The newest installment of the SmackDown vs. Raw series is upon us, and with it comes the usual mixed bag of good and bad when one compares past games to the most recent. However, this time around, the pure improvements are pretty game-changing, and extend the replay value exponentially. New to the series are two major revisions - the WWE Universe mode that acts as a blend of a career mode and exhibition matches. The biggest in-ring change comes in the form of being able to not only change the direction of many moves as you’re doing them, but also score a pin during them by hitting a face button mid-move, and most impressively, having Havok physics affect tables, ladders, chairs, and other weapons, which allow you to do way more with the weapons than you could before.
WWE Universe mode is basically a career mode that never ends, but gives the player quite a bit of freedom. You’ll go through WWE’s usual calendar of events - Raw, Superstars, SmackDown, and PPVs, complete with show-specific stipulations, so you’ll have the option of competing in the annual Royal Rumble, Elimination Chamber, or Money in the Bank matches. MITB is awesome this year because you really can cash it in against any champion, but only on PPVs, not during TV shows. As you play, you’ll have random encounters with other wrestlers - they might just be a handshake after a match, or involve something like a pre or post-match beat down. You can assign any wrestler you want to either show, form tag teams, and go after ever title WWE has - the only problem with this setup is that you can’t have exhibition title matches like last year. So if you want to have Punk vs. Taker for the world title, you can’t just make that happen with a single match - you have to wait until circumstances permit to have that match be for a title, otherwise, it‘ll be non-title. Aside from that issue, I really love this mode - it really does make the in-game world seem alive, and it adds consequences to wins and losses that otherwise wouldn’t be there.
Havok physics played a small part in last year’s game with limbs interacting with the ropes - now, they play a huge part in any weapons-based matches because any move you do with a landing can be done on a weapon. This is one of those little things that makes a huge difference in the actual game - it did for WWF No Mercy a decade ago, and it holds true now. It adds a lot of versatility to matches, especially if you’re a fan of hardcore style wars since you can do pretty much anything you want. If you want to have a match where you lean a ladder against the ropes and them power bomb someone through it, you can. You can also use the new aiming feature to really make sure opponents land right where you want them to. One problem with this new feature is that it can be glitchy, resulting in landings with opponents spazzing out through the weapons, or just getting up instantly after taking some kind of massive fall. There’s definitely room for improvement here, but this feature winds up being a huge success overall.
The grappling system has undergone many changes over the years, and SvR ‘11 brings yet another one to the mix. Weak grapples have been replaced by new chain grappling positions. Like the weak grapples, a single flick of the right stick is all that’s needed to activate them, although now, instead of having access to only four moves, you can do four from each of the three front chain grappling positions. Unfortunately, the removal of quick grapples does hurt the flow of matches somewhat, but not too badly. I’d like to see chain grapples and weak grapples in the games though because some of the retained weak grapple moves just look odd requiring a setup - like the back elbow. Perhaps chain grapples could be retained using a shoulder button to activate them ala using one this year to control moving your opponent around the ring. Despite that minor issue, chain grappling works really well. You’ve got a decent-sized selection of moves for each position, and as the name implies, these positions allow for chain wrestling when you or your opponent counter at the right time. Chain wrestling looks fantastic, and I was really sold on this when I had a Steamboat-Flair match and the counter-filled war was right in line with the fast pacing of their ‘89 classics.
Storyline creation is back and allows for more freedom with your created characters, and actually includes a tutorial, so folks stumped by last year’s debut incarnation can easily understand how to craft their own storylines. Move removals are a major problem once again, and it’s probably worse now than it’s been before since so many of the removals affect major characters like Kane and the Undertaker, who each have a couple of attacks removed, as does Punk, who now lacks the KENTA combo. For some reason, Yuke’s also removed one of the two running strike button combos, leaving players with only one running strike - and dramatically cutting down on the amount of running attacks in the game. Some removed moves can be recreated as finishers, but why force players to either make an existing move that was in the series or make them use up one of only two finisher slots for a move that may not even be a finisher (like Regal’s neck breaker). Plus, in order to remake a removed move, you have to add something before it, which makes it inaccurate compared to the original animation. Also, slowdown mars the beginning of nearly every match, and it’s not minor – it is incredibly jarring slowdown. It’s like playing through the worst imaginable online connection, but offline.
Fortunately, online play is usually pretty smooth and lag-free, but during the Royal Rumble, which makes its online debut this year, lag can cripple the experience because eliminations are completely timing-based, so any lag can mean the difference between earning an elimination or not. You still have to worry about cheap players altering move sets and using massively boosted stats - but simply restricting your play to avoid user-created content works well at remedying that issue. CAW downloading is back and definitely better than ever before - you can now download near-perfect CAWs (although some are hurt by the move removals, like the Great Muta, who can look perfect but suffer greatly due to move removals), and in most cases, edit anything you want about them. There’s some fantastic work already out there, including a near-perfect Daniel Bryan, who unfortunately missed being included at all due to his firing over the summer, and the usual assortment of well-crafted TNA wrestlers like AJ Styles and Ric Flair, who can now actually be put into a player-created TNA stable thanks to the brand logo creation tool that allows you to make, upload, and download logos.
Visually, SvR 2011 looks pretty much the same as last year. The only real major change is in the weapon breakage animations, and the addition of blood splatter on chairs. The audio is a step down from the norm. The commentary has been downgraded quite a bit. Instead of having three teams of commentators like prior games, there’s now just one - Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler, and it isn’t particularly good. There isn’t much interplay between them, and nothing they say has much passion behind it - it’s very much by-the-numbers commentary that adds nothing to the experience as a whole. Sound effects are perfectly fine usually, but the Elimination Chamber still sounds off. Instead of it sounding like you’re landing on steel, it sounds like landing on concrete, which isn’t the least bit accurate or satisfying.
WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 is a substantial upgrade in some major ways, but also a step down in some respects as well. The Havok physics add a whole new dimension to the game, but there’s still some work that needs to be done to truly allow that feature to reach its full potential. I’m sure that will come in time though. I’d say that the gameplay upgrades slightly make up for the downgraded move count and horrendous commentary, but it’s a shame all of those aspects couldn’t be well-done. As it is, this new installment still remains a must-have simply due to the Havok physics - it adds that much to the game that it’s worth buying it just for crazy extreme rules and TLC matches.