After fan complaints of stagnation, Yuke’s responded by trying to make SvR ’09 the freshest entry in the series to date by adding in things that fans have requested for years, like downloadable content, a create-a-finisher mode and the Inferno match, while also bringing back backstage matches and overhauling traditional tag team matches in order to deliver the best series entry to date. The end result doesn’t quite reach those expectations, however, and ends up like the other entries in the series - a perfectly acceptable game that simply doesn’t live up to its full potential.
The new Inferno match gives you the bare bones “set your foe on fire“ idea of the match across, but does so many years after it was initially wanted, and the execution isn’t all that great and basically boils down to just beating a foe down enough to drag them to the ropes and watched the same canned animation play at the end. It’s very by-the-numbers and isn’t particularly exciting to play - it does look nice though thanks to the fire effects, and has a bit more realism than expected since the wrestlers sweat constantly.
Fortunately, SvR ‘09 does succeed as far as improving the overall gameplay - matches flow better than they have before, with fewer instances of wrestlers getting up much faster than they should, and the gameplay as a whole just feels smoother and more realistic this year. The newly-revamped standard tag match is certainly far more interactive than the past “stand on the apron, execute a badly-animated punch, and stop the opposing team from breaking up pins” match that wound up getting boring rather quickly. Now, you can grab your rival from the apron to hold them so your partner can beat them up, kick a foe from the apron, pull the rope down to send them sailing over the top rope after an Irish whip, force tags from your partner, and even perform a last-ditch “hot tag” ala Ricky Morton of the Rock and Roll Express to send a fresh teammate in to run amok on your enemies.
Unfortunately, while all of these things combine to make the tag matches far more interesting than they were in past SD games, they don’t result in SvR ‘09 having the best video game tag matches since many of these elements only new to this series - not to the genre itself. The ability to hold a foe from behind while your partner attacks them was done far better in WWF No Mercy (an 8-year old N64 game) since it allowed you to do more moves to the person tied up (including weapon shots and running attacks), and also allowed you to hold foes in any part of the ring, not just while you’re standing on the apron. No Mercy also allowed you to do more than just kick or hold someone while standing on the apron - you could also execute springboard attacks from the apron onto rivals, or run up the ropes from the apron and execute a flying attack - two things you can’t do here.
One issue caused by the tag team overhaul is that other modes feel archaic since these massive improvements is that they only apply to basic tag matches - the tornado tag matches are the same as they always were, and only see improvements due to the increased amount of double team moves in them - you can‘t grab a foe from behind to be attacked by someone else in it (or any other multi-man match). Most other match types are also largely identical - from the steel cage match to the Hell in the Cell, although Yuke’s did improve the animations of moves done against the inside of the Cell and thankfully reduced how often you ridiculously land on your neck after a high fall from the top of either structure that plagued the series over the past decade.
Unfortunately, some modes are worse than they’ve been in the past. The Elimination Chamber is greatly hurt by being unable to climb turnbuckles in it (an absolutely baffling problem), and while I’m glad that Yuke’s has brought back backstage matches, they still fall short of past series entries that allowed you to go from place to place in a fully fleshed-out arena setting while making use of just about every part of the venue - including concession stands. The out-of-ring escapades in ‘09 are also hurt by the removal of the crowd fighting feature in the past two years, which added a new wrinkle to hardcore matches, and even allowed you to dive off a high place onto a prone foe (ala New Jack in the original ECW). The new out-of-ring camera also has a tendency to get way too close to action - making it hard to judge where you are in relation to your surroundings and resulting in needless losses as a result.
As in ‘08, matches with three or more wrestlers are still hampered by Yuke’s removal of the manual-targeting system. Before, a simple button press let you shift your attention to another wrestler, in ‘08, Yuke’s took this out in favor of an awful auto-targeting system that frequently left you heading towards the wrong foe. ‘09’s targeting feature is more accurate than ’08’s, but still isn’t as accurate as the manual targeting system was. Beyond being a life-saver for matches like the Elimination Chamber that regularly pit you against multiple enemies at once, it was also handy for tag matches as you could recreate the Gibson Brothers/Rock ‘n Roll Express move of throwing your injured partner into your corner for a quick tag - that’s no longer something you can reliably do, and certainly hurts the newly tag team-centric gameplay a bit.
The all-new create-a-finisher mode allows you to piece together existing moves to create something either all your own, or hopefully just like a real-life move that isn’t in the game. Your level of success largely depends on what move you want to make since you‘re tied to whatever pre-set animations you‘re given and can‘t alter them beyond changing their speeds. For example, if you want a spot-on Perfectplex, or a backbreaker-position-to-FU in the game, this will meet your needs, but if you want to make something simple, like the Big Show’s knockout right hook, you’re out of luck since the only punch animation in CAF is at the start of a move, and can’t be used to knock someone down, let alone out. CAF is also hurt by only allowing for finishers done in front of an opponent, but still serves as a solid foundation for the future - as it is, it’s incredibly fun to use when a move comes together exactly as you want, but also disappoints due to how few pre-set animations you’re given at times.
Given that Yuke’s continued their trend of removing dozens of moves per game, I was hoping this would help offset that - unfortunately, it doesn’t, but it does serve as a nice way of adding another layer of customization to the game. Beyond the annoyance of seeing major moves like John Morrison’s springboard roundhouse kick, or Rey Mysterio’s springboard leg drop eliminated, Yuke’s removal of one of the two springboard move slots also poses some problems. While, like last year, springboard attacks can hit someone who is either standing on prone on their back, they don’t always look correct to the eye (ie - a springboard dropkick can connect as either a dropkick to a standing foe or a splash on a prone one, but the animation for the splash is rather sloppy compared to the dropkick). I’m happy to see how versatile the springboard moves are, but I’d still like to be able to have the option of doing one move meant for a standing foe and one for a prone one, instead of having to hope that the move I select at least looks plausible when it connects in both positions.
Also, like last year, the amount of moves that can actually earn a submission is far too low since submissions are once again only possible using last year’s “struggle submission” system - a fitting name since it isn’t adequately explained in either game’s manual (or in the game itself), but involves moving the right analog stick in a different direction than your foe - keeping him locked in the hold if you’re successful, or enabling him to escape if you pick the wrong one. The fact that only about a dozen moves use it means that you’re left with some fairly noteworthy submission moves being rendered essentially useless since you can’t actually make anyone submit with them. Major moves affected include Finlay’s Celtic Knot, Shawn Michaels’ figure four leglock variant, William Regal’s Regal Stretch, and most notably, the Undertaker’s gogoplata submission.
‘09’s online setup takes several steps back while taking a couple of small ones forward. DLC has been announced, but its exact contents are unknown. Live play this year is much like it’s been in years past - plagued by players using maxed out created wrestlers full of move sets using either unblockable moves or moves that give you next to no time to counter. The ability to turn off created wrestlers is there, but not often used by most players, so as usual with this series, it’s best to just stick to playing with people you know to preserve your sanity. A couple of online-enabled features from ‘08 that I rather liked - the ability to make and defend titles, and created wrestler trading are now gone, which certainly hurts ‘09 a bit.
As a title belt fan, I’m saddened to see the create-a-belt mode gone, but the removal of created wrestler swapping is also irritating, as that feature was a huge time-saver. It would be more of one now since Yuke’s also removed the ability to carry stats from one creation to the next so you wouldn’t have to waste hours and hours of time building their stats up - it’s something that will apparently be fixed before the new year, but that doesn’t do me, or anyone else who wishes to not spend countless hours of their life building up each created wrestler’s stats one-by-one any good right now.
The new Highlight Reel lets you take clips from matches and either turn them into screenshots or make an actual highlight reel, complete with commentary snippets and graphics and share them online.It’s fairly easy to use, although the ability to just save small clips from matches falls short of allowing you to save entire matches for viewing later - something that Yuke’s did before with their Toukon Retsuden series on the PlayStation, but hasn’t incorporated into this series. Given how popular wrestling game videos are on sites like Youtube, and how racing games like PGR 4 have had well-received features that allow you to do far more with online video sharing, I‘d love to see the feature expanded to include full matches at some point.
The “new” Road to WrestleMania mode plays out like a condensed version of the career mode from past SvR games that takes their best elements (the ability to unlock things, solid voice over work, and the attempts at drama) and improves upon them immensely. With a timeline of three months instead of one year, the stories are now smaller in scope, but more focused, and are far better here than they’ve been in past games’ story modes, where things tended to get too complicated for their own good. As a result, I found myself getting quite bored of the storylines, which wasn’t the case here. Some plots (like HHH having to choose between DX or Evolution) were intriguing, while others (like the Undertaker’s magic-filled storyline) provided some light-hearted fun.
Unfortunately, boredom does creep into the new career mode, which, instead of being a storytelling medium, has turned into nothing but a chain of matches for titles that takes much longer than the RtW mode, yields far fewer unlockables, and drags on forever because the matches you‘re placed in aren’t particularly interesting. Given how poorly this mode turned out, I wouldn’t have minded if they’d just nixed this mode altogether and stuck with RtW, because it doesn’t do the game any favors and looks abysmal next to the well-crafted RtW mode.
Visually, SvR ‘09 is an impressive step up from ‘08, with far more detailed character models and improved move animation. Small things like visible wear and tear on boots, and a visible cloth texture on the turnbuckle pads bring an unparalleled level of realism to the graphics, while the increased animation for move helps make matches flow more naturally. Unfortunately, existing problems like jittery walking animation and bizarre selling (like flipping backwards after being hit in the face with a crutch) remain, which takes away from that newly-heightened sense of reality, but not enough to completely take the player out of the game.
‘09’s audio is much like it was in ’08 - satisfactory, but clearly not all it could be. The repetitive, and sometimes monotone commentary by all three broadcast teams tends to take more away from matches than it adds. Timid sound effects that rarely do justice to their actions also hurt the experience. However, the voice acting in RtW is good, and the music choices are much better than they’ve been in past games - with far fewer generic rock songs being used, and more wrestler themes acting as background tracks. While their quality certainly varies from song to song, some are quite catchy, and they at least blend into the game - which is more than I can say for much of the series‘ past background music.
Despite a plethora of flaws, SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 remains a capable, if underachieving, wrestling game. Players only accustomed to this series may very well find it to be the best installment yet due to the improvements made, while more experienced wrestling game players will certainly be left wanting a more polished experience. As it stands, I found SvR ‘09 to be a thoroughly enjoyable game that was a little too rough around the edges at times - something that I hope can at least be partly remedied with a patch alongside the DLC content.