Crispy Gamer

Preview: WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009

I grew up in the old-school wrestling era. Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Macho Man, Jesse the Body -- when I think wrestling, those are the grapplers that come to mind. In videogames, THQ and Yuke's have been at the helm of the WWE franchise for years, so when a build of their latest effort -- SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 -- came across my desk, I invited a friend over, grabbed a six-pack, and fired up the game to see if the current wrestling stable would pique my interest. Saving the classic wrestlers for next year's Legends of WrestleMania, it was time to take to the ring with The Undertaker, Triple H, John Cena and more. Although we had a good time, there are still a lot of things about the game that need serious cleaning up.

Cat fight
Those heels could actually kill someone.

It had been a few years since I'd played a wrestling game, so I was hoping for an on-screen control diagram or a tutorial to help ease me back into the ring. Unfortunately, there was nothing of the sort, so I had to consult the manual. Each wrestler has their own arsenal of moves and pulling them off is pretty easy. Punches, kicks, drops and lifts are mapped to a few buttons and the right stick; special moves and reversals are context-sensitive. Don't worry about having to learn any complex button combinations -- the control scheme is generally pretty simplistic and easy to pick up.

If you're looking for a realistic WWE wrestling experience, SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 will work, but there's still a lot that's broken, and a number of things made my head hurt. Wrestlers didn't seem to stick to the mat; they floated and slid, making it feel like there wasn't a lot of traction. On the other hand, simple items such as weapons or a ladder or table caused my wrestler to be stuck.

Jericho on mat
Fear my robot!

Things really started to break down when I added more and more wrestlers into the ring in matches such as the Fatal-4-Way, 6-Man or Royal Rumble. It was easy to hit the wrong person, or worse yet, hit my Tag Team partner by accident. When multiple ladders and tables got into the ring, they sometimes locked up in a collision detection mess. The artificial intelligence was pretty wonky, and I couldn't rely on a teammate to save my life. Opponents, sometimes no matter how hard I beat them down, could magically come back to life and win a match. Granted, that happens in wrestling on television, but it feels ridiculous if you're totally crushing someone in a Cage match, get knocked down once, and they scale the cage and win.

A main focus of this year's title is the inclusion of the "Hot Tag" to Tag Team matches. A Hot Tag is used when you're getting the snot beaten out of you, and you're almost on the brink of elimination. The crowd is going wild, and you make that last-second effort to tag your partner. As your partner comes into the ring to relieve you, a few correct context-sensitive button presses will not only knock down both opponents, but also give you a full stamina meter. The concept works well when you're playing with friends, but you can't use this feature if you're playing by yourself and controlling both wrestlers. Why can't the AI be smart enough to trigger the Hot Tag if you need it while you're in single-player mode?

Throw down
Pulling off moves like this is not as complex as you would think.

While you can wrestle with the WWE greats, Yuke's has greatly expanded the user creation content with features such as Create-A-Finisher. This intuitive editor allows you to string a number of moves together to tailor your own finishing move. My "burning hammer" move goes from a back kick to the groin into a body blow and then to a choke slam lift. At this point, it's just begun! I then bring the real hurt by adding a tsunami bend, a double underhook clutch, a vertical drop tiger driver clutch and finally a powerbomb impact. You have the ability to make specific chained moves even more dramatic by slowing down the time it takes to execute a move. Not all the available moves look good together, so it's important to choose elements that flow well for an impressive finisher.

You can add this custom move to a current Superstar's arsenal, or give it to one that you design in Create-A-Superstar. The creation editor is extremely deep, and you can morph facial and body features into just about any form -- from nasty, hulking monsters to sexy Divas. Add tattoos, customize spandex, and add goofy things such as hats or animal feet.

CM Punk
No matter if you throw your horns up, you're not modeled as well as the other Superstars.

The presentation is decent, and the WWE Superstars generally look well modeled with a few exceptions: Newcomer CM Punk is ultra-cartoony and looks like he just stepped off the Rock Band stage for his match. The supposedly sexy Divas included in the build, Kelly Kelly and Beth Phoenix, look ugly. We created much more attractive beauties on our own, which makes us wonder how these ladies were modeled so poorly. And why don't muscles on these ?ber-studs flex at all? Where's the sweat? Why can't blood not just look like a gash, but also roll down the skin?

The entrances are ripped straight from the TV shows and Pay-Per-Views, and change a bit depending on the venue and type of match you're about to enter. They're great (especially the Undertaker's), but after you've seen one a few times you'll quickly skip it. The commentary is atrocious, with repetitive and inaccurate descriptions in every match. Play-by-play announcing has come a long way in the last few years, and this stuff isn't passable.

Woman wrestler
You're not Kelly Kelly! Where's Kelly Kelly?

There were 14 WWE superstars to choose from and only two Divas in the preview build that we played. Almost every match type will be included in the final version, and the real fun to be had is in the Infernal Matches, Hell in a Cell and ECW Extreme Rules matches (sorry -- Bra and Panties matches are still out). Tossing opponents through a table or burning them with fire are a heck of a lot more entertaining than just pinning them.

I'm no wrestling expert, but I enjoyed tossing a few cold ones back with a buddy while toying with this latest WWE title. One-on-one, it was fun to fly off a turnbuckle and slam our opponents outside of the ring. But the more we played it, the more we became annoyed with fault after fault. SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 has some impressive user creation options, but problems abound once you step into the ring. If you're truly hardcore into the WWE and can get past all of the problems described above, the game can be entertaining for a while. Granted, this is still an early build of the game, but with only two months until release, the team has a laundry list of things to clean up before I come back to wrestling games on a regular basis.

This preview is based on a preview build of the game for the Xbox 360.