PS2 Review: Smackdown! vs. Raw 2006

Adding more floors to a decrepit building doesn't fix the floors below, so why hasn't THQ/Yuke's learned that more isn't always better?

As assuredly as a new Madden game will rear its head every year, THQ forces three games a year on us that feature sweaty men in underwear grappling each other. Fortunately for the Playstation 2, the system receives what is easily the best version of WWE gaming but unfortunately for Playstation 2 gamers, they yet again receive an update instead of a whole new game. For those who bleed the red and white that is the WWE, this is probably a good thing as the fast-paced action will satisfy the chair-swinging urges true fans of the organization have come to expect. However, as a gamer, I continue to grow weary of the "been there, done that, but with different characters," trend these yearly games are continue to follow.

Out of the gate, I do have to say Smackdown! Vs. Raw 2006 (SvR 2006) is a much-needed improvement over its predecessor. The series' graphics have never been better on the Playstation 2, featuring improved wrestler models (both in-game and during pre-match entrances), new subtleties to the environment such as: announcers actually located at their table, and better animations for the wrestlers and the audience. Unfortunately, while the main meat of the game got a huge graphical nudge, the presentation suffers from lame, bare-bones menus and navigation. Most of the menus, outside of the locker room option, are pretty much only text surrounded by a frame - a major step down from last year's much flashier interface.

Not only has the appearance of the game stepped up for the better, the much improved online and match type options join that facet. THQ/Yuke's made amends for last year's pathetic online game play by offering what it should have in the first place - full choice from the game's match types (sans a few), support for up to four players in those matches and the online defense of a player's created title belt. The further addition of stat tracking not only enhances online game play but also makes the possibility of online leagues with your friends, (enemies?) as well as leads to some very prestigious created titles.

Joining the match types this year are: the infamous Buried Alive match where you aim to toss an opponent into a coffin and close the lid, Fulfill Your Fantasy match where you pick two ladies and embarrass the crap out of each other by whacking them with pillows and spanking them, and Backstage Brawl where fights leave the ring and enter the parking lot, a bar or a generic backstage area. I can live without Fulfill Your Fantasy, but the other two new modes offer a few new mechanics and twists to the already existing and rehashed match types. The brawls have some nice environmental cues, which allow you to slam car doors on your opponent's face or crack them over the head with a beer bottle. The Buried Alive match allows for some intense button mashing marathons and the excitement of stopping a casket door from slamming on you when all seems lost.

Sadly, while a good chunk of the game has received a facelift, it is very evident that SvR 2006 was neglected in a few other areas. The sound of everything in the game is the same as it has been since 2001 with the system's first Smackdown! game, aside from the nauseous voiceovers that plague the "career" mode. The sounds of the game boil down to generic slaps, massive slams and a somewhat random crowd. Filled in between is some of the worst commentary you will ever hear in a game - another thing that hasn't changed since Just Bring It! (Smackdown! 3). The disc access on the commentary files is so bad, every time there is a reversal, a pin or a special move, any commentary currently going on is interrupted to provide a new, painfully obvious comment on what has just happened. It sounds clunky and really interrupts the flow of a match. Musically, the game is a mixed bag. While the wrestlers' themes are spot-on, the menus are filled with generic licensed tracks that fail to provide an appropriate mood for in-ring carnage.

The biggest strike against SvR 2006, however, lies in something that didn't change at all - the simplistic, repetitive game play. The game play in the new version was changed on only three fronts: The Irish whip command is now mapped to two buttons; specials can now be stored for possum moves, stealing special moves or stealing taunts, or activated immediately for full damage; and the select button now activates a stamina recharge to prevent your wrestler from getting too tired. The changes merely move things around rather than add new features.

A major annoyance that lingers in SvR 2006 is the sometimes-horrid physics and collision that plagued the previous versions. This strike against the game play engine is most evident while using tables, top rope maneuvers, battling near the audience barricades or moving near the edge of the daunting "Hell in the Cell" cage. Top rope maneuvers are a sort of lost cause unless it is used as a wrestler's finisher as there is no lock-on to your opponent in most cases. When the opponent is lying in the ring, your top rope attacks seem to miss 20 percent of the time. When you dive from the top cell, the game should give you a medal for actually hitting the opponent. Tables are a bit of a headache as grapple animations constantly cause your opponent to fall off the table and bring you down with him/her, the same holds true with animations causing wrestlers to randomly clip to the top of barricades and fall from the top of the cell. While the engine does its job, it isn't nearly as polished as some of my favorite wrestling games of the past.

To further add to matters, game play is still based around who can press a button at the right time to reverse a move. After a couple of matches, you begin to realize this game is pretty much the same as last year's with new characters and a career mode that has flopped for the second year in a row. There just isn't too much more in this version aside from a few upgrades.

Touching on the career mode, your career once again flows along a set path thanks to the decision to add horrible voice-overs for the extremely boring cinemas that precede and follow almost every match. When I have no control over what happens backstage, why should I care? The career mode is basically demoted once again to an arcade mode where the goal is to get from match A to Z without losing. If I want to be a bastard backstage and attack people, let me. If I don't want to go after the world title, let me challenge for a lesser belt. That's what made the earliest versions so much fun - everything was random, you had much more say in what happened, plus it had multiplayer. What used to be the main focus of the earlier games has taken a backseat to getting the wrestlers' voices into the game, adding more useless wrestlers (Scotty Too Hotty? He's still alive?) and providing us with boring and horribly animated cut scenes. As Carlito would say - "That's not cool."

SvR 2006, while it comes as a disappointment based on the other games in the series, can be good for a rental or a semi-occasional romp with friends. While the extremely linear career mode can turn some away, the competitive six-player free-for-alls and much-improved online modes offer a little more bang for your buck than last year's edition. If you can stick through the simplistic game play and horrible sound, you'll find a lot more options at your disposal and a lot more eye candy than any other WWE game on the Playstation 2.

If you love the WWE, you'll love this game, otherwise it's a take-it-or-leave-it affair. All we can do now is wait and see what comes our way next year and see if Midway's upcoming NWA: TNA title can put a little competitive fire under the keister of the THQ/Yuke's development team.

Smackdown! vs. Raw 2006 is rated T (Teen, ages 13+) by the ESRB.

(*** out of *****)

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