It would be extremely easy for a WWE game franchise like the Smackdown series to rest on its laurels and simply churn out basic roster updates every year or so. After all, they're the Madden of the sports entertainment genre, and without any competition (save other WWE games), they aren't forced to continually innovate their gameplay like other sports. Thankfully, recent releases have avoided these mindless updates (with the exception of last year's game), primarily focusing on ring tactics and creating wrestlers. But it's pretty safe to say that this year's installment is the deepest grappler yet. Get ready for a true slobberknocker as we enter the ring with WWE Smackdown Vs. Raw 2006.
One of the facets that SVR 2006 focuses on fully capturing this time around are the psychological swings of a match that get fans cheering in arenas all over the world. This is measured in a number of ways: At the start of a match, you can engage in one of three mini-games to determine the initial progress of the game. Either you can stare down your opponent until the first person makes a move, engage in a test of strength or resort to a classic lock up as the bell rings. Obviously the winner of this mini-game gets a tactical advantage over their opponent, enabling them to get in a free shot or hold. But there’s another plus to these games, which is helping to establish the momentum of a match.
Match momentum isn’t a new concept within wrestling games – in fact it’s been used in previous titles to give you a sense of realism when you’re in the ring. However, recent games have been tying your wrestler’s momentum to the ability to pull off a finishing move on your opponent. The concept is pretty simple to understand: As a sports entertainer, you need to keep the audience’s attention by demonstrating your skills and abilities. This means varying up your moves in the ring with strikes, grapples and mat techniques instead of continually doing the same thing. By doing so, you’ll fill up your momentum meter and have the option to use your finishing move or store it until later use. Storing this move can provide you with additional damage if your momentum meter is maxed out again when you trigger it a second time.
You can be repetitive in a match, but you’ll quickly discover that your opponent is gaining heat on their momentum bar much faster than you are, enabling them to make more comebacks and inflict more damage. However, SVR 2006 also balances this need to curry favor with the fans for your momentum bar with the power unleashed with a finishing move in an intelligent way. Each move that you perform costs your wrestler a certain amount of stamina; the stronger and more damaging a step is, the larger the cost to that person’s stamina bar. Constantly trying those high-flying maneuvers, for instance, will definitely get you winded much more than an Irish whip. Allowing your stamina bar to fully deplete itself will result in your player falling to their knees, spending precious time trying to catch their breath or passing out entirely. While you can pursue opponents and slowly recover your energy, the largest gain to your stamina comes when you devote your attention to catching your breath in place. This adds a strategy element to the in-ring action, as players need to gauge when you can press an attack and when you simply need to hold off and rest yourself.
Stamina and momentum also winds up playing a larger role in other parts of the game, such as making your way out of pinfalls and changing the course of a match. For instance, SVR 2006 places much more emphasis on meters when you’re applying submission holds or grappling techniques. For instance, applying a sleeper hold on an opponent triggers a meter where players have a chance to escape the maneuver. By stopping a sliding icon in a certain section of the meter, your opponent has the chance to break the hold. If you’ve been consistently working on them throughout the match, you can add additional pressure by pounding on a button, potentially countering their escape attempt. However, perhaps the most telling twist to the stamina and momentum system is the chance to play possum, drawing your opponents into a false sense of security by acting as though your injured before surprising them with a quick roll up, stealing their momentum or even their finishing move away from them.
Tweaks to the ring psychology aside, there’s a larger focus on customization this time around, including creating a stable, a championship belt, or a wrestler with their own moveset. Unlike previous year’s create a wrestler mode, SVR 2006 focuses a lot more attention upon different wrestling styles for your grappling characteristics. So unlike making a generic Speed wrestler (akin to a cruiserweight) you can combine and create some one who specializes in Speed and Luchadore styles (amongst other ones to make a Rey Mysterio clone.) Along with Speed and Luchadore, you have Power, Technical, Brawler, Martial Arts and Old School choices, each of which provide new grapples and attacks for your wrestler. You’ll also be able to pick between clean or dirty grappling techniques, which affects how you’ll play. For instance, dirty fighters complain when the referee’s count is short or continue to hold a submission after a break has been called for. Boosting the stats of these fighters is easy thanks to the customizable locker room, which you’ll be able to add costumes, furniture, awards and other unlockable items that you receive or purchase from the WWE store.
You’ll be able to jump into quick exhibition matches or play through your favorite pay per view, but the primary thrust of the game itself is in the season mode, where you’ll be able to choose any wrestler on the roster and take them through a storyline that encompasses a yearlong tour with either Raw or Smackdown. While there aren’t a lot of branching storylines, you will have a couple of differences depending on who you select. It’s a pretty decent story, and one that provides quite a bit of replayability as you see just how each wrestler physically responds to the challenge of each match along the way. Another facet that stands out is that each wrestler lent his voice to their persona, so you’ll hear exactly how they might respond to the game situation as if it was part of the weekly show.
Outside of the season mode, the other major addition is the GM mode, which places you in the shoes of the head honcho of either brand in a competition to see if you can make the best show after a year. Initially, you have the option to pick either the current show roster or enter a customized draft of wrestlers, as well as who the champions of each show will be at the start. You will have the option to negotiate and make trades with the other show or sign free agents to short term or long term contracts, as long as they fall within the operating budget of your show. Depending on the popularity of different wrestlers, your expenses for each person will be radically different, so you may have to determine whether or not it’s important to sign a superstar if he or she restricts the amount of dough you have.
You’ll need a good sized bankroll to put on each weekly show, as well as any specialty matches or Pay Per Views if you hope to get good ratings and thereby more fans. Fortunately, you’ll have a ton of matches to choose from and any stipulations they might have, including Elimination Chamber matches, Tag Team brawls, Tables, Ladders and Chairs matches and Hardcore fights. You’ll also have access to some of the newer matches, such as Buried Alive (which is pretty obvious – you throw your opponent into a casket and cover them in dirt) and the Fulfill Your Fantasy match (a Divas only fight where the women dress up in provocative outfits, pillow fighting and spanking each other until one of them wins). As a GM, you’ll need to promote feuds amongst your wrestlers, advertise promos and even deal with injuries and disgruntled stars that are losing their popularity.
While the concept of the GM mode is a good one, there are a couple of ways that it could be stronger. First of all, you don’t have any control over setting up your own storylines for your show. The closest thing that you have are establishing feuds, which as simple text-based selections that state who you’ve chosen to hate each other. Whenever you set up promos, ads or other show items, you never see what’s being done – simply the fact that the promo has occurred. You’ll also notice how incredibly difficult it is to promote a less popular wrestler up to the ranks of a crowd favorite. They’ll more often than not lose to the ever popular stars and lose their ranking, as well as become disgruntled and disinterested in working for you. Plus, while you have the option to watch the matches that you’ve set up, for the most part you’re simply micromanaging text screens, not actual characters. It really could go a lot farther, and this could be an incredible feature on a next gen system.
As far as some of the other issues, some of the gameplay issues from previous titles still wind up popping up. Registering a clean shot on an opponent can sometimes be hit or miss, particularly when the game reorients an attempted strike or grapple away from where you’re directing your wrestler. This might not seem like a big deal until you start fighting on higher difficulty levels, there you’ll literally get molested with the number of reversals that the computer will win. Sure, you’ll get in a reversal here or there, but you’ll find the computer having many more calls in their favor. Aside from this, you’ve also got many of the same AI issues that have plagued older titles. I can’t count the number of matches that I won by the computer getting counted out. Finally, while I didn’t really get too in-depth about the online play, I will say this: SVR 2006’s online play is much more stable than the previous title, and allows gamers to download and trade created superstars, as well as play for custom belts or exhibition matches. While the game does come with a large number of stats and rankings, you still can’t set up online tournaments or pay per views.
Visually, this is perhaps the sharpest wrestling title that Yukes has made to date. Every tattoo, facial detail and other character specific detail has been recreated accurately, so you’ll really get a sense of taking the WWE superstars into an arena for every match. Move animations are quite specific for each wrestler based on their character type, so you’ll be able to pick up on certain trademark moves. I do wish that the animation for escaping a sleeper hold was different for each star, as not every wrestler acts the same when breaking the hold. Sound is just as good, with the inclusion of the voices of every wrestler and the announcing team of both shows as the primary standout for the title. While there are a couple of flat lines and stale performances here and there, the dialogue is delivered with the same energy that you’ll find with most of the shows. Easily, Eric Bischoff’s performance is the weakest one – what’s up with the constant pausing in the middle of lines? Also, while the inclusion of J.R, Jerry “The King” Lawler, Tazz and Michael Cole adds a great presentation to the game, they will repeat themselves quite a bit during matches, even having both commentators saying the same line back to back.
If you’re looking for the best wrestler out on the market, you need look no farther than Smackdown Versus Raw 2006. An expanded roster with storylines, added GM mode and deeper emphasis on ring psychology makes every match more dynamic and realistic. Definitely something to check out if you’re a wrestling fan.