I have been a fan of professional wrestling for many years. I used to watch it with my grandfather when I was a little kid, then got back into it when I was in middle school when the glory days of WCW hit. I have recently begun attending local indy shows run by Harley Race. Due to this fascination with the business I have always liked wrestling video games. In fact I tend to like them more than their fighting game brothers. One game series I was always fond of was the WWF/E Smackdown games, because they revitalized a genre that was pretty stagnant before THQ decided to start making WWE games. I kept buying Smackdown games until WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2007 when I realized something – I wasn’t really having fun with the game anymore.
I tired of the numerous minor differences in match stipulation types and such, and usually resort to creating wrestlers. While playing the 2007 game I made the entire old school ECW and TNA rosters. So here I was spending 20 hours doing nothing more than choosing options for color palettes. Why did I spend so much time making an elaborate roster that I will probably never use? Unfortunately, I’d say that was the best part of that particular game. With no career mode that I liked, a general manager mode that was snore inducing, and a roster that I have not kept up with since I began watching TNA more than WWE, the games were becoming expensive paperweights. That’s until I played WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2009 for the Wii, the first Smackdown game I’ve truly liked in around five years.
I was skeptical when I decided to rent WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2009 for the Wii because the 2008 Wii version was a total abortion of a game. It was lacking almost all of the match types, had lackluster graphics, and the usual career mode was replaced with a somewhat party-game like affair that wasn't fun and looked like something out of a kids' game. It looks like THQ heard the bad press loud and clear and improved everything in the game immensely. Finally you can play a ladder match, Royal Rumble, Hell in a cell and a few other match types on the Wii, all of which were not present in the last game. The Wii version also has two separate NEW career modes: 'Road to Wrestlemania' and 'Career Mode'.
Road to Wrestlemania is the main feature and includes a number of new storylines starring a handful of WWE Superstars. It features the first tag team storyline in the Smackdown series. I chose to play the Undertaker’s first. Although some things were corny, like the Undertaker being able to possess Santino Marella with his magical urn, it was well written and not based on any old storyline like the past games. The story followed the ‘Taker on his quest to keep his undefeated streak at Wrestlemania. Finlay and Marella, angry at the Undertaker for the wins over them, decide to band together as a faction called 'New School' and take him down for good with the help of a mysterious figure calling himself 'the man'.
I really liked this mode because all six storylines were around two to three hours each and contained different match types and achievements to keep things interesting. In order to unlock bonus content, like new wrestlers, you are sometimes given a little special objective during the match. For example, Tommy Dreamer told C.M. Punk to purposely get disqualified from a match in order to show how extreme he really was, despite the risk of getting fired. Once I finished this task I was rewarded with an alternate costume.
What really struck me in this Road to Wrestlemania mode was the storyline’s various little details. For instance, during any given match the commentators will talk about the current situation, as well as play-by-play match calling. I think this is the first wrestling game to have fully realistic commentary. Instead of the constant “he’s on fire” calls found in older games, and unfortunately this year's TNA game, the match commentary is used to advance the storyline. In the aforementioned Undertaker story Jonathan Coachman discussed the Undertaker’s Wrestlemania record. On top of this the audience began holding storyline specific signs after certain events happened, like “I’m the Man!” based on the newly revealed mystery character 'The Man'.
Another mode that got a huge facelift was the tag team mode, with a greater emphasis on how tag team matches really work. Not only can you perform blind tags and piss your partner off, but you can prepare for instances where your partner is getting laid out and you barely make a tag before coming in charged up and laying waste to everyone in the ring. This overhaul has made tag matches fun and redeeming, which is something I have never said about a video game tag match. Usually I’d avoid them like the plague.
The other career mode, simply called 'Career Mode', was just as fun and replaced the old 'General Manager Mode' found in old games. In this mode you can take anyone, including created superstars, through a series of booked matches. You choose who you want to fight, when to go for a belt, when to change brands, etc. After each match you are graded with a star ranking and level up your wrestler’s stats accordingly. This reminded me a bit of the career mode found in older wrestling games like WWF Attitude, or many modern sports games like Madden.
The game's roster is HUGE. All of your favorites are here including Rey Misterio, Batistsa, Cena, Randy Orton, HHH and Undertaker, as well as 50 others; there are also appearances from non-playable characters like Hornswoggle and Stephanie McMahon. As with any wrestling game the roster is slightly out of date, but THQ plans to release downloadable content in the future according to the instruction booklet. One omission from previous Smackdown games is the 'legends' characters, presumably because a Legends of Wrsetlemania game is coming out this year.
I found the controls very good, and light-years better than those from the 2008 game. A control overhaul has made them easier to use and less complicated than the other console versions. While the gesture intensive moves are still there, they are less waggle and more intuitive. I found these controls both refreshing and welcome as I have grown to hate the controls on other wrestling games. Prior to this, other wrestling games have become ridiculously hard to control. Granted you can now do pretty much anything you want in a match in those games, but having to press three buttons and hold two sticks just to have my custom Cobra Commander wrestler do a fireman’s carry is enough to make me want to curb stomp the developers.
There was one puzzling leftover from the last Smackdown game: the inability to run when you want to. You still run if you initiate a move on a character far away from you, but there are times where taking a slow walk is annoying. There were instances where I would do the Undertaker's finishing move and began to climb the cage wall in a cage match. I was forced to take a leisurely jaunt over to the wall itself, giving my opponent ample time to crack a chair over my head. I hope in the next game this issue is looked at as it is really annoying.
Aside from that one issue I thought the controls were perfect. A flick of the Wiimote initiates an Irish whip in the direction of movement, A is the blind grapple, B is a manual grapple and waggle is used for punches and kicks. Aside from this basic setup on-screen indicators tell you to do anything else you may need to. For instance, if I choose to do a manual grapple, a series of icons pop up showing me three or four options including different swings of the Wiimote. After a few moves you memorize what each does for each character. Small touches also impressed me, such as having to move the Wiimote and nunchuck as if you are climbing a cage to initiate the cage climbing action in the game. This helped increase the level of immersion and was better than the general timed button press found in most wrestling games.
One more change has occurred in the transition to the 2009 version; one change that I love. In older versions of the game a stamina bar has been present for the last few games. This bar is depleted every time you do a move and when it runs out you need to hold down a button to refill it. I’ve ALWAYS hated this stamina bar and prefer a deeper counter system in its place. This is due to how the stamina bar seems to favor the computer 99 percent of the time, and how it slows down matches to the point of being annoying. The Wii Version of SVR 2009 did include a deep counter system as I had hoped and a bar that depletes when you are attacked - one that depletes slowly, not as you simply walk around.
The Wii version also features a few little touches in the presentation department that really make the game look good. For starters the usual entrances are redone with a level of interactivity. When your character comes out you are put in charge of which taunts, crowd pleasers and other maneuvers to do in order to build your momentum gauge. This gauge, when filled, gives you an edge at the beginning of the match. This makes the game even more realistic and encourages you not to skip intros. In the post match segments you can also chose what to do, such as taunting or beating down your opponent. Another small feature WiiMote speaker support. Much like in Red Steel and No More Heroes the Wiimote speaker is used as a cell phone, making the career mode even more awesome. This little trick is also present in small things like Mr Kennedy’s entrance where his loud voice reverbs through the WiiMote when he talks in his old school announcer mic.
The graphics are a mixed bag. On one hand the wrestlers look amazing and are very highly detailed, but on the other the stadiums can be incredibly ugly. On several occasions the camera zoomed in on an audience member, only to shock and terrify me because it looked like a toxic waste spill had occurred or the audience from a Nintendo 64 game decided to attend the match. Normally this isn’t apparent because the audience is far away and you never really pay attention to the shapes; but when the camera does force you to see it, it can be really bad. There are also times where the Titantron screens look fuzzy and jaggies are present at points. While not terrible, a coat of polish over the ringside graphics would have been nice. Hopefully this is also addressed in the next game.
The 'create a wrestler' is everything you would expect in a Smackdown vs Raw game, and plays perfectly. The system has been tweaked to make it a bit easier to use, and look a bit more organized. The only omission I was sad about was the ability to use your own theme music. With games like Excite Truck able to incorporate custom soundtracks via an SD card, it's clear this can be done on the Wii. One final downside is that if you use any letters on your wrestler they cannot be used in the online modes.
The game's online mode isn’t perfect. Not only can you not use any of your created characters that have words written on them - for the sake of people who don’t want to see a person covered in curse words and crude images - the online system is a little rough around the edges. The match-making system is great but be warned you will have significant lag, especially in matches with more than two players. I stayed with one-on-one matches and everything was fine, but many players online seem to have figured out how to really work the lag issues. While not perfect, online is still fun, and a nice addition to an already awesome game. Hopefully next year THQ can iron out any of these issues and really deliver.
The overall value of this game is simple. This is hands down the best wrestling game on the Wii and puts any other wrestling game on Nintendo’s little white box to shame. On top of that, it is the best wrestling game I have played in a while on any system. There might be some rough edges like a few graphical mishaps and laggy online, but the overall package is fabulous. Those who wrote off the WWE Smackdown vs Raw series, such as myself, need to do themselves a favor and try this out. You won’t be sad.