WWE’s SmackDown vs. Raw 2010 helped the franchise reach the momentous 50 million unit mark with sales. With SmackDown vs. Raw 2011, THQ and Yuke’s hoped to continue the sucessful tradition of the annual franchise by taking the franchise’s stalwart features like the godlike level of character customization and great in ring action and adding some new ones, most notably WWE Universe Mode, an expanded backstage arena during the Road to WrestleMania mode and the upgraded physics system.
As we talked about in our review of last year’s SmackDown vs. Raw 2010, the biggest strength of SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 is how fun it makes the matches available to players. The control scheme proves itself to be easy to learn but a challenge to master allowing players of all levels of skill to enjoy bouts against the computer. This quickly changes however in player versus player combat where a novice has next to no hope against an opponent with more experience with the franchise.
New to this year’s in ring gameplay comes an improved physics engine. The physics in WWE games has varied over the years to the Gamecube days where contact with a ladder could take out a ring full to competitors to even last year’s SmackDown vs. Raw where instead of colliding with a ladder on a big fall, superstars would hit the ground and have the ladder gingerly slide over. Now, items like tables, ladders and chairs are interactive set pieces. Instead of moving aside when a competitor is aimed at it, tables shatter on contact and pieces will remain in the ring as the action goes on around it.
Wrestlers now react to being tossed on top of chairs and a kick to a ladder can send both it and the superstar climbing it to the floor. This feels like a step towards more added realism for the game’s in ring product. (And yes, we understand the irony of talking about realism in reference to professional wrestling… er, sports entertainment.)
WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 comes again with five different “career” modes with the Road to WrestleMania mode where players follow the path of various superstars in the months leading to WrestleMania. These are mostly pieces of fan service as they are able to do things not possible on current WWE programming like the reformation of Edge and Christian as a team. Another allows players to choose the roll of either Dolph Ziggler, John Morrison, R-Truth or Kofi Kingston as they embark on an effort to end the Undertaker’s undefeated WrestleMania streak.
While some of the story concepts are interesting, the execution of the expanded backstage segments associated with them. In an effort to give a feel that anything can happen, players can randomly battle it out with any superstar they encounter backstage. Unfortunately, these fights have no impact at all on the main story they are playing through, the condition of the wrestler they are playing as, or even further backstage interaction. Meanwhile, the scripted events feel very forced with poor delivery from the superstars. Maybe it is being in a sound booth recording lines but the natural charisma of many of the superstars doesn’t carry over well at all.
Also new to this year’s SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 is the WWE Universe Mode. Anyone watching WWE programming over the past two years has gotten hit over the head with the phrase “WWE Universe” so it was only a matter of time before it made it in to the games. What WWE Universe Mode does is tie in player’s exhibition matches in to an ever changing calendar of WWE events. Players are given the option to play as any WWE Superstar and play or simulate matchups. The results of these matches affect rivalries and alliances for the following week’s matches. As a reward, players will get to experience a number of scenes separate from WWE Universe mode to further expand on various superstars’ stories.
While WWE Universe Mode deserves some credit for trying something new, it does little to actually keep a player drawn in. There isn’t much to encourage a player to go through the game this way. Instead of freely choosing matchups, they instead get roped in to matches that have little to no consequence for them with no real reward. In essence, it has become a franchise mode with no end of season in sight. In concept it has a lot of merit but it still feels like there is more work to be done for the idea to hit its potential.
Each year, Yuke’s puts more and more effort into the animations, backgrounds and textures of SmackDown vs. Raw. This year it looks like they have not only made a more realistic crowd in the background but the continued advancement of motion capture technologies has resulted in moves that look like they really do hurt the virtual combatants. Sadly, the same effort was not put into the facial capture technology as poor lipsynching can quickly take players out of the backstage experiences during the Road to WrestleMania.
Along with the poor lipsynching comes the poor voice acting mentioned earlier. The performances feel stale throughout and the complete lack of background noise makes the experience feel completely unrealistic. When watching WWE programming, there is always the added excitement from fan and announcer’s reactions. These just don’t come across as anything genuine when playing through the game.
WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 feels like a lot of big ideas in an incomplete package. While the wrestling itself, the most integral part of the game, still has that crisp and fun experience with the added spice of enhanced physics, the other new aspects feel unfinished and lack polish.
In an industry so focused on presentation like Sports Entertainment, it is shocking to see the unrefined final product reflecting the backstage aspect of the WWE. While more time is spent with people talking now on television than actual wrestling, one would imagine Yuke’s would take a lesson in game storytelling from masters like BioWare in the proper way to execute this.
What WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 does well, it excels in. The in and out of ring competition is still one of the most entertaining fighting styles around. The customization is unparalleled in any other character creation toolset and the ever expanding story creation mode is a feature to be proud of. It is a shame that this overall package is marred by a few features that felt rushed to make it in by release.
XBox 360 (Also available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable and Wii)
Developer: Yuke’s Yokohama