I've played a lot of wrestling games. I took a stretch of time off there, but now I'm once more finding myself in the yearly trap of creating one or two characters in a wrestling game and going through the career mode. Every year it seems, some "new" feature is trumpeted that turns out to be little more than something Fire Pro or Virtual Pro Wrestling was doing ten years ago. I'm not at all sure how the Madden games do it, or even how often football rosters change enough to warrant a new game, but I will tell you that wrestling games are not above taking something away one year just so there is something to "introduce" the next. At least that's how it feels to me.
Fixed to Look Real
WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2008 is an attractive game that was seemingly rushed out the door well before Quality Control was done with it. Back when developer Yuke's was putting out wrestling games on the PlayStation and Aki was putting them out on the Nintendo 64, I was a big fan of the latter company's realistic style. A game of Aki's No Mercy or Wrestlemania 2000 was an exercise in gradually building up momentum, going from weak moves that you could hit-and-run with to strong moves that your opponent reversed half the time to finishing moves that laid your opponent flat. Yuke's, meanwhile, was concentrating on flashy looks at the cost of gameplay and feel. Characters stood around like drugged monkeys when they should have been on the attack, wrestlers would get up way too quickly or way too slowly after taking a move, and tables would slide harmlessly out of the way as you tried to slam your opponent through them. Honestly, I've spent more time yelling at the screen during SmackDown games than I ever did watching a wrestling pay-per-view.
All these years of technological advancement later, Yuke's games still push the envelope for both graphics and frustration level.
The visuals are more than adequate and the music is much better than last year's. The create-a-wrestler is about as good as it ever has been in the series, even though you can still only have one costume per wrestler. There is a new submission system that works well at keeping you involved during some moves, because pulling back and releasing the right analog stick at the right time will keep your opponent in the hold longer and even help dictate how he gets out of it. Unfortunately, a great many holds that are submission moves in wrestling are simple wear-down moves here and do not benefit from the new "struggle submission system." Still, it's a solid addition to build on, though don't be in the least surprised if it's taken away next year.
Speaking of taking things away, here's the part of the review that you really need to focus on if you bought SmackDown vs Raw 2007 and want to know if the new version is worth a purchase. The roster this year is smaller and you can't even take many of the wrestlers into season mode. The entrance creation is not as detailed as last year's - not even close. The overall presentation (things like the locker room and the loading screens) is much flatter and less creative. And from here, it starts to get a whole lot worse. Keep reading.
By Gawd, They Broke the Game in Half!
Each wrestler has two fighting styles picked from among a short list. Before a match, you can pick the style you want your character to use (again, there are only two choices for each wrestler) and that choice will not only dictate the type of special attacks he has, it dictates what moves can and cannot appear on his move list! So if you pick a wrestler and give him the Brawler style, you will gain the ability to throw a flurry of unblockable strikes and a variable mounted ground offense, but you may lose a favorite flying move. The Hardcore style lets you restore some durability to damaged limbs and gives you the ability to light weapons on fire in a certain type of match, but say goodbye to that power move you liked when the wrestler had a different style assigned.
I liked the things that the fighting styles added to the game, like a couple of dirty tricks, the aforementioned flaming weapons, and some acrobatic moves, but the new system also takes a lot away. You have to be a Showman to steal your opponent's moves and taunts. You have to be Hardcore to slam your opponent's neck against the top of a chair. You have to play Dirty to be able to remove the turnbuckle cover. These are features that applied to everyone or nearly everyone before that are restricted now. Fewer wrestlers to choose from and fewer moves per wrestler equals bad news any way you spin it.
Another feature that is sorely missed is the simple ability to target your opponent. This is now broken nearly beyond belief. There is still a Back button on my 360 controller, but strangely, this year it doesn't let me chose who I look at. So you will stubbornly look at the wrong person in tag matches. You will lose ladder matches because you cannot get your character to attack the right person. You may even find yourself hurling things at your expensive new HDTV because of how absolutely baffling and sickeningly frustrating it is not to be able to target the guy that is coming straight at you because your wrestler's gaze is stubbornly fixed on someone, anyone, else. The lack of manual targeting makes tag matches and other multiplayer matches so unplayable that it's a deal breaker for me. It's simply inexcusable, and even if the rest of the game were ten times better than it actually is, I would not be able to recommend it over last year's version.
If you are a loner anyway, you could always concentrate on the very lengthy career mode, but I don't think you'll be surprised to learn that that's poorly play-tested as well. The worst offenses here are training taking too long (the loading times and frequency have to be exaggerated), the computer giving you choices of how you want to advance the storyline and then ignoring your choices and doing what it wants anyway (oh, when you said you wanted to keep the title, I realized you really meant you wanted to forfeit it), and the endlessly recycled cut scenes that don't even have the decency to pay attention to the storyline.
Overall, SmackDown vs. Raw 2008 is not impossible to enjoy, but I really can't recommend (sports) entertainment software that is this rushed and this emasculated unless you are a WWE fan that only has a 360 and is sick of last year's version of the game. Or unless you're trying to learn the finer points of patience and forgiveness.