Let's be honest with each other – every wrestling game released for the Xbox has been extremely disappointing to say the least. Raw and Raw 2 featured control issues that made the game a burden to play, and Wrestlemania 21 was so bad the company recalled it.
To avoid being added to the list, THQ seems to have taken an "if it's not broke, don't fix it" stance when bringing the newest entry of it's best selling wrestling series; WWE Smackdown VS Raw 2007 to the Xbox 360. While the technique does make for a balanced and fun beat-em-up, it ignores long running problems that have been plaguing gamers since the series debut on the original Playstation system.
Right out of the box, the first thing most people will notice is how realistic the player models look. Down to the little details including scars, tattoos, facial features and hair – these are the same WWE wrestlers you see on TV week in and week out. Each virtual superstar also acts like their real world counterpart, just check out Ken Kennedy's complete ring entrance, truly a step up from previous Smackdown games. Sadly, the entire game doesn't get this graphic overhaul as the crowd and the arenas themselves look like they were ripped directly out of the previous generation games. During some moves, the player model's faces become twisted and their eyes bug out of their heads, giving off a skeleton like appearance. Creepy.
The biggest change from previous Smackdown games to '07 is the completely reworked grapple system. Gone are the days of short and long presses of the face buttons to pull off grapple moves – in fact, there's no grapple button at all. All grapple moves are now mapped directly to the right thumb stick. A simple flick in any direction will pull off a surprisingly large amount of different moves unique to each superstar including arm drags and other quick attacks. Holding the right bumper as you flick the thumbstick initiates a strong grapple, with submission moves being done in the same way.
This new system becomes really cool when you start to use the ultimate control system, a new feature that gives players much more freedom in their move selection. Clicking the right thumbstick after a grapple, as opposed to flicking it, opens up a new menu with even more selections on how to dispose of your opponent. For instance, when picking your opponent up for a suplex, you either can choose to show off your strength to the crowd by holding them up for a while or drop them in front or behind you.
The ultimate control system is at its best when paired with the game's new interactive hot spots. When players bring their opponents to certain areas in each arena, they can use their surroundings to their favor. Dragging a downed opponent over to an area like the ring steps or announcers table and moving the right stick (is there anything it can't do?) up and down makes your superstar pound their opponents head onto the surface. There is even an entire area in the audience filled with these interactive hot spots. With tables, guardrails, stereo systems and audio cables at your disposal – think of it as your own little demented playground of pain.
With these new additions to the game, it's a shame the developers chose to ignore some of the series' most glaring problems, specifically the AI. While okay in some instances, in most cases, computer controlled grapplers come off as thick skulled meatheads. Case in point, it became increasingly awkward when my opponent kept attempting to make me tap out in a first blood match. Even on the highest difficulty, matches are often too easy to win, as the AI doesn't even take advantage of the limb damage system and pulls off whatever random attacks it can at the time.
The problem becomes increasingly frustrating when in a match with multiple AI opponents. Like a kid on a Halloween sugar-rush, each of your computer-controlled opponents will continually switch their attention from one opponent to another, often going after the superstar you have been working on the entire match, completely abandoning any hope of forming or carrying out a strategy.
Like previous games in the series, '07's collision detection can only be described as a total mess. While big moves usually hit, there are times when even from point blank range, you will completely miss your opponent. Running strikes prove to be the biggest problem as sometimes you find yourself running directly through your opponent, pulling off the move two feet behind them. It's also a shame that moves that should be high impact, like putting someone through a table or knocking someone off a ladder, come off as weak in all aspects. It doesn't do nearly enough damage as it should.
Perhaps more than anything else, the Smackdown series has been known for offering players an incredible amount of content, and '07 is no exception. Each game mode from last year's game returns, with the only new mode being the Money in the Bank Match (a glorified six-man ladder match). The fun really comes in playing specialty matches like last man standing, Tables, Ladders and Chairs or Ultimate Submission with friends on or offline. Combine this with the game's many create modes, unlockables and achievements and it's highly unlikely you'll run out of ideas anytime soon.
Season mode has improved a bit from previous installments though comes off as a rehash of last year's game. Sure, there are over forty storylines, but which one you get mostly depends on what superstar you use, and the results of your last match. The choices you get to make are minimal at best, and really have no effect on the storyline, if you can call it that. Each show strings along a feud between you and a different superstar that results in a match at the next pay per view. When you're done, you immediately move to the next feud, as if the last one didn't happen at all.
One of last year's most intriguing new features was General Manager Mode. Meant for those who live by Madden's Franchise mode, or can't get enough Command and Conquer; GM Mode let's you strategically sign superstars to either of the two shows, and then book your cards and create feuds in an attempt to outperform your rival show. In '07, GM mode makes its return with enough new features to warrant at least one play through. Instead of randomly assigning feuds to different wrestlers, you can now hire storyline writers who each specialize in different writing styles and put your superstars in the corresponding feuds. Sadly, the game only lets you use a dirty character and a clean character in most feuds, and not have good guy VS good guy or bad guy VS bad guy feuds. You also have access to the Power 25, a ranking system that lets you see the top 25 superstars on both shows; it's helpful when planning feuds and contemplating trades. GM mode feels like a mode that we should be enjoying, but just doesn't feel like it's there yet, as if it's missing something.
Smackdown VS Raw 2007 is not a bad game by any means. It's a solid wrestling game that mixes strategy and arcade gameplay elements to make a unique experience. It is however plagued with quite a few problems that prohibit it from being an outstanding game. In the very least, it's a fun way to get bragging rights over your friends without actually inflicting pain, and hey, it could be worse – we could be playing Raw 3.