Like a flying elbow from the top rope, the latest WWE game on Wii hits home.
Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 is the latest iteration in the long-running, Yuke's-developed WWE franchise, making its fourth appearance on Wii. Although I haven't played a WWE title in a number of years, I spent a lot of time with the license on N64 and GameCube. One thing that I remember about WWE titles from that era was that although the gameplay was generally rock solid, often times the front end was messy and irritating. The same remains true of Smackdown vs. Raw 2011.
Smackdown vs. Raw features five separate campaign modes which chronicle a superstar's journey to Wrestlemania, the biggest show of the year. Each of them contains 2-4 hours of gameplay, depending on how many side-quests and bonus challenges you feel like taking on during the campaign. The campaigns themselves consist of 12 weeks of wrestling shows, during which you will have backstage confrontations, in-ring promos, matches (of course), and lots of other twists and turns.
Between these events, there is a backstage area that your character can run around in, interacting with other superstars. The camera controls are abysmal for this section, making it almost impossible to tell where you're going at any given time. If not for the mini-map, you'd be lost in a pretty small environment. There are some basic leveling-up mechanics, however I never found that they had much effect. On the default difficulty level, you'll hardly need them, as the game is very easy.
Aside from the five campaigns, there is an ever-present mode called WWE Universe which exists directly on top of the main menu. The game puts together match lineups, championships, and factions, and lets you play through them as you wish. There aren't any real storylines here, but occasionally you will be approached and tasked with a specific goal. If you want to make your favorite wrestler the champion, you will need to climb through the rankings with him, and earn your shot at the title belt. The mode is a nice touch, giving all of the "exhibition" matches some sort of higher value.
For anyone who is both a wrestling fan and a creative type, Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 will be an absolute joy. If you've always wanted to customize an entire league of your own wrestlers, determine their personalities and movesets, and then set up storylines for them to play through, this game will let you do exactly that. All of the modes are detailed, allowing you complete control. The Create-A-Superstar mode is especially impressive, allowing you to completely customize your wrestler's body type, clothing, crowd reaction, and many other details.
Unfortunately, the creative modes suffer from excessive loading screens, with the biggest offender being the "Create A Storyline" mode. Each 3-5 second storyline scene has a 3-5 second load time in between, making the creation of even the best storyline feel like a chore.
The wrestling mechanics have changed a bit from previous games. Yukes has done away with the "strong grapple" mechanic, reverting to a single grapple button which is largely contextual based on wrestler locations and current momentum. It takes a little bit of the freedom away from the player, but makes the controls less complex for newcomers. I played largely using the classic controller, but the Wii and Nunchuk controls were passable, although they require combinations of buttons to be used frequently. GameCube control is also supported, giving players a wide range of options for their preferred control method. No motion control is used.
The audio presentation is decent at best. Having the actual wrestlers do the voice acting helps, but there is a strange inconsistency in the voice samples. Occasionally it sounds as if the voices are very compressed and tinny-sounding, but other times they will be crystal clear. Even when the voices are clear, it's odd to hear the same types of lines you'd hear on a wrestling show coming from a very quiet sound stage. The whole thing feels more like an audiobook about wrestling than a real wrestling show. Luckily the graphics are great and do a fine job of mimicking the look and feel of a real WWE broadcast. There are some ugly textures now and again, but the wrestlers themselves look top notch.
As always, the game is a blast in multiplayer. You don't have to know who John Cena is to enjoy pounding him into the mat. There is no online play but up to four players can take part in the robust local multiplayer mode that features match types such as Table matches, Submission matches, Iron Man matches, First Blood matches, and several others. In addition, up to four players can partake in the WWE Universe mode, letting multiple people live out the game's perpetual storylines and championships.
Wrestling video games have come a long way in the past ten years or so, but one thing remains: they're still a lot of fun even if you're not into WWE programming. Although there are some strange presentation issues and lots of loading screens, Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 is another successful iteration of the long-running franchise on a Nintendo console.