You can read here a wrestling game review, written by a lapsed wrestling fan (me!). But first, I challenge Flower fans and Ico lovers to find a better gaming subject for their college thesis than Smackdown Vs. Raw 2010.
It was my reputation among team Kotaku that got me assigned to reviewing what has proven to be the best wrestling game I've played in a decade — Smackdown Vs. Raw 2010, which is also the only wrestling game I've played in a decade. I guess everyone thought I'd be perfect for it. Maybe they know that the only website that I pay to read daily is a pro-wrestling site, a site that allows me to read about the often-mediocre happenings on modern wrestling shows without having to watch them. Perhaps they know I imported Bret Hart's autobiography from Canada and Ohio Valley Wrestling DVDs (when Paul Heyman was booking OVW shows) from
Ohio Kentucky. Or perhaps it's that Hulk Hogan thing I did.
Regardless, you'd think that someone who has loved video games and, I guess, loved pro wrestling, for much of his life, would love the melding of the two. But I started this new game, the latest in the annual releases of THQ-published, Yukes-developed modern wrestling games, with almost complete alienation from the genre. (I have some professional embarrassment about this, since I've been to Yukes' studio in Yokohama and met the wrestling-obsessed people there. I even got a great tour that included a look at the back rooms that reek of body odor every summer as the team sleeps in the office while cramming to finish their game by fall). This new game brings to the series a revised Royal Rumble, an enhanced Create a Finisher option, a new training arena, revised rosters, new storylines and — the big feature — the ability for fans to create and share their own storylines. But it was all new to me. And, wouldn't you know it, the game is fun and… intellectually stimulating? Yes.
The Basic Flow: WWE pro wrestling games, as fans would know, are 3D fighting games played from a quasi-overhead perspective and battled on the surfaces of wrestling ring and floor, with the walls of a steel cage or the top of a destructible announcers' table sometimes also in play. You win not by eliminating an opponents' health bar but by executing enough minor and major strikes, throws, dives, taunts and more, all of which either damage to the opponents' body or build the momentum of your own wrestlers' adrenaline, which enables a successful pinning (or submission or count-out) victory. In other words, the game treats wrestling as if it's a hybrid of combat and performance, with the player driven by more competitive intent to maim than in the real thing. It's a good system that demands the player learn how to smoothly chain their moves to build momentum. And it is a a rewarding one, as Yukes has managed to capture and animate hundreds of moves that transition from one to the next with, of all the rare qualities in games, grace. Winning a match in this game is a performing pleasure.
The WWE Recreated: Even a lapsed fan of WWE such as myself stumbles across Smackdown on Friday nights or remembers older episodes of Raw well enough to see that Edge's shoulder-twitch during his ring entrance is true to life, that Shawn Michaels' super-kick should look as perfect as it does and that selecting Shelton Benjamin will grant the player access to a cool set of moves. The game's venues, from the pay-per-view-specific entrance ramps to the backstage announce areas, look perfect. The tone of violence and sex — an endless parade of T&A and at least one storyline involving a female wrestler sleeping her way to the top — matches squarely with even today's toned-down WWE. The announcing sounds right, issued by (mostly) the right people. This game is very WWE.
The Thesis-Worthy Story-Editor: Of all the new features this year, conveniently marked "NEW" in the game's menu for people like me, the best and most interesting is the storyline editor. In the past, wrestling game fans could create their own wrestlers, customize move-sets and even, more recently, chain pieces of animation to create new match-ending finishing moves. In the new game, players can craft a storyline, mixing matches that include player-defined outcomes with story-advancing sequences. The latter scenes are comprised of WWE-related locales (rings, locker rooms, offices) with wrestlers, a variety of conversational and confrontational emotions, adjustable camera angles, selectable music and crowd-noise background sounds and, most importantly, player-written dialogue. The system's interface has some rough edges that players can work around but is nonetheless fascinating.
This is what you'd write your thesis about: Pro wrestling is already an odd blend of fake sport and acted drama, something fans appreciate as real and unreal at the same time (We know that John Cena is a man really named John Cena, but we also know that the Undertaker is not really a man who has risen from the dead. We buy into the idea that the Stone Cold Stunner hurts, because it looks like it does; we laugh with The Rock that the People's Elbow does not hurt, because we know that he knows that we know that his big elbow move is a love tap at worst). In a wrestling game, that reality/unreality gets twisted some more, as the action in the ring is made to seem both more real than it is in real life (The depicted action in a WWE game involves hurting an opponent thoroughly enough to win, not simply entertaining the crowd through fake-fighting) and less real (The moves in the game, animated without fear of causing bodily harm, are made to look more impactful, thereby exposing how deadly and illegal they ought to really be). The new game's story editor knots these strands of truth and untruth even more. Maybe gamers have been able to re-arrange games through mods for years. Maybe they've been able to puppeteer fake lives through The Sims for over a decade. But now we can mangle and morph the pseudo-reality of real celebrities through the WWE. We could craft a storyline in which CM Punk demands to know John Cena's favorite color and then wrestles the answer out of him (I did this. Search for it on Xbox Live using the keyword phrase "Favorite Color"). We could make a storyline in which WWE Diva "A" falls in love with WWE Wrestler "Z" but is seduced away by the Create-A-Wrestler character who you designed to look just like a muscular Bill O'Reilly. (I did not do this.) You're playing with sort-of real lives. You're creating officially-sanctioned slash-fiction. You're kind of writing the next Indiana Jones adventure at the same time that you're kind of writing the next thing for Harrison Ford to do. The layers of reality and unreality are dense.
The Unintended Consequences: Maybe a simpler way to praise the interesting aspects of the Create A Storyline editor is to mention that I downloaded a storyline called something like "One Night After Raw," and after meeting a condition to have Shawn Michaels win a match, and after sitting through a series of backstage vignette's written with not the best user-generated spelling, my Shawn Michaels was then ambushed in the ring by three definitely-not-licensed wrestlers from rival company TNA. For years wrestling fans have wanted to book Raw themselves. Now they can do it virtually, for me to play through. Too bad the game's canned announcers were still plugging the WWE website instead of reacting to what this one user created.
The Royal Rumble: The game has a revised button-mashing mini-game for eliminating people in its Royal Rumble. The 30-man elimination match is often the most fun pro wrestling match of the year, so any improvements that more authentically let me, as Vince McMahon, team up with The Great Khali to flip some-user's Street Fighter Sagat over the top rope is ok by me.
The Sense Of Pain: WWE Smackdown Vs. Raw 2010 is one of those eye-catching games that other people in the room, who may be tired of the Bret Hart and Mankind books on the bookshelf, can't help but be drawn into. Why? I believe it's because the animations are so good that they look like they connect and that the moves hurt, which, given the combat that is supposed to be depicted here, is a victory.
Poor Counter-Attack Training: The game's menu-screen training arena allows players to swiftly try and learn many of the basic single or double-input commands needed to execute the extraordinary variety of maneuvers available in the game. Consider, for example, that you may want to make your wrester who is standing next to the ropes in the ring either jump over the ropes, crawl under them, wind up on the apron of the ring or on the floor or not do any of that and climb the turnbuckle… or take the padding off the turnbuckle. And there's a button combo for each of those. Offense is easily learned and joyfully executed. But the trick to mastering the game seems to be the execution of a single-input counter-move. The same button counters anything. Animated prompts appear during training and in the game's matches to alert the player that a window to counter has opened. But those windows close so quickly that that game does a poor job teaching the player how to execute this key move well.
The Online Limitations:The WWE game's online competitive wrestling worked fine and minus the lag I saw some complaining about on message boards. But I found the skill-level-matching inadequate. I can breeze through normal difficulty but can't find a player online who I can beat? I also can't easily re-find my uploaded wrestling storyline to find out how people have rated it, nor can I select which ones to download with any filters other than most recent and most-highly-rated. Overall, the options for the game's online modes are just not specific enough for the needs a player might have. The content and gameplay available through online, though, is solid.
Immediately Outdated: I played a developer-scripted storyline that involved a rivalry between Edge and Mr. Kennedy. But Mr. Kennedy doesn't work for WWE anymore. Many of our matches were announced by Jim Ross and Tazz. But Tazz doesn't work for WWE anymore, either. Both men left the company in 2009, and I understand the challenges of adapting to such changes. But this is one of those things that, as a potential consumer, I just want to have work right. This is an online-connected game. So let's see it adapt to the present.
Buried Info:What are my character's finishing moves and what position does his opponent have to be in so I can execute them? How am I doing in career mode in terms of raising my wrestlers' ability to connect with the crowd and raise his charisma stat? There are many pieces of information that are relevant to the gameplay of Smackdown Vs. Raw 2010 that seem to have been omitted from menu screens and the instruction manual, possibly being reserved for the official game guide. That leaves the player to stumble across or guess many important details. This is not a bad thing for those who don't like a lot of tutorials and explanations, but gamer beware that you'll have to figure a lot of this game out for yourself.
I used to avoid pro wrestling games because of my disinterest in fighting games and my belief that the games treated pro wrestling as something different than what I enjoyed. I liked the acrobatics and the melodrama of real WWE. The games, I guessed, treated the whole affair as if it was straight-up sport. WWE Smackdown Vs. Raw 2010 still does treat pro wrestling a little more as sport than I'd want. Things like winning streaks are almost required in the game, even though they are rare in the real wrestling leagues.
But the addition of configurable storylines provides that element of unpredictable, scripted entertainment that has made WWE programming, in some years, among the best and most enjoyably wild material on TV. Finally, I'm interested. The fact that the configurable narratives — the post-Sims, post-mods playing we can do with sort-of real lives — is a spectacular and mind-bending bonus.
(WWE Smackdown Vs. Raw 2010 was developed by Yukes and published by THQ for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS and Wii on October 20. Retails for $59.99 USD on the home consoles. An copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played the 360 version. Won the Royal Rumble as Vincent Kennedy McMahon. Made it on the Road To Wrestlemania as Edge. Progressed Shelton Benjamin up a career ladder to ECW and Intercontinental title glory. Created, uploaded and downloaded storylines. Invented a new top-rope finishing move. Got pinned a lot online, including by a female version of MVP.)
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