For most of the PlayStation 2’s lifespan, the WWE Smackdown series has reigned supreme as the top wrestling video games available on the market. There have been a few contenders rise up here and there, but they were never any serious match for the annual offerings from the tag-team of developer Yuke’s and publisher THQ. In 2009, another challenger, TNA Impact, has dared to step into the ring with the World Wrestling Entertainment branded juggernaut? Can it continue to “layeth the smack down” or will the rival product from Total Nonstop Action and Midway Games pull off the upset?
Graphics and Sound (4 out of 5)
The first thing that really stood out was the fact that Yuke’s decided to borrow a page from the EA Sports playbook, mixing licensed songs with those representative of the product (wrestler entrance themes here, NFL Films tunes in EA’s Madden games). It’s a nice feature, though I wish there were more songs available as there does seem to be a lot of repetition. Sticking with the sound department, the ring announcers are much better this year than in previous years, and even put a little enthusiasm into calling a created superstar’s name. I also like the fact that they announce not only the wrestler’s name, but also their weight and hometown as well. Match commentary is passable, though still not anything special. There are three different teams, each one representing one of the WWE’s television brands (Raw, Smackdown and ECW), which is a nice touch, although the actual banter between the announcers could have been better and it was impossible not to notice that sometimes different broadcasters use the same lines.
Graphically speaking, the game looks incredible, considering it’s running on last-generation hardware. The character models look much the same outside the ring, but during matches, it seems as though they are larger than in the past and the detail is improved. Menus are easy to navigate, and while the crowd is still static and largely 2D, the arenas are nicely detailed and boast good variety. They really nailed the entrances too, with each wrestler’s quirky little mannerisms showing through on their way to the ring. One really gets the feeling that there isn’t much more they can do with the series on the PS2, and that the developers have rung every inch of power out of the venerable old console in terms of graphics. Given the importance of presentation in professional wrestling, and in turn in wrestling video games, it is nice to see that the WWE Smackdown series continues to excel in terms of both graphics and sound quality.
Controls (5 out of 5)
Of course, it wouldn’t matter how good it looked if the controls were unwieldy. Thankfully, they work just fine in Smackdown vs. Raw 2009. There are two different controller options, but the only difference is whether the left analog stick controls movements and the directional pad controls taunts, or vice versa. Otherwise, it’s all the same – square controls kicks and punches, triangle handles finishing moves and signature moves, X is used to get in and out of the ring, circle is used to throw your opponent into the ropes, holding L1 while moving causes you to run, and the right analog stick controls grapple moves. On the whole, they work quite well once you get used to them, and using the right stick to control slams and other similar attack moves feels quite natural. On occasion, it may be hard to remember how to do certain things, like acquiring a weapon from under the ring or picking your opponent up. Thankfully, there are on-screen help pop-ups that can be toggled on and off, as well as a full in-game tutorial manual that lists nearly all of the basic controls.
Gameplay (5 out of 5)
If you’ve read my review of TNA Impact, you know that my major gripe with the game was the complete and total lack of depth in the game. Thankfully, there’s no such problem here. There is a fully-functioning create-a-wrestler mode that is so insanely deep it allows you to choose from any one of 39 different sets of eyebrows, and even gives you the option of making a wrestler with a bag on his head, should you so desire. The vaunted Road to Wrestlemania story mode features not one but six full-featured plot lines, including a co-op tag-team version for the first time ever. There’s a career mode that allows you to choose a WWE Superstar or a created wrestler and send him after different titles. One of the great things about this mode is that you need to wrestle matches to earn stars, and once you earn a certain amount of them, you need to win a #1 contender’s match in order to challenge for the title of your choice. With a roster of more than 60 wrestlers available (most of them from the very beginning) and a wealthy of match options including Extreme Rules, Inferno Matches, Hell in the Cell, the Royal Rumble and the King of the Ring tournament, Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 is easily the deepest PS2 wrestling title hitting the market this year.
Overall Rating (5 out of 5)
While I do have a few minor grumbles about the title, including the decision to not allow players to preview a move while editing a wrestler’s moveset like in previous titles and the seeming inability to remove accessory layers (in my case, a necklace) from a created superstar, there’s no doubt that this is an amazing and addictive product. Even during play-test sessions, I caught “one more match” syndrome and couldn’t put it down for hours on end. When it comes to the grudge match between TNA Impact and WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2009, it’s no contest. Smackdown has more match types, more playable characters, more wrestlers available from the start, an actual create-a-wrestler mode and six times as many story modes to play through. Without a doubt, Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 proves once again that the WWE and THQ are the undisputed champions of PS2 wrestling games.