Does THQ's latest reek of awesomeness?

by Greg Miller

I believe the saying goes: "Another year, another Smackdown." Truly, this 365 is no different as it gives us WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011, the latest in THQ's long line of pro wrestling video games. Last year, I thought the game breathed a newfound life into the genre, and this year I feel like Yuke's and THQ are just expanding on that formula. That's by no means bad -- I had a blast with WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 and really wish I was playing instead of writing right now -- but it's not groundbreaking like SVR \'10.

This iteration of WWE SmackDown vs. Raw is delivering more than 70 Superstars, Divas and Legends, along with a plethora of match types and options. Most are things you should know from last time around -- Championship Scramble, Extreme Rules, and the ability to modify existing outfits in Superstar Threads -- but that doesn't mean WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 hasn't packed in a bunch of tweaks and additions.

For starters, there's a new mode called WWE Universe. This is basically the combination of the old career and exhibition modes. Here, the game is generating an infinite WWE calendar packed with Raws, SmackDowns, Superstars and pay-per-view shows. It plans the cards based on rivalries and rankings, and you pop in to play whatever match you want. If you don't dig a certain card, you're free to whip up a match of your own.

The only catch is, you can't just put a Superstar (created or otherwise) into a world title match -- that honor has to be earned by climbing the ranks and winning a No. 1 Contender match (or snatching the briefcase at WrestleMania\'s Money in the Bank match). You'll play as people, raise their rankings and earn your spots. Even better, the game is tracking rivalries and tossing in random cutscenes. Maybe Vince McMahon introduces another opponent after you've won a match or maybe your opponent attacks you during your entrance.

WWE Universe is undoubtedly cool. Basically, it's a never ending career mode where the game tracks feuds, Royal Rumble winners and more. When you create wrestlers -- whom you can now give all the attribute points you want to -- they're entered into the shows. You can simulate a decade and see how far they go or jump in and manage teams and rivalries so you can see the relationships unfold. WWE Universe is your SmackDown vs. Raw playset -- make some changes and see what develops.

The flipside to that freedom is Road to WrestleMania. On the surface, WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011's Road looks like that of the past -- you choose one of five tales and play through the weeks leading up to that Superstar\'s appearance on the grandest stage of all in between watching a bunch of cutscenes. However, there's a twist here: this year's Road to WrestleMania has you wandering around backstage.

My dinner!

Now, most shows will require you to go talk to someone before a match can begin, but there are a bunch of side quests to engage in here. If you want, you can rush to the gorilla position and head out to that week's match, but if you're the "do everything person," there are conversations to listen in on, people to talk to, and fights to start. Now, picking backstage brawls might sound foolish (and in a way, I found it to be), but every match or fight you engage in rewards you with Superstar points that you can apply to your move damage and damage resistance -- it's like a mini-RPG in a way.

Trouble is, leveling up your attributes is a bit of a bitch and not worth it. I've done every Road to WrestleMania, and I didn't find the leveling process worth much -- you have to pick fights with every Superstar backstage to get enough points to really max out your character. On top of that and how cool it is to see free roaming return, there's definitely something to be desired here. Although all the Superstars are voiced, mouths flap like mad and there's no lip syncing to speak of. On top of that, the backstage environments are empty caverns and the brawls you get into seem to go on way too long.

Here's the thing, though: even with those stumbles, I dig this year's Road to WrestleMania. Sure, the free roaming can be really cheesy and almost seem low budget at times, but the stories themselves are rad. Who doesn't want to see Edge and Christian reeking of awesomeness, Jericho getting Pedigreed on a car, or John Cena dealing with Randy Orton's mind games? Toss in that the Undertaker's storyline takes WWE SmackDown vs. Raw to places I never thought THQ would, and you've got a truly unique mode. There are decisions to make and different paths to go down. Sure, it's really rough around the edges, but the characters you unlock and the stories you get to be a part of make it cool.

I haven't touched on controls much, and that's because they're largely what you already know and expect. You run with a shoulder button, grapple with the right stick and so on. However, there are some adjustments this time around like your ability to reverse a pin into a pin of your own. Still, the biggest change is the fact that there's no longer a strong modifier for grapples. Now, the game will read how damaged your opponent is and scale your attacks based on that.

That might sound fine, but I ran into a problem with it. Most of the time when you grapple, you start with a simple armbar or similar chain grapple move. From there, you move the stick again to enter into a slam or throw. Trouble is, reversing still comes down to one button this time around, and these chain grapples are really easy to reverse out of. This means that when I played people, I found myself getting into a lot of armbars, but reversed before I could get to a simple suplex. When I was playing Bryan Williams of THQ fame, I wanted to pull off different moves, but he kept reversing everything, so I found myself doing the same running attack over and over.

There's a balancing issue that needs to be worked out here. When I can't even pull off a simple body slam, something\'s wrong and most definitely frustrating.

Still, the good additions outweigh the bad. Hell in a Cell has been revamped so that the cage is realistically sized and weapons are underneath the ring, Story Designer is back and has more scenes to use and less restrictions on created characters, and Havoc physics are now part of the WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 package. If that last part doesn't sound that impressive, I assure it will be the first time you throw Evan Bourne and see him land with his leg draped over the bottom rope or use the Undertaker to give a dude a Last Ride onto the ring stairs. This new weight and realistic physics mean that you can lean ladders on other ladders and run off of them and toss folks through tables at any angle. It's delivering a more true-to-life WWE than ever before -- even though I have see the engine wig out and stick chairs through characters, have ladders dance in the ring, and other mini-glitches.

The final big piece of WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 is online. For the first time in the series, you can now participate in any match online. Ladder matches, six-man tag matches, and every other match is available for you to take on the world in. Even better is the fact that the Royal Rumble -- complete with its button-tapping mini-games from last year -- is going online for up to 12 people. Only six Superstars can be in the ring at one time, but the folks spectating can participate in mini-games while they wait.

I dig the online Royal Rumble (you take on the next Superstar coming to the ring if you get eliminated) and part of that is SVR's Prestige system. As you play matches, rate user created storylines and upload you own creations, you're earning points that are applied to your online rank. The game puts this rank in front of you every time you bank some XP, so it's easy to see your progress. When you do a Royal Rumble, you're getting bonus XP for having more people in the match. If you can get 12 people in one play session, you're gaining 400 percent the normal amount of Prestige. That's rather rad, and the fact that there are elimination bonuses and such make it all the better.

I know lag was an issue for a lot of gamers last year, but in my tests, WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 seemed to be running fairly well. I played online at an event with a 360 and saw no issues. For review, I fooled around on the PlayStation Network one day and found the game to be a laggy mess, but the next day it ran without much more than a framerate dip here or there -- THQ says there was some maintenance being done the first time I kicked the tires. It seems solid enough to me.

Don't look directly into the urn.

If WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 has a weakness, it's that outside of everything I just mentioned -- which is indeed quite a bit -- this title does feel a lot like a fixed-up version of last year's. The online creations have been touched up to make stuff easier to find, but the programs feel the same. You can use Paint Tool logos on crowd signs and for created brands, but the interface is still clunky and unintuitive. Story Designer has new scenes along with some bells and whistles, but it's the same thing. There's a new position for Create-A-Finisher, but it's what you know and have used in the past. From there, bouts like the Inferno match and Extreme Rules are the same song and dance you've seen before -- there's just that new layer of Havoc physics.

Now, I'm not saying any of that stuff sucks; most of it is actually really cool. It's just that it feels like well worn territory in some sections. You can now have 50 created Superstars and use 10 of them in the same story as many times as you want, but the mechanics behind those numbers are still the same ones you know. As always, the characters look good while the crowd looks blocky and the commentary is repetitive and at times flat out wrong -- you know, it's SmackDown.

Closing Comments
In the end, there are two main annoyances that stand out to me with WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 and make it just a bit less awesome than last year's effort -- the frustrating grapples and the rough Road to WrestleMania backstage stuff. Not being able to transition to a hip toss and watching John Cena's mouth open and close at random sucked me out of the experience.

Thankfully, there's plenty in this game that pulled me back in. Making choices in the stories, never knowing what was going to happen in WWE Universe Mode, and seeing fans hold up signs packing the IGN logo are all really cool memories I have from this game. Sure, it feels like a suped-up version of last year's title here and there, but there's nothing wrong with that when the game is this much fun.

OVERALL Impressive (out of 10)

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