For as long as I've been gaming, I've played more than my fair share of wrestling games. There was WWF Wrestlemania and WWF RAW for the SNES, both of which I played the hell out of. Then would come the first monumental wrestling game in the form of WWF War Zone for the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. At the time, it was by far the most realistic wrestling game ever; and the first 3D WWF game too. WWF Attitude would then follow, and Acclaim would again use the same game engine for ECW Anarchy Rulz. Electronic Arts even had a hand in wrestling, with WCW Mayhem, which was pretty awful. But it all came to an end when Acclaim lost the WWF license, and THQ picked it up. SmackDown! would be born, and since then, there hasn't been anything else to compete.
WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2008 marks the ninth iteration for the franchise now, and also its debut on the PlayStation 3. Admittedly, it's been a while since I've played a SmackDown game, actually, this is my first since Here Comes the Pain, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I was pretty excited to play my first next-generation wrestling game, especially after seeing how visually impressive it is. Well, after rounds and rounds of game time, I was left feeling disappointed. I remember how superb everything about Here Comes the Pain was, it was the absolute perfect mixture of fast paced action that SmackDown is known for, with all new grappling mechanics that added a plethora of depth to its realism.
SmackDown 2008 simply doesn't have that blend anymore. When my first round began, I thought there was something wrong with my SixAxis, because Shawn Michaels was moving at a snail's pace. Even the running is abysmally slow. I understand if this were the case with a heavyweight like The Undertaker, but guys like Rey Mysterio and Shawn Michaels shouldn't move that slow. So the game's pace is dreadful, and in turn makes the gameplay feel extremely clunky and broken.
Moreover, the dimensions of the ring are way off, as it only takes a few steps to cross from one side to the other. This makes rope-breaks increasingly frequent, and only contributes to the frustration. Additionally, the controls aren't responsive. I'd have to tap X more than once in order to slide in or out of the ring, and worst of all, to pick up a weapon. There is some unusual proximity faulting going on with the game when you want to pick up a weapon, and it's extremely annoying. And because the game feels so slow, baiting an opponent to come out of the ring is frustrating. I can run all the way to the entrance, and wait for an eternity until my opponent follows me. Sometimes the A.I. simply refuses, and this is during a no-DQ match.
Speaking of A.I., despite the difficulty setting, you aren't going to get much of a challenge out of them, and veteran SmackDown players will especially find this to be obvious. It wasn't until I brought the difficulty up to Legend that I was actually able to have a perfectly even match. And the fact that I'm saying this while not having played a SmackDown game for four years says a lot of about how poor the A.I. is.
I'm also not a fan of the grapple system, not at all. It just feels way too random, and doesn't give me the choice of choosing which specific move I'd like to pull-off. I'd much prefer the return of button combos that would require me to press and hold a few buttons, plus a direction to execute a move. Because, quite frankly, when I'm standing nearby an open table, I want to be able to suplex somebody onto it instantly. Reversals, grappling, all of that just seems like a button mash fest, marring the overall execution of the game.
It's unfortunate, because behind all of those issues lies a game with a bevy of match types and game modes, offering superb, overall, replay value. The 24/7 mode fuses both a career and GM mode into one experience, so you can either play as a wrestler (real or created), or take the duties of a GM. There's a variety of Tournament modes such as King of the Ring, Beat the Clock Sprint, and the ability to create your own. The Hall of Fame mode allows you to relive some of the WWE's greatest moments, such as the 1996 IronMan match between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. And then there are all of the matches, over 100 of them, in fact. So if you can think of it, then it's probably here. Lastly, this SmackDown game marks the first time ECW wrestlers partake, so fans will no longer have attempt custom-wrestler creations of their ECW favorites.
On the plus side, WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2008 is actually a pretty decent looking game. The wrestlers are well done, realistically modeled after their real-life counterparts, with careful details that really do match their real physiques. Then again, that isn't a surprise, considering Yukes has consistently developed superb wrestling visuals since the very first SmackDown game. But I will say that their artistic renditions of the wrestlers, which you will see while you select a wrestler, make them look a little too young. Even though athletic detail is fantastic, the graphics engine can use an overhaul.
The problem here is that this is the same engine that's been powering SmackDown for a few years now – so to say that this is a proper next-gen WWE game wouldn't be true – it's an updated PS2 engine. There's a ton of clipping, where a wrestler's body will literally warp through objects, ropes, and even the body of another person. Furthermore, the wrestler will warp from place to place during a poor animation transition, as well. And while the animations of each move look nice, they can still be subjected to refinement. The wrestler intros are well done, and can be quite long in some cases, but you can skip them. The lighting is also looking pretty nice, as do the stadiums that house them, including the crowd.
Commentary continues to be the downfall of SmackDown, a problem that has plagued the series since day one. Commentary will range between Michael Cole/Tazz and Jerry "The King" Lawler/J.R. The downfall here is that the dialogue is so drab and lifeless, but yet the duos try too hard to pass it off as being life-like. They'll almost never refer to the wrestlers in the ring by their names, instead substituting it with something generic like "superstar", "performer", "athlete". Occasionally a direct reference to one of the wrestlers is made, but it's nothing that's ever of any substance. And when you're in a parking lot brawl, there just isn't any commentary to speak of – uhhh….why?
Then there's the whole latency issue, as the dialogue is often two steps behind the action, late-calling a good amount of the events. Worst of all, the duos simply don't seem the least bit interested to be doing the commentary, falling under the 'drab' category I mentioned earlier. Then there's the cheesy nu-metal soundtrack that the WWE, as a whole, is so well known for using often…and that leaves the audio gasping for air. I don't know which is worse, having to listen to broken commentary, with an awful soundtrack, or having no commentary at all (like the earliest SmackDown games).
WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2008 is riddled with issues. It has some of the worst A.I. I've ever encountered, on top of a broken formula that only frustrates the player. No direct communication between the gamer and his controlled athlete mars the experience, as the gameplay feels more like guess work than anything else. And beyond that, Yukes actually simplified the grappling mechanics for 2008, over 2007. While 2008 looks very attractive and boasts a plethora of value, it doesn't justify the cost of admission for an otherwise mangled game of wrestling. If you want a decent wrestling game, and don't mind downgraded (though still nice) visuals, find yourself a used copy of WWE SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain for PlayStation 2 for less than 10 bucks.