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In the months prior to the release of the game, everything was leading up to one thought and one thought only: WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 is going to be the ultimate wrestling video game, the best one ever created. And personally, for the first time, I was extremely looking forward to the game. Well, who am I kidding, as a hardcore wrestling fan, I would never miss a chapter of the series anyway. But this year things were looking better than ever with several improvements and additions being made. Now it's the moment of truth: did the game live up to all the hype and expectations that built up around it before the release? After spending a consistent amount of hours on it, I am ready to deliver a proper review of the game, with both positives and negatives. Let's go through it.

GAMEPLAY AND MATCH TYPES

WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 introduces a new physics system that affects every single weapon in all match types, but especially in matches that involve Tables, Ladders and Chairs. In previous games, the interaction with them was non-existent: the only way you had to break a table was to execute a "table finisher" through a scripted animation, and there was no way at all to dynamically interact with the other objects. This year, chairs and trashcans bend, tables break in different ways basing on the impact, ladders can be broken in half as well. All of this is possible with every single move. No more scripted animations. If you have your opponent up for a Batista Bomb and a table is right in front of you, the opponent will go through it and react to it. But not only that. The possibility of moving your opponent mid-air during moves and controlling where he's going to land has been introduced. This makes it a lot easier to smash an opponent through an object. While the physics are not perfect -sometimes bodies and weapons just react awkwardly and unrealistically- and it looks a little glitchy at times, it stills feel totally awesome having chairs, ladders, tables, steel steps, you name it, "alive" in the ring, at your full disposal. The new physics also give you the chance to lean objects wherever you want, setting up any kind of destruction the human mind can ever come up with and allowing you to replicate some of the coolest spots you can see on TV, with the inclusion of new ladder finishers as well. An RKO from the ladder through four tables with a chair on top of them? Why not! Isn't that great? Absolutely. And we're not even half-way on describing the gameplay tweaks and improvements done in the game.

You can now decide if you want to go for the pin or not at the end of a move that allows it by pressing the Circle/B button when it appears on the screen (unfortunately, this year this doesn't apply to diving maneuvers), you can now set your opponent up on the top rope or in a tree of woe position and deliver new moves from there, you can perform signatures and finishers from more than one situation and without having to make your opponent in a groggy state, and there are several new, and different reversals for each type of move. Especially, I find great the idea of having running attacks/grapples reversed into the Irish Whip Rebound move of the opponent. Unfortunately, this year's game still doesn't feature a proper weight detection and you can still see Rey Mysterio powerbombing The Undertaker.

The grapple system has been tweaked as well, with the removal of the grapple modifier. The type of grapple that you are able to perform on a standing opponent will be dependent upon the condition of your opponent. If you grapple a groggy opponent (the groggy state can be accomplished in multiple ways, for example with Strike combination or with a Toe Kick) you will be able to execute four powerful moves. If you grapple a non-groggy opponent, you’ll grab hold of him in one of four different chain grapple holds (collar and elbow, side headlock, waist lock and wrist lock). Similar to previous titles you’ll be able to perform grapple moves (by moving the right analogue stick up, down, left or right) strikes and struggle submissions from each one of the four holds, but this time around grapples performed out of chain grapple holds will be your weaker set of grapple. This new system contributes to make the matches more realistic in my opinion, with few strong signature moves and more wear-down chain grapples.

So it's all good? Unfortunately no. There is a big downside in this system. Reversing moves inside a chain grapple situation is WAY too easy and it doesn't need timing at all. Just repeatedly mashing the trigger button accomplishes the goal, and this is really a game breaking especially when it comes to online playing. Also, the pin system still needs tweaks: it's way too easy pinning a CPU opponent (a pin after a regular move should never get a 3 count!!!), and it's still way too easy to kick out if you're the one being pinned, once you got the hang of it, with the risk of playing online matches that last forever.

The match types are basically the same as last year, but with an essential, tremendous improvement... The Hell in a Cell is finally bigger, and with weapons. Yeah, you read right, HIAC Match is now more realistic than ever, with a perfect cell and with chairs, sledgehammers and steel steps at you disposal. Also, the door has been removed from the cell. The only way to get out of the structure is to perform a cage-breaking finisher, and when you're out of course you can bring the fight on the top of the cell, delivering devastating finishers from there as well to end the career of your opponent. If you're not happy enough, you'll change your mind when I tell you about the Match Creator. Using a three-step process – environment, win conditions and rules – you can craft any match combination you like. Want a 2 out of 3 Falls Inferno Match? A Falls Count Anywhere Iron Man Match in the Hell in a Cell? Want to change a match stipulation to be that the first person who lands a finishing maneuver wins, or perhaps who can hit the most over a set period of time? You can do it. Unfortunately, divas can't still fight men, but apparently this doesn't depends on THQ: WWE imposed this restriction.

WWE UNIVERSE

One of the biggest additions to this year's game is WWE Universe. Are you tired of playing exhibition matches when they don't mean absolutely anything at the end of it? Well, the Universe feature is here for you. Now, everything you can do in exhibition actually matters: there are match cards for Raw, Superstars, SmackDown, and monthly Pay Per Views (and it's all endless) and you can do whatever you want with them. Play them as they are, simulate matches, or change them to your likings. I said everything matters, and this includes stables, rivalries, and championships. The game will generate the match cards based on all of this and will process the story lines also through cut-scenes (such as sneak attacks, interferences and more). Before the game came out, we were told that it would have featured about 100 random cutscenes that can happen before, during and after your matches. Now, I don't know if it's just me (but reading posts over the message boards it doesn't look like so), but I always get the same cut-scenes over and over, I probably happened to see only 10-12 different cut-scenes. Where are the other 90? By the way, as I was saying, you get to decide champions, friends and enemies, and you can change them whenever you want if the game does something you don't like such as splitting up a tag team or forming a weird alliance you don't want to see. However, if you want a particular superstar getting a title shot you have to make him earn his way up the rankings by winning matches and becoming the number 1 contender, and you can't just set up a title match at any time. In fact, belts can be put on the line only on Pay Per Views, and you can't decide the participants of title matches, you have to accept what the game decides for you in this case. Which is fine and somewhat realistic, but there is a problem.

The WWE Universe is not just a "Game Mode". It's the game itself. That means that if a stable splits up in the Universe, it will be erased completely from your game and you'll have to create it again. That means that you can't put someone in more than one stable at the same time, because of how the Universe works (There are 70 slots available for stables, and in the way the game works now there's no possible way we can even fill them all up: with about 75 characters and 50 caws the max we can do is 62/63 stables). That means that you can't put title on the line in exhibition (without having to use a "workaround"). As you can see, there are some restrictions that understandably will leave the player somewhat disappointed. Don't get me wrong, WWE Universe is a cool addition, with great room for improvement of course, but it's a good idea to incorporate some elements of the career mode and some of the GM Mode in one, with addition of cut-scenes. The best thing THQ can do to improve it, is simply by making the WWE Universe a stand-alone mode, leaving untouched and independent the fun we can have in exhibition and allowing us to have D-Generaton X and Evolution at the same time OUTSIDE the Universe, if we want to. Also, the Universe doesn't always seem to act in a coherent manner: for example, at the PPV Night Of Champions where every title is supposed to be on the line I happened to run into a non-title random main event, with the World Heavyweight Championship Match being left out of the card. Or yet again, the winner of the Royal Rumble doesn't always get a title shot in the Main Event of WrestleMania. This is something that needs to be improved as well.

ROAD TO WRESTLEMANIA MODE

For the third consecutive year, the "story mode" of the game is the Road To WrestleMania. In SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 you will be able to play five separate scenarios: John Cena, Rey Mysterio, Christian, Chris Jericho, and a storyline where you can either choose between four preset superstars (Dolph Ziggler, Kofi Kingston, John Morrison and R-Truth) or you can choose a created wrestler, with one goal in mind: breaking the legendary Undertaker's Wrestlemania undefeated streak. But this time, the mode is not limited to match, cutscene, match, cutscene and so on: you can actually "live" the experience of being a WWE Superstar with the chance of free roaming the backstage areas (hall, locker rooms, GM office, interview set, etc.) and interacting (even picking up fight with them) with the superstars you can find around.

However, most of times, faces or heels it doesn't matter, everyone will use the same exact words to just tell you to... get out of his face. Now, I understand that for obvious reasons you can't have them to react every time to the storyline and speak accordingly to it, but at least, since everyone did voiceovers, at least have them to say things in a different way basing on the character while you are it. "Hey man, you can't see me!" by John Cena, "Get out of my sight if you don't want a piece of The Game" for HHH (just two random examples), instead of having generic "Beat it" and "Get lost" for everyone. Actually, I ran into Chris Jericho once, and he called me a hypocrite. Why didn't everyone get his personal sentence? This is something that really bothers me, because I feel that there was the chance to make it better but has not been fully exploited.

Beside that, the Road To WrestleMania storylines are funny and interesting like other years, even though there are some plot holes that left me dumbfounded. For example, the biggest one is in Christian's Road To WrestleMania. Once won the Money In The Bank at the Elimination Chamber PPV, you get to cash in the contract either on your friend Edge or on the Raw WWE Champion Shawn Michaels. Now, if you choose to cash in on HBK, Christian goes to Edge and tells him that he's going to do it in the next episode of Raw (with the rematch against HBK taking place at WrestleMania). Well, if you delay your decision to the last episode of SmackDown (two days away from Wrestlemania), and you choose to cash in on HBK, the next chapter of the story will happen in the Showcase of the Immortals (because obviously there's no episode of Raw between the two shows) and you'll find yourself WWE Champion when you actually never won the title. Now, if this wasn't enough, after you win the rematch at WrestleMania against Michaels, Edge will come to the ring to celebrate with you, he’ll take a microphone and he’ll say that.. Christian is the new WWE Champion. Weird uh? If you think about it, there's no possible way Christian would get to WrestleMania as the challenger if you choose to cash in on Shawn Michaels... so that Edge's voiceover made no sense at all, and I wonder how is it possible that nobody noticed such a big mistake in the script.

CREATION MODES

The creation modes have always played a big part in the SmackDown series and this year is no difference. However, the modifications made in SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 are not all towards the good side. Created Superstars look now more realistic than ever, almost as good as the preset Superstars. In addition, patterns made their return into CAW mode, and finally we no longer have to build up attributes and abilities of our created characters: we can set their stats right from the start, which is great. However, moving to the bad news, for some reason we are restricted in the choice of skin color. We can't no longer decide it freely, but we have to choose between an amount of preset ones, which of course is really limiting and it prevents us from making accurate caws of real wrestlers. Also, the transparency option is no longer available for facial hairs and tattoos. Hopefully, this is something that THQ can address in a future patch of the game because many message boards across the internet are already bursting with complaints regarding the feature’s absence. In addition, I wanted to notice that oddly, the glitch that resets your CAW moveset whenever you make a new attire is still present, so be careful.

Sticking to the bad news, another thing that is going to prevent us from making accurate caws of real wrestlers is this: you probably won't believe it but more than 450 moves have been REMOVED from the Create a Moveset Mode. No, you didn't misread. More than 450 moves are gone, for some unknown reason. And not only "foreign moves", but also moves that belong to the in-game wrestlers. Triple H and Undertaker punches and clotheslines are no where to be found, The Rock's signature DDT and Samoan Drops disappeared, so do Chris Jericho's Lionsaults and the two Shawn Michaels' Sweet Chin Music ending in a pin, as well as loads of Backbreakers, Neckbreakers, all pinning-only moves (Roll-ups, Inside Cradles, Victory Rolls), and many many more, even with the total absence of basic moves like Leg Drops. I wrote down an accurate list of the removed moves, and you can read it by CLICKING HERE. You're warned, it's not for the faint of heart. Not to mention that preset movesets of the in-game superstars are ridiculously wrong and rushed, so much that you have to go through editing them all if you want the superstars having their actual moves, and that now we are allowed only 1 Running Strike per superstar rather than the 2 like we always had. I really don't know what happened here and why, but I'm disappointed and I know everyone feel the same about it.

Create A Finisher has returned, with the addition of a Corner Position that allows you to create some crazy moves and the improvement of the two old positions (Front & Diving). You'll also be able to modify your Create-A-Finisher move speeds by one-percent increments rather than the previous 25-percent ones and the ability to save up to 130 finishers this time around instead of 30. Create an Entrance has been improved too, and the possibility of entering with two titles has been added to the game (although tag-team entrances with two belts are not supported). Also, the functionality of the Paint Tool feature has been expanded: you can now use your created designs as Crowd Signs and as Custom Brand Logos, which is pretty cool if you ask me. Also, the Highlight Reel and Superstar Threads (changing the colours of in-game superstars attires) features are still in.

Story Designer Mode has been improved drastically. You can now use up to 15 created superstars and you can use them as many times you want, instead of being limited to 10 caws uses like last year. 75 new scenes have been added (including some character-specific ones, with The Undertaker coming out of nowhere), and you can now have your own branching stories using these scenes. If you want it so that a win and loss lead to different outcomes, you can. On top of that, the mode now allows you to play matches with friends (it wasn't possible last year) and during the creation process it allows you to add health triggers in matches that set off cut-scenes mid-match or specific commentary lines by the announcers, to give your stories more depth. Last but not least, you can add any championship belt to anyone to any cut-scene. Story Designer has been taken to the next level this year, no doubt.

Another cool thing: by downloading the “Attributes Customizer” (1$) we get to change preset superstars’ attributes and fix them to our likings, just like the good old days.

ONLINE

After spending a decent amount of time playing online, I am very happy to say that... it's great. Yeah, that's right. Lag is almost non-existent, even in 6 player matches, and where there's a bit of it, it's still less than the lag we were constantly experiencing in SVR2010. Glitches and "cheap moves" have been all taken out. The only problem comes with the Chain Grapple reversals being too easy, as I mentioned before. As I was saying: yes, 6 player matches... as a matter of fact now, every match available in the game will also be playable online, including Elimination Chamber, Armageddon Hell In A Cell, Scramble, Money In The Bank and.. the Royal Rumble.

For the first time ever the Royal Rumble is available online, and you get to play with up to other 11 opponents to become "the one". The amount of points awarded during a match is based on the amount of players participating in the match. Let’s say that there are only 2 human players involved in a match; the game will only award the players with 10% of the Prestige points that they accumulate during that match. If you manage to fill a room with a full 12 players though, you will get 400% of the points earned. Just because you are eliminated from the match it doesn’t mean that your game is over: you will be allowed to return back as a future entrant in the rumble after everyone waiting ahead of you have entered the ring. And when you are spectating, quizzes (Who will be the next to enter? Who will be eliminated next?) pop up to keep you involved and you can earn points if you answer correctly. Of course, as you can expect, the online Royal Rumble is not always a lag free experience and de-sync errors often happen, but it's still a nice and an enjoyable addition.

The Community Creation feature has been improved drastically as well, the user interface is a lot more intuitive and searching through all the creations is a lot easier, thanks to a better category breakdown and a better rating system. Also, now uploading something to the server actually means something to the creator. The more your content is downloaded and liked, the more you get prestige points that count towards the rankings. This is definitely a nice addition that makes Community Creation a win-win situation for both the uploader (points) and the downloader (a good creation at his disposal).

Important thing as well, now the person who uploads the content can choose either to let other users edit his creation or not. If the option is set on yes, the superstar you download is editable in all fields: appearance, moveset and entrance. However, for some reason you can't upload created stories that contain downloaded superstars, being that from community creations (doesn't matter if the uploader made it editable or not) or from official DLC content. This is weird, especially because it wasn't an issue in previous years. For example, in SVR2009, you could upload whatever you wanted to the server, but if DLC content was included in the content you uploaded, the downloader would get a message saying that he couldn’t download it because he doesn't have that DLC content. That's the way it should be this year as well concerning DLC content: who doesn’t have DLC should be restricted, not vice versa. As far as downloaded superstars instead, well, this almost goes to kill the purpose of creating stories. There are a lot of guys out there that are good at making stories, but they are not that good at making caws.. What are they going to do if they can't upload stories with downloaded caws?

OFFICIAL SDH RATINGS FOR WWE SMACKDOWN VS. RAW 2011

GRAPHICS: 9.0 - Superstars and arenas look better than ever, and the new muscle flexing feature makes the game extremely realistic when it comes to the graphic aspect. Some animation issues that are still there and the crowds looking not so good, prevent the game from getting the full 10 out of 10 score.

GAMEPLAY: 8.5 - The additions been made to the gameplay are uncountable: from the new physics and object interaction to the improved grapple system, from the new Hell In A Cell to the new and better reversals, so the score has to be an high one. There are still some issues though: reversing out of chain grapples is too easy, and the pin system is still broken. Also, the game is still lacking a proper weight detection.

SOUND: 7.0 - Commentary is improved, but it's still not good enough, especially now that we have only one announce team in the game; crowd noises are often weird and not consistent with what is going on in the ring; the voice acting is pretty solid instead. The soundtrack is only made by some Entrance Themes and some generic music, and the possibilities of skipping songs during menus as well as disabling certain audios during menus/gameplay have both been removed for apparently no reason. Sound is for sure something that need work in the future iteration.

REPLAY VALUE: 8.5 - Once you've completed all the Road To WrestleMania and unlocked everything (and there are tons of stuff to unlock) you still have a lot to do. You can play the never ending WWE Universe, you can play downloaded stories, you can use the Match Creator feature to make any match type you want, and especially you can enjoy this year's great Online Mode. Also, the roster is bigger than ever, and the DLC content scheduled (current superstars, legends, arenas) will give us even more replay value. However the lack of moves and the restriction when it comes to CAW Mode and to uploading stories with downloaded superstars prevent the game to get an even higher score.

OVERALL SCORE: 8.5 - Usually this score would say that the reviewer is satisfied with the game. Well I'm not. I'm frustrated. Because this game REALLY had the potential to be the ultimate wrestling game, but... it isn't. It's true, the pros outweigh the cons, and the game is still actually pretty good, but I don't get why the cons are there in the first place. I understand the budget and time restrictions deal but look at it from our point of view. Every year for the past few years we would get good things, really good new features. But then things that were not messed up in priors years suddenly break, and with that goes the foundation of the game. It's frustrating to have to say "Maybe next year" every single year when the problems that come into the series are usually problems that were never an issue before hand in prior games. The Layers system did not need to be changed. The color schemes for caws did not need to be changed. Taking out defending titles in exhibition, that did not need to happen. Removing more than 450 moves, that absolutely did not need to happen. Otherwise, SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 would have been an almost perfect game, and now I would be giving to it a 9.5, if not a 10… If I had to describe the game in two words I would say: wasted opportunity.


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