Pro wrestling has certainly seen a decline in quality as well as popularity the last couple years, but it seems no matter how bad the WWE product is on TV, the fans are always excited about the yearly updates to the Smackdown series of games on the Playstation 2. Last year's version, Here Comes The Pain was easily the best game in the history of the franchise, and with online play finally being implemented this year; expectations were quite high for Smackdown Vs. Raw. Unfortunately, online play is a major bust, but there are numerous other additions and tweaks that make the game worthwhile – it's just not the awesome game that wrestling fans were expecting.
With the series now in its sixth year, one wouldn't expect any major changes with the game, especially with all the praise the HCTP received. There is a new season mode, with all new storylines, but this year, it feels a little more linear than last. Despite the lack of options, the storyline's are pretty good, which is the most important thing.
Continuing with the theme of "minor additions", the core gameplay is largely unchanged. The action is fast-paced, the controls are simple, and on occasion, it feels like there's a greater emphasis placed on style instead of substance. The game's A.I. can be downright pathetic, especially on the easier difficulties, but if you're a wrestling game veteran, lame A.I. isn't anything new. The biggest gameplay additions are the new mini-games that have been implemented during matches. When the match starts, you can have a stare down, test of strength, and try to get in the first strike. All of these are done by being the first person to press the button that corresponds to what is being shown on screen. During the match, a meter that's quite similar to a swing meter in golf, or a kicking meter in football, allows you to perform knife edged chops, and if you're in a Diva match, you can spank your opponent. These additions, while simple do keep you involved in the match a bit more since you won't have to sit and watch as the moves are performed – it's up to you to keep them going.
Also new this year is the emphasis on being a heel (bad guy) or a face (good guy). If you're a face, you'll need to fight cleanly, perform high risk maneuvers, and pander to the crowd in order to earn a special move that makes you impervious to attacks. As a heel, your main tools are fighting dirty, arguing with the ref, taunting the crowd – basically doing things that fans hate. If you're "bad" enough, you'll earn a low blow, which can turn the tide of a match in an instant. The system's not perfect, but it does keep you in character and creates a greater difference of style between wrestlers.
Another feature that didn't get upgraded as much as it should is the match types. There's one new addition this year, and that's it, nothing else. This wouldn't be a huge deal if there were a lot of modes already, but the game was light on match types last year, so if you played them all to death already, you're out of luck.
One thing that people look forward to from the yearly updates is bigger and better rosters, but for some reason, Smackdown Vs. Raw doesn't deliver. This year, the number of wrestlers is actually less than what was included in HCTP, which needless to say, is disappointing. The legends included this time around have been improved as The Rock, Andre The Giant, Mankind, Bret Hart, Animal, Hawk, Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake, Jimmy Snuka, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Masked Kane, and Legend Undertaker.
After a long wait, the Smackdown series has finally gone online, and it couldn't be more of a disappointment. All of the dreaming about creating your own leagues, tracking stats, online multi-wrestler brawls, and downloadable wrestlers are for naught as there's really nothing here. Two match types, no stats, and you can't even keep your username – that's what you get. The action is generally pretty smooth, but when you do get some lag it ruins the match as attempting to grapple someone that isn't there is, to say the least, frustrating. The game also fails to support voice chat, which won't be a big deal to some people, but frequent users of Xbox Live will likely lament the omission.
One of the things the Smackdown series is best known for is its Create-A-Wrestler feature. Once again it's deeper than ever, and you can create almost any wrestler that you can dream up. Assuming you're creative enough, or you know where to look to get a walkthrough, you can create many of the legendary wrestlers that aren't included officially. The only gripe with the CAW is that it's a bit difficult to use and the process from start to finish is very time consuming. In addition to creating your own wrestler, you can now create your own title belts and pay per view events. These aren't really anything special, but it's tough to knock little features like these for not being cool enough – at least they're there.
Even on the original Playstation, the Smackdown series has been visually impressive. Smackdown Vs. Raw continues the tradition of excellence with wrestlers that look more realistic than ever, better looking crowds, and more animations. Almost all of the wrestlers look amazingly close to their real life counterparts, though there are still a few that look a bit off, especially the divas. For some reason, the developers still can't get long hair right, and after waiting this long, I'm going to have to assume that they've just given up. The all important entrances are dead on; so much so that if you were to catch a glimpse from 15 feet away you'd be hard pressed to tell if it was real or the game.
For the first time ever, the wrestlers finally have voices, but like the online play, it's not what everyone was hoping for. Most of the dialog is fine, but some of the wrestlers (like in real life) are absolutely terrible when reading their lines, and when you combine that with the iffy lip-synching, it's tough to take seriously. Another issue with the dialog is that it sounds like it was recorded in a recording studio, and not out in the middle of an arena with a microphone. This might not seem like a big deal, but after watching years and years of wrestlers yelling into a microphone for no reason, you'll notice that it's not authentic.
After some time off, commentary, including Lawler, Ross, Coles, and Tazz, has been added back into the game, and it's just about as bad as it was last time around. Sure, the effort's appreciated, but after seeing what ESPN NFL 2K5 was able to do with on-the-fly commentary, what is included here is a joke. Almost all of the entrance music is authentic, but like every year, there are a few songs that have been omitted due to licensing issues. You can't blame the developers for not supporting the HDD, since even Sony appears to have given up on it, but it would have been nice to be able to rip your own music to put in the game.
If you just look at the overall score, you'd think that Smackdown Vs. Raw has taken a step backwards from last year, but that's not the case. It's a very good game, but there's just not enough improvement, and the big new features like online play and wrestlers' voices couldn't have been done any worse than they were. If you're a hardcore fan, you'll probably love this game, but if you just want to play a few matches with friends here and there, you're better off finding Here Comes The Pain for $20.