One of, if not the, biggest addition to this years title is called the WWE Universe. What it is is a never-ending number of WWE events with auto-generated matches. The matches are made based on current rankings and rivalries, both of which are ever-evolving and change with every match you play in the Universe. The option to participate in, or skip any fight you don't like is always open to you. You can also change the competitors and match-type if you have a hankering for a specific matchup. The results of matches will affect the next round of auto-generated events go on a match-winning streak with a certain wrestler, and before long he or she will be competing in more important matches, likely with title implications.
Just like real life, matches don't always play out as they are listed on the card. For example, after a win Vince McMahon may step out and force you into an impromptu second match, or one of your rivals may jump you on your way to the ring. It is said that there are over one-hundred different scenes that could take place on your way through the Universe, so there is a lot of variety here (though more often than not I had Vince McMahon scheduling impromptu matches rather than any of the other one hundred scenarios). If you create a fighter for yourself they are thrown into the Universe too, and can work their way into the title mix. Obviously you can speed things up by subbing your created fighter into the Universe whenever you like, but it can be fun to let the Universe run its course without your intervention.
Superstar points (SP) can be redeemed with a doctor for boosts to the damage you dish out, your damage resistance, your grappling power or your momentum meter. It's an interesting addition to the game, but it must be said that it doesn't seem particularly well-implemented. Apparently you can upgrade each skill all the way to level six, but to do so would require nine-thousand SP. Winning a backstage fight nets you all of fifty SP, while winning one of your main Road to Wrestlemania fights will earn you less than three-hundred. Given that, the task of upgrading your wrestler's skills is far more trouble than it is worth. Plus there's the fact that upgrading the skills doesn't have much visible effect to your in-ring abilities. So while it's nice that there are some RPG-lite elements being incorporated into the game, it has not been done in a very smart way this time around.
The roster has been expanded this year with over seventy wrestlers on the roster, up from last years sixty-five. All of the same match-types return, including Royal Rumble and its elimination mini-games. Personally I would have liked to see some improvements of changes to the Royal Rumble mini-games, which still see you pressing a single button or mashing it repeatedly when prompted, or trying to stop a moving arrow in a small target area to eliminate other wrestlers, but it looks like the developers are happy with them for the time being. In fairness it isn't easy to conjure up better ideas, but the current mini-games do wear thin after a while, taking the gloss off what should be the most fun match-type in the game.
Story Designer and the myriad of create modes (Superstar, move-set, finishers, entrance videos and highlight reels) return, though none of them have seen much change. There are some new tattoos and a Paint Tool that allows you to create or import your own designs and signs. You can also give your created Superstar as many as five abilities and there's nearly no limit on attributes either; you can go all the way to 100 on many of them. Having five abilities and sky-high attributes are obviously going to be a huge boon to your fighter. If you're not creative enough to get full use out of these features, which are a lot of fun for the most part, you can always go online and download the best user-created content. There is no shortage of content available last time I checked there were nearly eight-thousand pages of all sorts of user-content to pick through. Luckily there is a decent search option to help you find what you're looking for.
In last year's Smackdown vs Raw I felt that too many matches dragged on for no good reason, but that has most definitely been addressed this year. There were a number of fights, in particular the backstage fights during Road to Wrestlemania, where my opponent didn't lay a finger on me before the bout was over. Generally speaking if you put a Finisher on an opponent you'll get the pin straight afterwards, which wasn't the case last year. Interestingly the game may have tipped the balance too far in favour of the player this year one-sided brawls are more and more common in one-on-one fights but I find this much less annoying than what we had last year. It's also good to see that referees stay out of the action, and are therefore KO'd far less often, this year.
Despite these improvements this year's Smackdown vs Raw is not perfect. Firstly, the targeting problems that have always been present in the game are still present this year, and they reveal themselves in a number of ways. In fights with more than two competitors both you and the AI will have plenty of air-swings, or attack someone other than whom you wanted. During Christian's Road to Wrestlemania storyline I was set upon by the Hart Dynasty, and one of them accidentally placed a submission hold on the other, instead of Christian. It can also be difficult to make the game know who you want to target, despite making it quite obvious by walking in their direction for a few seconds. The game in its wisdom decides that what you're trying to do is walk backwards away from a grounded opponent, and then throws a kick from meters away It's just silly, and the manual targeting only partially alleviates the problem. In frenetic Royal Rumble matches, particularly online, you can feel like you're fighting the controls as much as the other wrestlers.
Visually the game is a slight improvement on last year. Fighter models seem slightly more detailed, particularly the big name fighters like Randy Orton, and they now ooze sweat in the same style of their THQ-produced UFC counterparts. There seems to be more animations now too, as the characters move more smoothly from one move to the next. The crowd looks very much the same, which is to say fine for the first few rows, but quite average thereafter. On a more personal note, just like last year, I wish there was more video in the game. There is video of each fighter during their ring entrance, but sadly it is frequently off-screen. It would be great if they could make this video accessible elsewhere, or even better make it so you could always see it during ring entrances, so that you could get to know the wrestlers better. This is not going to be an issue for fans, but for people like myself who don't follow wrestling or know the fighters well, it would be much appreciated. The one major gripe I had with the visuals is how poor the 'lip-synching' is. I put lip-synching in inverted commas there, because there is no attempt to match the lip movements to the speech. It's jarring, and looks horrendous. In this day and age it's nigh on unforgivable.
WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2011 is a fun game, with just a hint more polish than last years title. The WWE Universe game-mode is a lot of fun and will add a stack of longevity to an already deep game. If you haven't played Smackdown vs Raw before or if you've had a couple of years away, then this year's game is well worth picking up. If you have last year's title then I don't believe there have been enough improvements to warrant you picking up this game as well.
Review By: Mike Allison