more between entrances, and finally having to wait through another for the post-match animation, there's clearly an issue. The menus and interface are presentable enough, but it might be wise for a game with this many options and modes to migrate towards EA Sports' well-thought-out ?analog stick? interface that quickly and effectively gets you where you want to be going. There's enough good to outweigh the bad with SVR: 2007's presentation, but load times definitely need to be addressed in future iterations.
The audio does as one would expect in SVR: 2007 in that it doesn't distinguish itself from previous Smackdown! Games, but does not embarrass itself, either. The entrance music is accurate to the superstars included (with some outdated gimmicks using the old music), and the menu music actually contains some decent licensed tracks. A lack of custom soundtrack support for create-a-wrestler entrance music is certainly annoying, and there's really no reason this shouldn't be here, especially when WrestleMania 21 had this on the original Xbox. Strike and weapon effects sound quite good, and some of the grunts of pain that wrestlers let out when attacked are surprisingly accurate to their real-life counterparts. Everything generally sounds good in surround sound, and you'll be satisfied with how the impact on the ring mat sounds when executing various moves. The crowd noise could be better, but there is a decent amount of variance in how they react during the action, but no wrestling game has ever achieved the ?frenzy? that wrestling crowds can ? occasionally ? output. Commentary is still a wash, as the duos can never really keep up with the action, often repeat phrases, and sometimes even say the wrong stuff. During season mode, the announcers do have some situation-specific comments leading into and out of your matches, and all of this works fairly well, but even more of this could go a long way. The season mode also benefits from wrestler voiceover and, like other recent WWE games, this is done quite well and adds to the overall atmosphere of the angles being played out.
Achievements prove to be a good addition to SVR: 2007, as you'll be able to accrue Gamerscore for rattling off online matches, winning created titles, completing the season mode, surviving the Royal Rumble, creating a wrestler or entrance, and using every superstar on the roster. The points will definitely require a good deal of effort to collect, with the season mode and online tasks requiring some serious dedication. There's nothing too creative in these achievements, but it's good to see a nice spread of the points to encourage playtime in all facets of the game.
Smackdown! Vs. RAW 2007 is definitely a game that proves most valuable to those who waded through the garbage that was the Xbox wrestling game scene. There's certainly a slew of issues here, but none of them detract so much that you can't enjoy the entertaining season mode, deep creation features, and totally playable online component. If you're at all on the hunt for a wrestling game on 360, you won't have many options, but Smackdown! Vs. RAW 2007 delivers the consistent experience of its PS2 predecessors.