Crispy Gamer

WWE Smackdown Vs. Raw 2008 (PSP)

Pro wrestling is an odd thing to recreate in a videogame because it?s the only sport where the videogame version is not only more competitive, but also more realistic, than the ?sport? being simulated. While pro wrestling pretends it?s real, the main skill of these giant brutes isn?t athletics; it?s acting. No, not the dialogue, the threats, the ?soap opera? storylines, or even the ill-considered Hollywood moonlighting. We mean the kind of acting involved in pretending you?re being punched in a circular arena.

So, in its way, SmackDown vs. Raw: 2008 is what happens inside the heads of fans. The fights are real, the damage is real, and that makes the videogame version of this comic book sport compelling even to people who hate the spandex gladiators.

Emulating wrestling and actually simulating the many moves wrestlers make is daunting for a videogame series, and the good news is that WWE SmackDown vs. Raw is getting close. Last year the series added ?ultimate control moves,? which allow more complicated maneuvers to be automatic submissions. New this year is a style system and user-controlled submissions. After choosing to become a ?face? or a ?heel? (wrestling parlance for ?good? or ?bad?), you then choose your characters? signature style. Styles include ?Hulked-out,? Powerhouse, Showmen, Technical Wrestlers, Dirty Fighters, High-Flyers, Brawlers and more. Each of these skills changes the way the character is played. For example, the Brawler can unleash a flurry of punches; the High-Flyer specializes in surprise pins; and the powerhouse can grapple at will. The problem with this feature is how repeatable it is. Watching a High-Flyer leap at you like Ryu from Street Fighter five times in a match is probably four times too many for such a powerful mode.

New submissions let grapplers snatch a leg and twist using the analog nub. Pull too hard and your opponent will break free; if you don?t pull hard enough, it might get turned around on you.

THQ has reached a deal with the ECW to include the extreme rules matches and weaponry. Yep, swing a chair, a 2 x 4 wrapped in barbed wire, or a table -- you can even set them on fire. Nice!

Regular season mode is removed in favor of a new 24/7 mode. The idea is that you can live the life -- or at least parts of the life -- of a wrestling superstar. This means between bouts and workouts you can build the other aspects of your wrestler?s persona. Visit sick kids in the hospital to enhance your role as a good guy, or star in an action picture to gather new fans. It?s a neat idea but more than a little half-baked. Just click the thing you want to do and watch the stats change. There isn?t even an image showing your wrestler in a hospital, for example. Working out is the same as before: Choose an exercise, click it, and play the mini-games for increased stats in the ring. All of this is interesting because of the tactical considerations and choices you have to make. Is it worth clicking on the R & R option and losing popularity because your wrestler is tired? It?s a good, solid, and cleverly built system -- but it?s also not very fun.

The graphics are?disappointing, even considering the limitations of the PSP. The game is still plagued with collision detection problems and dropped animations. The commentary is abysmal. A lot of work needs to be done on the graphics engine and audio component, and that?s a shame, because it was just as bad last year.

The artificial intelligence is still about as smart as your average wrestler, which makes the single-player game can be an exercise in frustration, particularly in tag-team matches. The best example of this are matches that for some reason feature a ladder when there is nothing up there for you to get. Watching a wrestler ascend and descend while accomplishing nothing happens too often.

Where the PSP version of the game falls flat on its face is the controls. The console version uses the right analog stick. Since the PSP doesn?t have a right analog stick, this is mapped to the nub, which is just below the gamepad. This means both moving and performing delicate special maneuvers are performed on the left side of your PSP. It?s as frustrating as it sounds.

On the whole, Smackdown vs. Raw for the PSP is stuck in a rut. The series needs a fresh start -- starting with a new control scheme.

This review was based on a retail copy of the game purchased by the writer.