Why We're Pumped
We've played another two hours of the game, and we feel like Kelly Kelly just hugged us.
by Greg Miller
The SmackDown vs. Raw franchise is an interesting one. Every year I cover it, and every year I come in going "Well, I don't know how they're going to get me excited for this one." Then without fail, THQ and Yuke's gets me excited about the next iteration of the series. If you read my initial WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 preview from a few weeks ago, you know that this year is no different – free roaming backstage environments, an ever-evolving WWE Universe Mode, a revamped Hell in a Cell, etc.
Yeah, I'm pumped.
Well, this past weekend, I spent a few hours in front of a TV playing WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011. Sadly, the game wasn't mine to keep, but it did serve as a chance for me to kick the tires on some of the features I've only been able to sneak a peek at. I dove into a couple of Road to WrestleManias, did an Iron Man match inside the Hell in a Cell structure, and generally just went to town on THQ's latest.
What did I think of everything I saw? Well, I thought it rocked – and here's why.
REVAMPED ROAD TO WRESTLEMANIA
I'll put this out there right away – this year's Road to WrestleMania is going to be polarizing. Some will love it, some will hate it. So far, I fall into the first group.
If you missed that initial blowout I put up, Road to WrestleMania has been revamped this year. You still pick from a preset list of Superstars and take them through the weeks leading up to the biggest show on the WWE calendar, but this time it's not just cutscene/match, cutscene/match, cutscene match. This year, you'll live the Superstar's life backstage – maneuver the character around in street clothes, start backstage brawls, have conversations and so on. You can do as much or as little of this kind of stuff as you want. As you win matches and complete side quests, you're awarded Superstar points that you can then take to the trainer and level up your damage resistance, strike resistance, grapple damage level and momentum gain level.
Just who will you be playing as in this mode? How about Rey Mysterio, John Cena, Christian and Chris Jericho? If that's not enough for you, there's another storyline called "Versus the Undertaker." Here, you can choose to be Kofi, John Morrison, Dolph Ziggler, R-Truth or one of your created Superstars and set off to end the Undertaker's WrestleMania win streak.
Sounds cool, right? New stories, free roaming and a touch of RPG mechanics are nice additions. Here's where I think the division between players is going to come – the mechanics of all this are very Japanese. If you were a casual videogame player, you might have no idea that this professional wrestling game based on the most popular brand in America is developed over in Japan because the game captures the WWE so well. However, when you start interacting with folks backstage in Road to Wrestlemania, the animations, environments and aesthetics feel very foreign.
Take Rey's story for instance. It starts with the Superstar getting into a car accident and then having to pick which of his rescuers he sides with (Branching stories FTW!), but then the first thing he walks in on is a garbage can on fire and two Diva's freaking out. When he starts talking to one of the ladies (everything's voiced in this mode), the girl holds her hands to her face and shakes her head left and right – overacting in a very JRPG way. When you talk to other wrestlers, bodies stand rigidly while mouths randomly open and close like robots. Walls and halls are sparsely populated with props.
Basically, this isn't the photo realistic backstage you know. It's not going to immerse you in the experience even though you get to choose who you talk to and who you tussle with. Is it a big deal? I don't think so after this early look. You're still getting the polished stories and cutscenes you expect from the mode, so the side quests and options backstage are just icing on the cake. They're not perfect, but their quirk is kind of their charm.
THE MASSIVE MATCH CREATOR
All right, all right – this is an addition that isn't all that major, but it really appeals to goofy SVR nerds like myself. You've always been able to modify win conditions in your matches to a point – turn on or off DQ and such – but Match Creator really gives you the SVR toolbox and lets you have at it. Using a three-step process – environment, win conditions and rules – you can craft any match combination you like. Want a two out of three falls inferno match? A falls count anywhere first blood match in the Hell in a Cell cage? You can do it.
If you stumble upon a creation you really dig, you can even pop into your options and alter the defaults so that whenever you start a one-on-one or whatever, you'll get the settings you like.
A UNIVERSE OF UNLOCKABLES
I gave you the gist of WWE Universe last time I wrote about WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011, but even I find it a bit confusing on paper. Basically, the standard career mode is gone. WWE Universe replaces it with a never ending calendar of RAWs, SmackDowns, Superstars shows and pay-per-views. You can choose to focus on one Superstar and play every one of his matches as the months go by, play every match on every card, or simulate as far as you like and see how the federation shapes up. The game is going to create stories, rivalries, teams and more in this exhibition mode and continue to evolve each time you advance it.
When I had the chance to fool with it this time around, I made sure I did as much as I could. For starters, I pushed Evan Bourne and started giving him matches with the top dogs on RAW so that his power ranking rose (arrows let you know who is rising and falling on the WWE charts). I was trying to get him into the title picture, but when I'd brawl with Cena, Orton would come out to interfere on his behalf.
When I moved on from there, I decided to jump into a Diva's No. 1 contender match for the hell of it as Eve. I beat Maryse, but then Vince McMahon came out and announced "my other opponent." On the fly, Gail Kim came out to fight me for the No. 1 spot. When I beat her, I got a message letting me know I had just unlocked her. I jumped into a triple threat for the U.S. Championship at Backlash, won, and unlocked the Backlash Arena and Cruiserweight title. (I spied eight locked championships, by the way.)
This is what I dig about WWE Universe Mode so far – you don't know what's going to happen or what you're going to get. I started playing every match to see what I could get, but I couldn't take my eyes off the screen because even entrances were getting interrupted by the opponents. You jump into these matches you normally wouldn't see, and you're getting rewarded with TV-style antics and in-game unlockables.
And, even sweeter for marks out there, when one of my entrances got interrupted, we brawled outside for a while, and it wasn't until we both made our way into the ring that the ref waved his arms and rang the bell to officially begin the match. Similarly, the Universe remembers who is Mr. Money in the Bank, and when you click on a title match, it asks if you want to cash in the briefcase and run out. Minor touches like that are where SVR 11 wins your heart.
STORY DESIGNER BOOSTER SHOT
Last year's game introduced Story Designer, a mode that allowed players to create their own WWE stories using cutscenes and matches and then share them online. That's back this year, and THQ has only expanded it.
For starters, the developers have added 75 new scenes for you to use in your stories (my demo showcased Taker popping out of the center of the ring, interrupting an HBK interview, and chokeslamming Shawn through the hole before having fire explode from the crevice), but making that all the more impressive is that 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 do that now. You can split your own tale so the player has a bunch of different options.
On top of all that, you can now craft tales that allow you to play with friends – yes, multiplayer has made its way to Story Designer creations. You can whip up creations for up to four players on the Xbox 360 and up to six on the PlayStation 3. While you'll still need to type in text if you're trying to convey a Superstar's thoughts, you can now pick songs and announcer segments from a sound library to give your stories a bit of life.
Now using created Superstars in your stories was a bit of a letdown last year. If you recall, you could only have 10 instances last time around – as in if you had one created Superstar in a tale, you could only use him in ten segments. That's done with this year. Now, you can put up to 15 CAS into a storyline and use them as many times as you like.
If all of that wasn't overwhelming enough – at least for a Story Designer shlub like myself – you can also add health triggers in matches that set off cutscenes mid-match. If you want a cutscene where Cena gets smacked with a chair after Triple H racks up enough damage on John's noggin, you can set that for you story.
Oh, and in those cutscenes, you can add a championship belt – any of the straps in the game – to any cutscene. Score.
THE ONLINE WORLD (WRESTLING FEDERATION)
Confession: I've never been that into the Royal Rumble. I mean, the event itself is cool and part of WWE tradition, but in games, it's never been something I look forward to – especially in story modes. Road to WrestleMania has removed the Rumble from being something you have to do, and last year, the new elimination systems actually made the match itself more fun (eliminatations came down to mashing buttons and stopping an arrow in the sweet spot). Still, outside of playing for Trophies/Achievements, I never really touched the Rumble last time around.
I don't think that'll be the case this year as the Royal Rumble is going online for the first time ever. Yes, now you and 11 others can pop online and face off in one of the cornerstones of Sports Entertainment. After fooling around with the mode for a night, I can tell you the addition of human opponents using tactics and button-tapping skills makes the Rumble a lot more entertaining. Now, only six people can be in the ring at a time (This is for all online modes – yes, you can have six-player normal matches this time around), but when the other six are spectating, quizzes (Who will be the next to enter? Who will be eliminated next?) pop up to keep them involved.
When you get eliminated, you come back as the next available Superstar until the Rumble is said and done. When a winner's been declared, you're kicked to the stats screen where – if you're good – you're rewarded with a ton of Prestige Points. These points govern your online rank. As you eliminate people and keep yourself in the match, bonuses pop up on the screen, and these are all tallied in the end so that you can see how far you've advanced on your quest to move up from the "jobber" rank.
The Prestige Points were in last year's game, but you'll be able to bank way more this year – commenting on a creation, downloading someone else's work and so on earn you XP. Basically, whatever you do online is contributing to you becoming an online dynamo. Speaking of rating content, the stars are going to be a bit more diverse this year. Whereas in the past, content had to be full five stars, four stars or so on, averages will come into play so that there's a difference between 4.5 stars and 4.6 stars online. Plus, leaderboards will now track the best of the best in single matches, cage matches, Royal Rumbles, Community Creations, and so on.
There's a lot to master if you truly want to be the King of Kings (or Diva of Divas, ladies).
WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 is big – 50 create-a-Superstars, 130 create-a-finishers and 30 paint tool slots big. At first glance, it looks a lot like 2010. The title belts still hover over shoulders at times and Jericho's entrance looks like it always has, but there's a lot going on this year. From the new announce tables moves (moonsault from the ring to the prone opponent) to street clothes for Superstars backstage to all the stuff I've talked about here.
With a month to go, I really can't wait to get my hands on the final version of WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011.