You almost have to feel sorry for game developers that create annual sports franchises – to start off with, you have an extremely short development cycle that can be tough to keep up with year after year.  If you don’t manage to meet your fanbase’s expectations in your current release, you’ll get to hear the gaming community complain about your work for an entire year before you have a chance to redeem yourself.  Trickiest of all is if you manage to have an absolutely stellar release the previous year.  Then you’re left with the daunting task of living up to your audience’s expectations when the next year’s game rolls around.


That’s the challenge that THQ and Yuke’s were faced with after last year’s excellent WWE Smackdown! vs. RAW 2010.  The increase in quality, attention to detail, and playability of the title was a night and day difference over the 2009 version.  Now with WWE Smackdown! vs. RAW 2011 (SvR 11) ready to be released, the question on everyone’s mind is “how will they ever top last year’s game?”  After all, when we reviewed SvR 10 last year it received a respectable 92%!  Let’s step into the ring and see how the Smackdown! vs. RAW franchise fares this time around…

Last year’s graphics were notable for the amount of detail that the developers were able to pack into the title.  When it came to the wrestlers, everything was picture perfect.  Not only did they capture the likenesses of all the competitors (down to the individual tattoos!), developer Yuke’s was also able to recreate their motions and mannerisms.  This lead to an immersion in the gameplay that was absolutely incredible, making this title feel like you were watching actual pay-per-view wrestling at times.  Definitely a tough act to follow, but the developers proved to be up to the challenge.  Using a technique referred to as “muscle flexing modeling”, the graphical geniuses at Yuke’s are able to realistically mimic the way muscles move on the human body.  As the wrestlers move around the ring, their muscles bunch and flex, providing an even higher degree of realism to the already exceptional graphics.


The graphical makeover doesn’t stop there though – the arenas have seen a huge amount of improvement also.  The audience reaction to the action in the ring is better than ever, with fans cheering at all the right spots in the match, holding up signs promoting their favorite wrestler, and generally reacting just like a live crowd.  For the first time in the series history, all the props scattered around the ring are fully modeled physics objects.  This means that in TLC matches (Tables, Ladders, and Chairs) all the furniture can be bent, broken, and shattered by the actions of the wrestlers.  While the developers haven’t extended this as far as to have the various pieces of wreckage interact differently with the combatants, the visual impact of suplexing your opponent onto a table and having it shatter is great fun all on it’s own.


Speaking of suplexes, this is a perfect segue into one of the biggest improvements that SvR 11 has to offer in this version – the ability to aim your slams and suplexes.  In prior versions of the franchise, players could perform all sorts of moves, but never had the ability to aim them.  Whatever direction you happened to be facing when the move animation started was where you’d end up performing your slam.  This change makes a huge difference in gameplay, as you can now aim slams to toss your nemesis out of the ring in The Royal Rumble, or drop your enemy onto his partner during a tag team free-for-all.  Again, the amount of fun and flexibility this offers has to be played to be believed.

The only area that WWE Smackdown! vs. RAW 2011 loses ground is with the sound, and it’s really through no fault of their own.  The crowd noise, the wrestler’s intro music, even the announcers are all dead on and will make you feel like you’re at a real wrestling event.  Where things start to fall down is in the extended play mode that is now offered during the various Road to Wrestlemania stories.  Instead of just simulating an entire season of wrestling, with you competing as your favorite wrestler against a series of opponents in a variety of locations, you now spend time backstage before each match.


Implementing a sort of RPG-lite, players interact with other wrestlers backstage prior to their bout.  There are a variety of interactions that can happen, including everything from confronting another wrestler that is hassling a diva, to being ambushed by your nemesis in the locker room.  Players are offered the choice of assisting other wrestlers or picking fights, with every choice made having long term effects on the path your story takes.  The sound problem here is with the voice acting performances that the wrestler’s turn in.  While they might be able to bring a world of passion into addressing the crowd from the ring during a match, the scripted backstage conversations are stilted and flat, almost painful to sit through.  This is a shame, as the addition of the pre-match activities does a great job of rounding out the Road To Wrestlemania mode.

The control scheme for WWE Smackdown! vs. RAW 2011 has remained virtually unchanged from the previous year, and for the most part this is a good thing.  The Training Facility that was implemented last year as an ongoing tutorial for gameplay has returned and does an excellent job of teaching the controls to first-timers as well as providing a quick refresher for veterans of the franchise.  Set up as a context sensitive, open-ended tutorial that covers the entire range of controls available in the game, the Training Facility allows players to specify what areas of gameplay they want tooltips to show up for.  Whether it’s pins, grapples, or outside the ring moves, every action is covered in detail and truly trains the user to get ready for the real thing in the ring.

WWE Smackdown! vs. RAW 2011 has expanded the roster to over seventy wrestlers now, giving the player a huge amount of options when it comes to choosing whose career they want to play.  Along with the expanded roster, the game interface has been cleaned up a bit, which is a nice addition.  No longer do you have to page through wrestler after wrestler, looking for the one you’re dying to try out.  Now the wrestlers are presented on a single screen, much like the character select layout of Mortal Kombat.  Players can select their wrestler from their portrait, with characters that haven