Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 is the latest WWE-branded wrestling game in the series which began with Smackdown! on the Playstation in 2000. Through three generations of consoles and nine previous releases, the series has turned into a yearly video-game representation of the wrestling seen on TV three times weekly through the different WWE brands.
Smackdown vs. Raw 2008 was panned for a number of design choices as well as the loading times, and the folks at THQ listened to all of the complaints before going back to the drawing board to craft this year’s game.
Did the folks at THQ and Yukes fix what was wrong with the series and give the fans what they wanted, or does Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 fall into the trap so many yearly game releases do?
The Smackdown vs. Raw series has always done a good job with the visual presentation of the WWE’s wrestling product, and Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 continues this trend, especially on HDTVs. The glistening sweat on the Superstars’ skin as the wrestlers move and exert themselves is a very nice visual touch, as is the movement of the cloth in their gear. While hair still looks quite fake at many points, and they haven’t gotten the hang of showing the little touches like John Morrison’s fur coat, or Shawn Michaels’ various ring outfits, the overall look is very nice.
This is illustrated to great effect in the Inferno match, as the light flickers and shades with the flames as well as reflects off of the wrestlers’ bodies.
There are a few things marring otherwise a decent audio experience in SvR 2009. The first is that some of the songs for the Superstars doesn’t quite match what is on TV. It’s almost as though WWE was planning on updating or changing some music, namely Chris Jericho’s, and decided against it.
Beyond that, most of the voice acting is very good, with special attention in the Road to Wrestlemania modes. They are portrayed with genuine-sounding promos and decent commentary, although it does suffer from the same thing most games with commentators: overused phrases. There’s also a number of cases where the commentary really doesn’t match the action that is going on, such as one notable case during C.M. Punk’s Road to Wrestlemania. Tazz is consistantly vocal against C.M. Punk, but during one of the bigger matches in the series Tazz flip-flops and is uncharacteristically complimentary towards C.M. Punk during the match. It just didn’t feel right and stuck out overall.
The controls for SvR 2009 haven’t changed much from last year, which isn’t really a bad thing, although it can still be difficult to get the timing on counters down, which can feel a bit unfair.
Controlling your superstar is done with the left analog stick, while the d-pad handles taunting. The right stick handles grapples, while the addition of R1 makes it a strong taunt. Circle starts an irish whip, while X performs one of several strikes depending on which way you push the left analog stick. L1 runs, L2 and R2 perform your strike and grapple counters, respectively, and the triangle button performs your finisher and signature moves.
Switching between different opponents works automatically, although to be honest, the ref needs to be non-selectable when you are playing a good-aligned character. Luckily, the game seems to know when it’s an accident, and you don’t get DQ’d immediately when you strike the ref.
As much as THQ’s touted the tag-team system in Smackdown vs. Raw 2009, the true centerpiece of the game is the Road to Wrestlemania. Replacing last year’s tepid 24/7 mode is six personalized stories featuring Undertaker, Chris Jericho, Triple H, C.M. Punk, John Cena, and the tag team of Batista and Rey Mysterio. Each of these storylines feature complete voice acting by all of the superstars and a number of cut scenes which take you from around Christmas through the Royal Rumble, No Way Out and finally Wrestlemania 24.
It’s curious that THQ chose Wrestlemania 24, given that it actually occurred in March of 2008, and with the game being released in late 2008 it might make more sense to have it build up to Wrestlemania 25 in Houston, but that’s a minor issue at best.
Each superstar has his own story with numerous twists and turns, based on how your matches go, win or lose. Some matches, of course, are must-wins, and the system will let you re-try those matches if you lose. Multiple endings are available also, and various matches have secondary goals that unlock bonus content in the game. Most of the content applies to created wrestlers, which are primarily usable in exhibition, season, and online modes.
For those who want to play a created superstar, Diva or another Superstar, there is Season Mode which allows you to wrestle for one of a variety of titles, once you beat the other contenders. Each match is rated from one to five stars, and you are required to reach a certain number of stars before you can contend for the belt, which can only be done on a Pay Per View. This means that if you get the stars completed at the first match after a PPV, you have to wait until the next PPV in order to challenge for the belt. Once you’ve gotten one belt, you can move on to the next. Also, winning these matches increases the stats on your Superstar which is important in exhibition and online modes.
Speaking of online, playing online with a PS3 is a challenge. I’m not sure if it’s because you are reliant on the host’s network connection or what, but I never could get into a match with someone without huge amounts of lag, if I could enter a match at all. While PSN being free is a good thing, with SvR 2K9 it seems you get what you pay for. As it stands right now, network play in SvR 2K9 is almost unplayable.
New this year is Create a Finisher, which uses a similar structure to how you create your superstar or your move set. It’s very easy to get into, but has a lot of complexity. As such, it’s not for everyone, as only those with the patience to truly dig into the capability for user-created content will truly reap the benefits. UAC itself, however, has both benefits and drawbacks. The obvious benefit is that all of the various UAC (Create a Superstar, Create a Finisher and Highlight Reel) are usable online (in fact you can vote on other people’s Highlight Reels, and download their content to your hard drive for later viewing), but there is no way to share a finisher or superstar other than writing down all of the steps necessary to create it yourself. This is a serious step back from last year, and completely makes most of the UAC irrelevant.
The other major issue is when you do create your own superstar, they start with stats around 30-40, which means that unless you spend hours upon hours grinding matches in Season mode, your superstar won’t have decent enough stats to even be able to compete online, even if you could connect. Make it an unlockable, but for the love of God, give us the ability to create superstars at 90 instead of 35.
Finally, the difficulty level in the game is …. too easy. On normal, I was routinely mowing through the CPU opponents in just a few minutes. Finishing moves are supposed to be just that. Either make it where the CPU rarely kicks out from a Finisher, or make it where you have to seriously beat the opponent down to use it, not just build your momentum meter. I shouldn’t have to hit my finisher three times in a normal match to win. In a drama-filled title match? Sure, let me try to hit it over and over, with numerous counters, and maybe two finishers before winning. In a normal match, though, I should be able to just beat the other guy down with some difficulty and then hit the finisher to win.
To be honest, unless you thrive for online play, there’s not much in the game outside of the Road to Wrestlemania. True, you could play through each character a few times, and get a good 20-30 hours of play in, but most of the things you unlock are for creating new characters or playing in other modes, and without people to play with, or without a solid online connection, there’s just not much reason to do it.
If the servers get upgraded and stabilized, or they give you more reason to play through the modes over and over, maybe the game will have more to it. Until then, though, this is more of a rental or possible sale purchase.