Smackdown vs. Raw 2006 is THQ and Yuke’s Entertainment latest version of the Smackdown wrestling game series and the fifth yearly installment of the series on the Playstation 2.  Building up from last year’s effort which added voices and heavy motion-capturing, this year the emphasis was mainly on improving what was already there, beefing up the online mode (a weakness of the previous version), adding more match types, updating rosters and adding a 3D customizable locker room for you to fill with your rewards.


Smackdown as a series has had its ups and downs, with their downs generally coming as they incorporated new technology (Just Bring It, the first PS2 title and Smackdown Vs. Raw, the first title with voices) with the upswing generally following.  Will Smackdown vs. Raw 2006 follow in the footsteps of Here Comes the Pain or would it be a jobber?

This year, Yuke’s went full-bore into the motion-capturing studio to make the characters in Smackdown vs. Raw 2006 as realistic as possible, given the hardware limitations of the PS2.  Happily, they’ve succeeded as all of the WWE Superstars look very close to their real-life personas.  The characters look and move like the real thing and even the hair is better looking this year.  A lot of this is also due to the increased polygons that have gone into the character designs. 


Even the created characters look quite nice, and the variety here is amazing as you can create literally any character you can dream up as well as those from the past and other organizations with anywhere from five minutes for a quick character to twenty to thirty minutes or more for someone who wants to get as in-depth as possible with the design aspects.


The crowds have also been amped up.  They’re no longer the flat cardboard cutouts of previous years.  The people actually move and show signs of life.  Unfortunately, there’s still only a limited number of models and it’s very easy to see multiple copies of the same audience member in a rather small section of the crowd.


The other issue with the graphics is, as always, clipping.  Granted, it’s extremely hard to animate up to seven moving characters interacting with each other as well as the ring and other areas without having some clipping issues, and admittedly they’re rather minor, but they’re still there.  Personally, however, my opinion is that clipping will be an issue until the games are as realistic as they can get, and even then it might be there.

One of the things added last year was recorded voices of the WWE Superstars as well as commentary tracks for the game.  It was also admittedly one of the least-liked items in last year’s game.  This year, steps were made to improve the quality of the voice overs as well as the commentary itself.  Again, some success was had.  The Superstars all obviously sound like themselves in the cutscenes and the commentary teams all sound authentic and even tend to call the matches with a solid flow back and forth between the various announcers.


Unfortunately, that’s the high part of the announcing.  One thing that really grated was that no matter who you play as in the game, the announcers say “this Superstar.”  Would it really have been that much harder to record the names?  Sports games have solidly done this for the past few years, so we know that it’s possible.  It also tends to ruin the immersiveness to hear, for example, ‘This Superstar’ as opposed to ‘The Big Show’ or ‘Kurt Angle.’ 


The other thing is a problem that also has been almost a trademark of sports games for years, repetition.  Hearing the same commentary not two matches after hearing it the first time, even in bits, is annoying.  Hearing it when it doesn’t apply to what’s going on on the screen is even worse.  Adding to this is the fact that you’ll hear the commentary of what you’re doing on the screen, but if you or the opponent pulls off a sudden move, they’ll change commentary lines mid-sentence, which is highly jarring.  Even worse is the fact that numerous times you could tell what was going to happen in the match based on the commentary….before the move itself was even attempted.


Hopefully, though, the sound and commentary can be heavily tuned before next year’s game.  As far as the music and voice-acting goes, however, it’s quite good, although more will be mentioned on the effect heavy amounts of motion capturing and voice acting has had on the storyline mode later.

The controls for Smackdown vs. Raw 2006 haven’t changed much since the previous year and it’s more of a case of not fixing what isn’t broke.  The changes to how you use the controls are more due to the new Stamina system and its impact on how you play the game than anything else. 


Generally, you’ll do less button-mashing and more thoughtful grapples and counters with strike thrown in.  The addition of the power irish whip (done by holding down the circle and pressing the triangle button) is new, as is the ability to store up a Smackdown to ‘play possum’ and sneak a pin in when your opponent thinks that you’re down for the count.


The only real additions to the control set are due to the new match, Buried Alive.  During this match, you use the square button to pick up the shovel, R2 to reverse the casket and a press downward on the right analog stick will close the casket.  To put someone into it, you’ll need to combo an irish whip plus the circle key afterward.


The only issue with the controls really is the timing involved in trying to pull off counters, especially considering that with the excitement of the match it’s very easy to get into a button-pounding frenzy of the L2 and R2 buttons to try to defeat your opponent.

For the most part, the gameplay in Smackdown vs. Raw 2006 is the same as the previous years.  You’ve got your season mode which allows you to play a year out in either Raw or Smackdown with the eventual goal being to win the World Championship at Wrestlemania.  The storylines in both seasons are very well-written, honestly as good if not better than anything that’s been on TV in recent history.  The only real issue with Season mode is that it’s rather limited.  After you’ve played through each season once, you won’t see anything new unless you go back and do things differently or originally played as someone who was highlighted during one of the storylines.


However, the story mode is only the tip of the iceberg.  When you start into the single and multiplayer modes, the game really begins to shine.  For one thing, there’s an immense number of match types (25 total types with numerous variables for most) and each one is quite solid.  The newest one, of course, is the Buried Alive match, where you try to beat your opponent down enough to where you can throw him in a casket and close the lid on him.


Of course, any or all of these matches can be done online against other players, and the ability to create your own belt and fight for them online is a welcome addition.  The biggest drawback to online is the fact that the characters are all kept on the client side, which allows for a lot of cheating.  The cheating was rampant online in the early days of the game, and while it’s been scaled back quite a bit, there’s still a fair amount of it, so it’s something to be cautious of.  It’s one thing to lose your belt in a hard-fought match, but quite enough to lose it to someone with an Action Replay MAX. 


Player customization and creation is also heavy this year, with not only Create-A-Character and Create-A-Stable, but also Create-An-Entrance, which allows you to really get in-depth in your creations.  Of course, the created wrestlers are available in Season Mode, online, and all of the other modes of the game.


Last, but definitely not least is the addition of GM Mode.  GM Mode allows you to take the reins of either Smackdown or Raw with the goal to have the most viewers by the end of the year to win a “GM Of the Year” award from Vince McMahon.  You draft the talent, you sign the contracts and pick up free agents almost as if it were a sports sim.  You even determine who are the champions as well as every match for every card, including the spots for promos.  Once this is done, you can either watch the matches, simulate them, or play them out as any wrestler involved.  After each show, the game will give you feedback on how good the matches were as well as how many viewers you’ve gained or lost since the last show.  It’s quite in-depth for a first attempt, and definitely is fun to play if you’re into the entire sim experience.


 

To be honest, the main value in Smackdown vs. Raw 2006 is in the multiplayer and online realms.  If you really like the season mode and want to see your created characters there, the game gets really boring quite quickly.  If you enjoy the online modes, though, the game really starts to shine, especially if you can get around some of the cheating while online. 


All in all, the game is more of a rental to some people and a party game to others.  The roster is (as with every Smackdown title) out of date due to feature-lock, but that’s somewhat understandable.  

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