Developer: Yuke’s / Publisher: THQ / ESRB: Teen (Blood, Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence) / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99
When Machinima needed someone to review WWE Smackdown! vs. Raw 2011 my hand immediately shot up in that “Oh! Teacher! Teacher!” way that used to get me beat up in elementary school. There was a brief pause, then Justin said, “Anybody else?” So I put up my other hand, hoping that it would double my chances. You see, Justin knew that I hadn’t followed wrestling games in years. What he didn’t know was that lately I’d been champing at the bit to give one a try, but didn’t have the spare money to pick one up on my own. (Stupid economy…) I presented arguments in my favor, put together some spread sheets, and was particularly proud of my PowerPoint presentation but still… nothing.
Finally I showed up at the office in my pink leotard and started hitting everybody with chairs. I’m under house arrest now, but at least that gives me the opportunity to play this copy of WWE Smackdown! vs. Raw 2011 I stole from the office while everyone was giving the police their statements. Incidentally, does anyone happen to know a good lawyer?
WWE Smackdown! vs. Raw 2011 tells the story of Winston Wilfred Eugene Smackdown and his epic conflict with a mysterious rash in the year 2011. Or at least it would be if I’d written it. No, this is a wrestling game. You fight other wrestlers. That’s all we need, and for many of the game modes that’s all we get, but SmackDown! vs. Raw 2011 does offer some story elements along the way. The “Road to Wrestlemania” progressions follow your wrestler of choice or created character as they make their way to prominent matches against the likes of Chris Jericho, John Cena and, of course, The Undertaker. Before many of the matches in the story modes you can explore the backstage areas of the ring, pick fights with other wrestlers in the hallways and develop rivalries. My favorite parts were where Smackdown! vs. Raw bid sanity bye-bye and sent me on a mission to find a magic urn in WWE Executive Vice President Stephanie McMahon’s office in order to collect the souls defeated by The Undertaker in battle. (Luckily they’re all backstage.) The new “WWE Universe” mode has replaced the traditional career mode and incorporates story-type elements like rivalries into the various single player matches available outside of any conventional narrative. It’s a neat touch and adds weight to some otherwise inconsequential Single Player matches.
This is a game about wrestling, not wushu, so the gameplay lumbers a lot, particularly in the tedious one-on-one matches. Luckily developer Yuke’s has loaded Smackdown! vs. Raw 2011 with boatloads of game types, so there will be something for everyone. My favorite modes were the chaotic Royal Rumbles or Ladder Matches, or really anything that involved a whole bunch of wrestlers running around like chickens with their heads cut off. It really spices up an otherwise unimpressive and sometimes padded gaming experience. The A.I. isn’t particularly “I,” so even a noob like myself was able to breeze through practically every match with only the most rudimentary of skills. The difficulty levels are adjustable but also heavily micromanaged: you can’t just go from “Medium” to “Hard,” you have to adjust every kind of throw, grapple, punch and a host of other gameplay elements by small degrees. Hardcore fans will probably appreciate this level of detail, but newcomers and returning fans might be confused as to which options make the game more fun and which will make the game nearly impossible.
The rather involved control scheme is loaded with throws, counters, and God knows what else because the game doesn’t do a particularly good job of teaching the uninitiated how to play. There are some combat tutorials, but Yuke’s is clearly making this game for existing fans, so newcomers have to find out the hard way how not to get disqualified mid-match in certain modes. It’s frustrating, and frankly, the game is kind of impenetrable to those new to the franchise or returning after a long absence. Of course, fans of the series will have no problem with this, so I might as well complain that Applejacks don’t taste like apples.
WWE Smackdown! vs. Raw 2011 is one of those games that clearly thrives on multiplayer, and once you start an online match with somebody who really knows what they’re doing two things will happen: 1) you’ll realize that Single Player doesn’t teach you how to play the game very well, and 2) you’ll probably want to learn. A wide assortment of match types include a ton of options in the new Match Creator, and you can usually play as your created character, which is a detail I appreciate. I have no complaints about the multiplayer: This is the way the game was meant to be played, and many otherwise valid criticisms fall by the wayside when you’re playing with the right crowd.
I was, however, very disappointed with the visual presentation of Smackdown! vs. Raw 2011. I played it on the PlayStation 3 on a Plasma Screen television and frankly, it’s not a very good-looking game. Detail is minimal, sharpness is low, and many of the environments feel half-finished. The backstage area is the same in every city and looks so low-res that I wondered if it was some kind of homage to the Nintendo 64.
The Character Customizer, however, is loaded with options, allowing you to at least look how you want (although you will end up looking a little fuzzy no matter how hard you try). It took no effort whatsoever to trick out my Superstar in blue robes, a gold necklace and a giant shiny bald head so I could play as U. “The Watcher” Atu and shove my oath of non-interference up some poor bastard’s ass. But even the many costume options lead to omnipresent clipping issues, so at best the graphics are a mixed bag.
The voice-overs are extremely diverse, and I appreciated the many options available for what the announcers will call your created character, but of course much of the acting is atrocious. Worse yet are the sound effects, which are often sparse and unimmersive. Some matches, like the backstage fights, feel incomplete without proper sound effects, leading to a disappointing overall soundscape.
Lackluster presentation and an unimpressive (but extremely varied) single player experience drive down the score for WWE Smackdown! vs. Raw 2011, but the multiplayer makes up for many of the game’s (many) deficiencies. This one’s pretty much for fans only, so if you love the franchise or wrestling as a whole feel free to add a couple of points to the score. For those less familiar with the series, it’s just not as good as I’d hoped.