Major Hands-On Report Of WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW For PS2

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The team at Yuke's Media Creations and THQ are coming off a banner year in 2003 as their collaborative effort on Here Comes the Pain was considered one of the best wrestling games yet made. A huge leap forward for the SmackDown! franchise and wrestling genre in general, the well-received title introduced a myriad of new features that the series had never seen before. From the introduction of the legends roster to the inclusion of the Bra and Panties match, the sheer number of extras last year was huge. Submission meters, more accurate character attributes, a weight detection system, and the Elimination Chamber were yet additional motives towards making Here Comes the Pain so popular with its fans. And yet, there was still one big looming question: "How was THQ going to top it?"

Of course, for those of us that have been playing all the previous SmackDown! titles, the answer to that question was a rather easy one. As it seems that no matter how many refinements or changes are given to the WWE product each year, there's always a laundry list of features that players want continuously included. It's almost become a common acceptance, in fact, that the diehard crowd never gets everything they want -- as it seems that the more developers add to their wrestling titles, the more it reminds the public of how much extra they need.

With that in mind, THQ has put an awful lot of effort into making as many improvements as possible for its 2004 installment, WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW. Boasting everything from the long awaited create-a-belt and PPV options to a more realistic presentation of faces and heels, the game seems to be as big an improvement as Here Comes the Pain was over Shut Your Mouth. But where Here Comes the Pain was all about making major gameplay alterations over the titles from years past, SmackDown! vs. RAW is about improving on the presentation and replayability.

To find out how extensive these changes were for ourselves, we managed to secure some exclusive hands-on time with an extremely early build of the game over the weekend. This version of the disc was so early, in fact, that the majority of the wrestlers on the roster didn't even have their music or TitanTron videos yet. Even so, we were privy to a slightly expanded look at the roster that reveals the presence of a couple of folks we didn't know about -- namely Hardcore Holly, Victoria, Sable, Molly Holly, and the regular Undertaker. But as we had theorized in an earlier article, Rikishi has been completely removed from the lineup.

What really caught our attention, though, was the addition of a series of unplayable superstars that were available on the roster but were marked as "Non-Playable". Whether or not this means they'll remain unplayable or have to be unlocked in some other manner we honestly don't know; but the prospect of playing as some of these guys is definitely enticing. So which personalities are we referring to? Well that would be Eric Bischoff, Paul Heyman, Michael Cole, Earl Hebner, Jerry Lawler, Jim Ross, Vince McMahon, The Coach, Mike Chioda, and Tazz. Sadly, legends had not been implemented in this version yet, so we couldn't check them out.

After viewing out the roster, one of the first new features we wanted to see was the all-new match type, the Parking Lot Brawl. Still somewhat in the fine-tuning stages, this match works almost exactly like the old hardcore matches did -- except for the environment in which it takes place. Modeled after the classic John Cena/Eddie Guerrero U.S. title match from earlier in year, the mode is deceptively more entertaining than it sounds. As rather than just supply players with an abundance of weapons or other random objects to beat their opponent senseless with, it's the environment that's there to hurt them.

Each automobile that surrounds your wrestler has a distinctive deformable action too. Should you throw an opponent towards the limousine, for example, you can either slam their face into various parts of it or open up the back door and toss them inside. While inside, an unknown ally will literally beat them up for you before throwing them back out the way they came. Other interactive cars, like Eddie's pimped -out hydraulic ride, an open-top convertible, and a big-ass semi truck are just a few of the several objects that you can toy with. Blinding your opponent with headlights, throwing them into and shattering windshields, and using the steering wheel to smash someone's face are all entirely possible. Needless to say, we're a lot more pleased with this mode than we thought we would be.

Next up, we were off to check out pre-existing match types so we could see what kinds of changes had been made to them. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you've felt about them), they're pretty much unchanged, save for a few slight alterations. The Elimination Chamber and Cage Matches, for example, seem to be pretty much the same as they were last year. While the Hell in a Cell option has added a few refinements (re: it's a lot harder to fall from the top of the cell by accident, slightly better floor animations), and the Bra and Panties match has an all-new spanking mechanic. Hardcore matches seem to have been scaled back a bit as well -- as the only section backstage that we could fight in was a long corridor with televisions, catering tables, and boxes. We didn't have the option to change rooms either, and whether or not we'll be able to in future versions is still unknown.

The biggest change to the existing game modes would have to be to the Royal Rumble. Instead of simply going into the ring against five other guys (yep, the maximum wrestler count onscreen at one time is still six) and throwing them out Battle Royal style like we used to, we now have to contend with an all-new ringout meter. Not as big a deal as it sounds, this simple meter is listed below the health meter for your wrestler and as he struggles with getting thrown over the top it lowers. Once the meter has been expended, you'd better try not to get thrown over the rope again -- as you'll likely fall to your doom.

Taking its cue from EA Sports games, THQ has also implemented a special Challenge Mode that's running at all times. If players fulfill certain requirements and meet these challenges while playing, they'll earn bonus money to spend in the shopzone (where you can purchase Legends, additional outfits, movesets, arenas, and load screens). There are 60 different challenges in all and they're spread out across four different difficulty types (15 each). So while just about anyone will be able to meet the amateur-level requirements of winning a single match without using their finisher or defeat an opponent in under three minutes, they might not be so lucky with some of the Superstar challenges (such as performing a successful 5-star splash from the top of a ladder with RVD or defeating The Undertaker in a first blood match in less than four minutes). These types of ongoing challenges really add a lot to the single player experience even when playing exhibition matches and are definitely a step in the right direction.

Speaking of steps in the right direction, Yuke's has also implemented a much more realistic account of the differences between faces and heels. Now whichever alignment you choose, that's definitely up to you (selectable between clean, neutral, and dirty before an exhibition match or dictated by your storyline actions in career mode), but whichever association you select, it can change several dynamics of a bout. Fan reactions, referee reactions, and bonuses for specific moves are all dictated by which way you swing. Using these guidelines, face wrestlers earn bonuses for their alignment meter by performing their signature moves, taunting, or performing submission counters. Once their meter is built all the way to the end it will flash. Once it does this, flicking the right analog stick makes him invulnerable for a short period of time; at which point not only can he not be hurt, but his finishing moves will do a lot more damage as well.

Heel wrestlers earn their bonuses by being complete asses. Low blows, intentionally breaking your own pins, taunting from outside the ring, or ignoring a rope break can all build the heel meter all the way to its end. Once there, another flick of the right analog stick allows them to perform a devastatingly powerful dirty move without the risk of disqualification. So far we've only seen a nasty low blow, but we expect that several more of these moves can be performed under the right circumstances. Neutral players don't have to worry about either meter, though; as they will abide by the same rules and conditions they did in last year's game. Regardless of which way you go, however, It's an interesting dynamic for sure and one that really encourages gamers to play as their alter ego would in real life.

And while we're on the subject of real life, Yuke's has gone back to the drawing board with its weight detection system and made it a lot more realistic. Now broken up into five different weight classes (diva, cruiser, light heavy, heavy, and super heavy), all the slams, bombs, and drops are even more accurate than before. Luckily this diversity of poundage also applies to finishing moves. So you're not going to see situations like last year where Victoria could put Kane in the Widow's Peak just because it's her closer; he's too damn heavy, and she won't be able to do it no matter what the circumstance.

Another goodie tied to the weight class system is the attribute cap for created wrestlers. If your wrestler is diva or cruiser weight, for instance, their limit for strength and durability may not be as high as a wrestler of the super heavyweight class. On that same token, however, the super heavyweight wrestler isn't going to be very fast and will have a limit on his speed and technique attributes. These slight adjustments to the creation process should help keep wrestlers of varying sizes and shapes a little more unique and should also help encourage players to try grapplers of different sizes for different results. As for the rest of the Create-A-Superstar details, though, we'll save that for another day.

As for the gameplay itself, there are definitely some obvious changes in how things work. Though the pace and speed of the wrestlers seems pretty much identical to the way they were last year, the inclusion of the new meters alters the flow of the match rather effectively. In addition to the dirty and clean meters we touched on earlier, the all-new counter bar finally gives you a fighting chance when caught in specific submission holds. Keep in mind that this reversal bar only seems to appear when caught in specific types of moves (Crossface chickenwings, Buffalo sleepers, triangle holds and the like). Luckily, Yuke's has made it so that forcing your opponent's to submit is harder than it used to be regardless of whether or not you can counter the move. Players are going to have to work a whole lot harder now to get someone to say "I Quit" to one of those bearhugs.

The much publicized stare downs and tests of strength aren't as common as we thought they'd be -- which is good. As instead of forcing each wrestler to participate in such a thing each time a match begins, the chances of it happening are totally random and seem to be tuned to a solid ratio (though the chances of these things happening are made better if there's a current feud between opponents). Chopping matches are initiated in a somewhat different manner, however. Simply trap your opponent in a corner and press up and grapple to get the series going. Once the action begins, players are treated to a golf-like timing meter that has power and timing bars you'll need to tap in order to successfully pull them off. And the reward for doing so is a seriously downed opponent. Once down, you can even sit your foe up in a sitting position by double tapping the circle button -- opening up all-new grappling possibilities.

Other significant changes have been made to SmackDown! vs. RAW as well. Picking up the steel steps and ramming them into an opponent is a lot harder than it used to be, for example; and they actually feel heavier too. Not to mention the fact that you can no longer use the steps indefinitely -- after five or six hits, they'll disappear. Additionally, weapons like championship belts and chairs do more damage than they used to and high-risk maneuvers off the turnbuckles take longer and do more damage after landing. Perhaps the best new balancing choice, though, is the fact that submissions and power grapples are easier to counter and take longer to perform. While quick and signature grapples are performed faster and are harder to counter attack. This new approach makes performing old favorites like the Powerbomb and half-nelson slam a lot more risky -- and helps even the odds for smaller wrestlers when tackling the bigger guys.

Gameplay tweaks aide, some of the most interesting new features we explored were the new Create-A-PPV and Create-A-Belt options. Located together within the same menu, both of these features (that the developers wanted to include last year but couldn't due to time constraints) offer its users an avenue they had never had before; as not only does it allow them to create their own belts from scratch with money they've earned elsewhere, but it also allows them to defend it. Making a championship title is pretty easy too -- as long as you have the money. Simply go into the proper menu, select what straps, faceplate, centerpiece, and accessories you want to add to it and boom: instant IGN title.

Creating a pay-per-view works much in the same way. After entering the title of whatever it is they want to create, it's off to assemble a kickass lineup of matches. Unlike typical SmackDown pay-per-views, though, these events will be able to house as many as eight matches at once; with every facet of the bout -- from its rules, its contestants, and its placement in the card, all dictated by the user. The create-a-PPV mode is also the only place where players can defend the titles they created earlier; making it an essential stop for gamers looking to prove that they're king of their neighborhood.

As you can probably tell by our multiple pages dedicated to the game already, there's certainly a lot to talk about in WWE SmackDown! vs. RAW and we haven't even talked about everything yet. With additional features, elements, and components that still need to be detailed, the end of our wrestling coverage is far from over. And whether it's keeping you updated on the progress of the online beta test, keeping you abreast of improvements to the latest versions of the game, or letting you know about the evolution of the character voice-overs (which admittedly are still early in our build), we'll make it our mission to be here for you.

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