With their addictive blend of accessible, over the top, beat 'em up
action, powerful creation tools, and huge variety of match types, the
Smackdown vs Raw games have long been a regular multiplayer staple at
Everybody Plays. Practically begging you to encourage
your friends to pick up a controller and join in the fight, the series
has turned into one of the regular highlights of our year, with each
update delivering a new raft of features, wrestlers, and modes for us to
sink our teeth into. And thankfully, Smackdown vs Raw 2011 is no
If you're a fan of the WWE, you'll instantly recognise many of the new faces in here (of which there are a lot), but even if you've never seen the TV show, it doesn't really spoil your enjoyment of the game. Not knowing your Edge from your Triple H from your Shawn Michaels isn't really all that much of a set-back, and the more you play, and the more the game's storylines take you through the WWE Universe, the more you'll develop your own favourites - and enemies!
Of course, for a game that mimics a real-life beefed up soap opera, it'd be wrong for Smackdown not to let you get stuck into your own storylines, and it's here the Road to Wrestlemania comes in. Choosing from one of five Roads to Wrestlemania, each following a different WWE Superstar, the Road puts you in the boots of a wrestler, as you befriend, betray, and beat up the other competitors on your way to Wrestlemania, the WWE's biggest event of the year.
As the game's publishers, THQ, are often keen to point out, this is your Road to Wrestlemania, and, as a highly story driven mode, you'll often be met with important decisions you need to make, which hugely effect how the storylines turn out, giving you a great amount of control over your wrestler's destiny. It also means that each of the storylines has a lot of replay value - and a lot of unlockables to earn - as you try to discover how things could have turned out - if only you'd have believed Jack Swagger when he told you it wasn't him!
As a welcome change of pace from the craziness in the ring, before each match in the Road to Wrestlemania mode, you're now able to roam the backstage areas freely, interacting with wrestlers who're just warming up, and, more often than not, getting yourself into all kinds of tricky situations. Whether your upcoming opponent wants to offer you a few choice words, or you're stepping in to put out a fire, and rescue a thankful Diva, there are lots of little diversions for you to sink your teeth into, if you want to see everything the game has to offer. And, seeing as you're a big, burly wrestler and all, if anyone looks at you the wrong way, it's easy to teach them the errors of their ways, as pushing X will get you into a shoving match - which eventually leads to a backstage brawl.
In the ring, Smackdown vs Raw 2011 is fairly easy to pick up and play, with the scalable difficulty meaning your computer controlled opponents can offer a challenge that's just right for you. Although the game's followed the same path as many others over the years, in removing the helpful interface, which told you how damaged your opponent was (instead now leaving you to simply guess how much damage you've done to each limb) it's still not too tricky to get your head around the action. Throwing punches and kicks on X, or grappling using the right analogue stick (each direction goes into a different hold, each of which has its own set of four different moves), you can get as involved in the controls as you want, and while wrestling connoisseurs will go out of their way to memorise which way you've got to push to perform a dragon sleeper, you'll soon get the hang of which move's on which direction too.
However, easily the biggest addition to this year's game is the WWE Universe mode - and it's one of the highlights, too, even if it does seem a bit illogical at times. In a twist of genius, the WWE Universe mode now makes those random multiplayer matches you throw together with your friends actually count for something in the bigger picture. Presenting you with week upon week of Raw, Smackdown, Superstars TV shows, along with a Pay Per Views every four weeks, the game constantly suggests matches you may want to try. If you want to throw a match together with just the three of your friends duking it out - that's fine, you can do just that. The difference is, now, the WWE Universe mode will take that match as being the next match on whichever show you were on, and whether you win or lose, the game will record the result. With top 10 rankings for each title being updated after every match, you, and your friends, will eventually find yourself working your way up - or even competing to become the number one contender for the titles. Thankfully, it's a lot easier to understand the concept when you're playing than it is to put it into writing, but the gist is fairly simply - now, everything you do counts.
The only problem is, while the WWE Universe mode has almost unlimited potential, it is hampered by a few strange decisions. Firstly, it's unclear exactly how you move up the rankings. Yes, we get you've got to win, but we must have won at least fifteen matches, against every tag team in the game, but we still stayed put at the bottom of the list. Blinded by our desire for the tag team titles, we kept playing, until seemingly completely randomly, the game decided it'd start counting our wins, and moving us up - which seems a bit strange to say the least. The biggest oversight, however, is the fact that you can no longer choose to put a title on the line against your friends. In the context of the WWE Universe mode, this would have been even better, as you and your friends could compete for a title, and basically make your own storylines up. But instead, you're forced to stick to the mode's regimented process of climbing the rankings, and then winning a number one contender's match, rather than simply choosing to defend your title in a Hell in a Cell fatal four way in all three matches on Raw, Smackdown, and Superstars.
But perhaps the biggest problem with Smackdown vs Raw for female gamers, is the fact that the use of women in the game is so limited. While you can create your own female (or Diva, as the WWE calls them) using a whole host of options, you're not really able to do anything with them - bar wrestle women, in women's matches. In the WWE Universe mode, you may want to be the manager of your other half - but if you do that, you won't be able to do anything except stand at ringside looking pretty, unless you want to risk getting disqualified. If you turn DQ off, you won't be able to play as a woman, as that would allow man on woman violence, and in this game, which is rated a 16 by PEGI, that's a strict no-no. Never mind that women can take each other on in hardcore matches, put each other through flaming tables, and burn each other to a crisp in Inferno matches, where the ring's surrounded by fire - in the world of WWE, man on woman violence is a cardinal sin. Never mind, either, that in the Royal Rumble this year, the 30 man (or woman), over the top rope battle royal, Beth Phoenix was an entrant, who went toe to toe with other men - something the game even reminds you in one of the loading screens - if you want to recreate that in the game, you're in for an impossible task, as inexplicably, women aren't allowed to enter the Royal Rumble. Equality, it seems, stands for nothing in the WWE.
In order to get round this, at Everybody Plays, we went back to the drawing board, and eventually... Well, we created a monster. Not wanting to play as a man, but neither wanting to stand at ringside doing nothing, Sarah created Mr. Sarah, a man who she'd attempted to make as feminine looking as humanly possible - including setting the chest depth to its maximum setting. Let's just say it didn't go as well as we could have hoped.
If you're on your own, the chances are you won't get as much fun out of Smackdown vs Raw 2011 as you otherwise would, but, if you've got a willing group of friends/family/an other half who's up for a laugh, Smackdown vs Raw 2011 will keep you entertained for months. Yes, it has glitches, but with the Highlight Reel letting you pause, and see an instant replay of anything that's just happened, we've found ourselves in tears of laughter so many times in the few weeks we've had this game, it's worth the entry price alone. With a suite of simple creation tools allowing you to create anything from your own wrestler, to your own finishing move, stepping through the ropes has never been more involving, or fun.
Unless, of course, you want to play as a woman.