by Greg Miller
I write about the SmackDown vs. Raw franchise a lot, and when I do, I usually start with some anecdote about the life I've spent with wrestling games. After playing WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011, I can tell you that there's no time for that – there's simply too much to discuss.
Need an overview of what you're about to get into? Free-roaming backstage environments are back, you no longer have to earn your Create-A-Superstars attributes, Hell in a Cell has been revamped and includes weapons under the ring, and pretty much anything you're doing outside of the Road to WrestleMania storylines or online matches is taking place in "WWE Universe," a mode that wraps storylines, feuds and a programming schedule into one package that's always evolving and changing.
In short: holy crap.
SmackDown vs. Raw fans are a hardcore lot, but if you're just jumping on the wrestling game wagon, the basics are that WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 is coming to a videogame system near you this October and packing the action and presentation you expect from WWE programming. It'll pack a more current roster of Superstars than SVR 2010 (of the 70-plus wrestlers, the Undertaker, Randy Orton, Chris Jericho, The Miz, John Cena, Sheamus, Rey Mysterio, Jack Swagger, Triple H, Big Show, Evan Bourne, Christian, Edge, Bret Hart, Michelle McCool, and Eve are confirmed), gameplay improvements, and a whole bunch more.
With the noobs satisfied, let's get to brass tacks and geek out over what THQ is adding this time around. The biggest change -- at least in my eyes – is WWE Universe. Basically, this shoves everything you do in exhibition, all of the championships, all of the stables and rivalries system, and whatever else into one mode that's always active. When WWE Universe is on, it's going to give you an event – Raw, Superstars, SmackDown or a pay-per-view – and an event card. This isn't generated at random. This is a card based on the feuds and friendships that exist on your system as well as rankings. Now, if you don't like the matches, you're free to change them however you like – different people, different stipulations, etc. – and the game will react, remember, and craft the story around it.
It's career mode without having a career mode. It's a constant WWE at your fingertips where you can pull the strings (you still get to choose who are champs as well as who are friends and who are rivals if you want). If you don't like the look of a particular card, you can change it or sim past it to the next show, which leads into the next event, which leads into the PPV, and so on. When this is happening, the folks in the federation are building friendships and creating enemies. The game notices this and modifies the WWE relationships, and this then leads to one of 100 random cutscenes before, during and after your matches. This is stuff like your foe attacking you during your entrance, a match changing on the fly, and so on.
All of this actually matters, as well. There's a ranking system in WWE Universe that shows where certain Superstars stand in the federation. As you play – and keep in mind, you can play as whomever you want or as many people as you want – your character or characters start to move in the rankings and vie for number one contender spots and championships. You need to earn your ticket to the top… or at least jump in and edit it so that you're the champ.
WWE Universe is the career mode of WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011. If you don't like it and you just want the traditional exhibition matches without the suggestions and presentation, you can turn the mode off by clicking the thumbstick at the main menu.
Personally, I can't see why you'd want to turn the damn thing off – it looks awesome. Back in high school when I was salivating over the create-a-PPV options in the SmackDown series on the PSone, I had a notebook filled with matches and rivalries I wanted to play out. WWE Universe seems like it's going to let you do this, but it'll take care of the heavy lifting and make events and relationships happen as they need to. Instead of me commentating my own matches and making up stories for why things are going on in the squared circle, the game will do it for me. Plus, there's a layer presentation gloss that's top notch as it themes the menu screens around whatever the next show is and uses loading screens to promote the next PPV.
In the past, exhibition has been something I've passed up for the stories of Road to Wrestlemania and the thrill of online competition. With WWE SVR 11, I think I'm going to spend a lot of time in this federation that never ends and reacts around me. That sounds awesome.
That's not to say Road to WrestleMania is dead to me – quite the contrary. If you're just joining us, Road to WrestleMania is SVR's set-story portion of the series. Here, you choose one from a handful of Superstars, and live the lead-up to WrestleMania as that wrestler. In the past, this was a very linear experience where you'd get a cutscene, play a match, get a cutscene, play a match and so on.
That changes this year.
In WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011, you set out on a Superstar's life, but you live it like never before. Now, you wander the backstage area and interact with other Superstars. Mini-quests pop up, fights break out, you talk to the commissioner, and so on. If that kind of exploring isn't your thing, you can just walk to the story objective on your mini-map and keep the tale rolling – it's your choice. You need to make decisions about whom you align yourself with, too, and that will lead to different endings and story segments.
While all this is going on, you're earning Superstar points that you can trade-in for damage resistance or strike modifiers that make you a better competitor – THQ says that you need to be upgrading your Superstar because Road to WrestleMania gets harder the closer you get. When you're ready to walk out to your match or to cut your in-ring promo, you switch to a first-person view and walk into the gorilla position on the backstage side of the entrance.
If you're not a total wrestling geek, just know that this is awesome. Some the animations for the backstage stuff that I saw are a bit hokey at this point, but still; this sounds like a really cool addition.
Now, if you're wondering what the death of traditional career mode means to your created character, the news is only good. After a few years of having to create a Superstar and then grind through a career to get the guy or gal's stats out of the dumpster, THQ is giving you all the attribute points you want from the get go. Go ahead and whip up enough guys to fill the game's 50 spots, and you'll be able to give them whatever speed rating you want as you create them.
Need more reasons to get excited? Hell in a Cell has been revamped. Yes, after years of hearing fans bitch and moan about the cell walls being too close to the apron and there not being any weapons under the ring, THQ has listened and and put out the most realistic HIAC (Hell in a Cell) the world has ever seen. The structure is bigger than ever, the walls are far enough from the ring that steel steps are in there, and all the goodies you'd expect are behind the apron. Also cool: the door has been removed from the cell. The only way to get out now is to perform opponent-hurling moves into the wall closest to the announce table and barrel through the steel. Look for new moves from the top of the cell as well such as the Last Ride, superkicks and so on.
If I'm mentioning moves, now is as good a time as any to tell you that the game looks better than ever – both in terms of animations, move variety and visuals. The graphics are sharp, the images are clear, and the Havok physics make sure the animations look more realistic than ever. At E3, I wrote about how the new physics meant that table legs would give out and you'd be able to lean ladders on the ring apron to make stairs out of them. All of that's still here, but after a TLC match that went about 30-minutes and a number of other bouts, there's so much more to talk about.
THQ is trying to get away from that canned animation feel of the past. You know, "pull off a move and then just sit back and watch as it plays out." This year, there are more reversals than ever, there's a new move position in being able to sit an opponent on the top turnbuckle, and there are new nuances to master. Remember how dumb you looked in the past performing suplexes that ended in pins during first blood matches? Now, moves like a fisherman's suplex come with an option to pin. You start doing the move and a button prompt will pop up on the screen in case you want to hook the leg and hold for a three-count. In the same vein, the Tree of Woe isn't canned anymore. You hang your opponent by his or her legs from the top turnbuckle and can then do a variety of different grapples and strikes to the prone rival.
The strong grapple modifier is gone, too. If you want to pull off a big move from a grapple, you can't just hold down a shoulder button and flick the thumbstick anymore – you have to earn it by performing chain grapples via flicking the stick and pulling off preliminary moves. As you wear your opponent down, he or she is going to get groggy, and this is when you can flick the stick and grapple for big moves. Strike combos also return this year, and if you land a four-hit combo, expect the opponent to pop into that groggy state.
Still, the biggest change on the move front? Opponents don't have to be dazed for you to pull off a finisher. If you have your special move ready to go, you can just walk over, hit the button and go to town. Of course, the opponent can (and will) still reverse your move, but the days of chasing your friend around the ring in order to daze him in order to chokeslam him are gone.
That's going to hurt.Before I close this thing out, you also need to know that WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 is going to adopt the new THQ online plan. Similar to UFC Undisputed 2010, new copies of SVR 2011 will ship with a voucher code on the instruction manual that grants free access to online features as well as the first batch of downloadable talent and ring attire. If you buy the game used, rent it, or borrow a friend's copy without the code, you only get a seven-day trial period for the online features before having to pay $10 for the features.
WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 is big. THQ's shoving so much into this game that there's literally too much to talk about right now. For the first time ever, you can change existing Superstar attribute points, the game automatically clips highlights from your match and plays them back after the bell so you can see if you want to save them, and wrestler names are on in-game belts. Last year, I was impressed by the TV-style presentation of SVR, and this year, I'm (preliminarily) impressed by how many seemingly small fan callouts have been addressed – stuff like being able to modify your Create-A-Finisher move speeds by one-percent increments rather than the previous 25-percent ones and the ability to whip up 130 finishers this time around.
We've still got a few months before WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 ships so I'm not that worried about the bit of wonky physics I saw in my TLC match or the long loads right before a cutscene played out in WWE Universe. What I saw looked and felt good, and I can't wait to sit down and play this one for hours on end.
Here Comes the Pain, you might finally have some serious competition for your title and its name is WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011.