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Developers: Yuke's and TOSE (DS)
Series: SmackDown vs. Raw (Previously SmackDown!; it would become WWE in future)
Released: November 9 2008 (US) and November 7 2008 (UK)
Consoles: PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, PS2, PSP, DS and Mobile
After the disappointing SvR 2008, there was a lot of hope that SvR 2009 would be a superior sequel and set the previously-outstanding series back on the right track. As it turned out, this was partially achieved, with improvements across the board compared to the previous game, but other aspects of the game were unchanged and even removed, resulting in a game that was only slightly better than the one which came before it.
The biggest criticisms of SvR 2008 were the main single-player mode and the roster, so let's begin by analysing these two key areas. The 24/7 mode sounded good on paper, but the execution was poor and at times lazy. In response, the decision was made to scrap 24/7 after just one game, and to introduce a new mode named Road To WrestleMania. RTWM consisted of six stories, each lasting three game months, and each based around one wrestler tailored to a specific wrestler. The chosen few were John Cena, Triple H, The Undertaker, CM Punk, Chris Jericho and the tag team of Batista and Rey Mysterio.
Whilst it was disappointing that the number of selectable characters for the mode was so small, and that the Backlash-to-Armageddon portion of the WWE calendar was no longer involved, RTWM was a big improvement on 24/7. The mode was a lot cleaner and simpler; the cut scenes were as realistic as ever; the plotlines each felt unique because they capitalised on a wrestler's character traits or history, and the stories themselves were, on the whole, really entertaining. For example, the plot whereby a masked assailant attacks Jericho, and Y2J looks to find out who lies behind the hood, was very exciting and had an unpredictable outcome. The mode also allowed for stories which couldn't be executed in real-life, such as The Undertaker turning his opponents into zombies (incidentally, this apparently had been discussed at one point by the WWE creative team, but it was dismissed because it felt too unrealistic; fortunately, a videogame doesn't have to worry about such issues). Overall, this was a far more satisfying experience, and the most lifelike recreation of WWE television to date - even if it was a bit short overall.
Sadly, the demise of 24/7 led to the abolition of the popular General Manager mode too. In an attempt to placate fans, and to offer something for characters not involved in RTWM, a new Career mode was introduced here. Through Career mode, you guided a wrestler of your choice up the ranks, with the intention of claiming championships and achieving minor goals along the way. It was a simple and logical mode, which was a compromise for the large number of wrestlers who coudn't be selected for RTWM. The one downside was that Career mode featured no storylines or cut-scenes, so it was strictly a match-based mode. So, certainly not a game-changer, but a nice side option nonetheless.
As for the roster: after the line-up ended up being reduced for SvR 2008 despite the addition of a third WWE brand, we were treated to the largest roster to date in SvR 2009. Almost every WWE name of significance was here, including returns for Big Show, Chris Jericho and Shelton Benjamin, and loads of debut appearances for the likes of The Miz, Santino Marella, Beth Phoenix, Jesse and Festus, Brian Kendrick, Jimmy Wang Yang and plenty more. What's more, this would be the first ever game to offer downloadable content; wrestlers who you could download AFTER the game's release date. These included Evan Bourne, Ted DiBiase Jr, Super Crazy, Charlie Haas and an updated attire model for Chris Jericho. However, because of the upcoming WWE Legends Of WrestleMania game, no legend characters were available on the regular roster, besides Ric Flair and Tazz. Whilst an understandable move, it did weaken the line-up as a whole, although a DLC pack of legends was released and included Earthquake, Vader, Doink and The Bushwhackers (although Vader was the only one with his proper entrance theme, and they were inexplicably unavailable to download on LOWM). So, swings and roundabouts in terms of the roster compared to that of SvR 2008. Mind you, Hornswoggle was now in the game as a manager, which was pretty cool.
In terms of gameplay, the main change was the new Signature Move option which allowed a wrestler to perform their set-up move (so, for John Cena, it was the Five Knuckle Shuffle). Bouts were a little easier to battle through (far too easy on Easy difficulty; one could win a match with about ten moves, if you picked the right competitor). Interactions with environmental objects was improved slightly, so for instance you could now run up the steel stairs. However, the biggest gameplay shift concerned tag team wrestling, with new options for double-team moves, illegal manouevres (like pulling the rope down on a running opponent), tag team finishers, and the Hot Tag function, whereby a beaten-up wrestler slowly crawls to make a vital, match-saving tag to a fresh partner (you know, the sequence that happens in virtually every regular tag team match ever). Strangely, the Ultimate Control moves which were hyped so much for SvR 2007 and, to a lesser extent, SvR 2008 were greatly scaled down, and would be removed completely come SvR 2010. In addition, the ability to fight in the crowd, where much of the environmental-based combat took place that was also a big selling point just two years earlier, had also been taken out; this option has yet to return in any WWE game.
On the match front, the big addition was the Inferno match, which fans had requested for years and played out fairly similar to real-life bouts of this nature (except that the ropes were ablaze rather than metal rods setting off the flames; by the way, look closely at ringside when an Inferno match begins and you'll notice three versions of the same referee model). The Gauntlet match was thrown in, too, and Backstage Brawl returned with Locker Room and a "Gorilla Position" areas, although the walls were no longer interactive, resulting in less exciting hardcore scraps. I should mention that the Buried Alive match was a goner, too, and while we're on the subject, the Locker Room feature which only had a minor role in SvR 2008 was now taken out completely as well.
Sadly, the omissions didn't end there, as Create A Championship was the final big feature taken away. Fortunately, though, we had Create A Finisher in its place. As the name suggests, you could now create your own devastating move, with the use of hundreds of different animation frames. Well, that's "hundreds" in total; depending on which motions you picked, you might only have two or three options for the final stage of the move, and you could only create moves from a regular standing position. It was still a great feature to have, though, and given the choice between this and Create A Championship, fans probably would have opted for this one. A new Roster Editor option allowed you to change brands and babyface/heel alignments for existing wrestlers, and the Team Management feature was the new name for Create A Stable. On the creative front, Highlight Reel allowed you to save video footage from your matches and create custom video clips, with images and logos, which you could upload automatically on YouTube. Speaking of videos, this game included a trailer for LOWM, and the entire match of The Undertaker vs. Edge from WrestleMania XXIV (I was there and am visible in the crowd throughout, so technically I made it onto a WWE videogame!).
Rounding things up, fighting styles were downgraded so that only specific style abilities remained (which could be changed and achieved via Career mode); the graphics were even more impressive and colourful than they had been in SvR 2008; the Wii version now boasted most match types (which had been severely lacking in SvR 2008); PS3 users could now import their own entrance themes in the manner that Xbox 360 gamers could; a new semi-auto targeting system was introduced to improve how you approached your opponents during multi-man battles; wrestler entrance themes could now be played during menus alongside licensed music (with a button to skip songs if you so desired); and we had the first appearance for the Tribute To The Troops arena, complete with a crowd full of patriotic American soldiers. Oh, I almost forgot: one of those, Tony, was a fictional playable character on the game, as well as the aforementioned Masked Man. So, this game had two fictional playable characters, but Steve Austin and The Rock were absent (in Rock's only ever non-appearance of the series). Hmm ...
So, how was this game overall then? Well, it brought a lot of positive new features; the single-player experience was certainly improved, the Inferno match was a blast (no pun intended), Create A Finisher was a great addition, and the other subtle changes made for a stronger game (especially Roster Editor), not to mention the larger-than-ever line-up of playable characters. But there were some pretty big features and modes taken away, which had they been retained, would have made this a fantastic game overall. Of note, the lack of retro characters (despite it being for logical reasons), the removal of crowd brawls and the Buried Alive match, and the absence of Create A Championship, all combined to swing the pendulum the other way in regards to whether this was a step up from SvR 2008.
Overall, I'd say that it was superior to SvR 2008 - but only just. The removal of modes and noticeably absent content prevented many from realising that this was a really fun wrestling videogame to play, and it provided some features that had been requested for years. And despite the limitations of RTWM and Career mode, these were still much better and a lot more fun than the flawed 24/7 experience in the previous game. So, whilst this game was lacking too much to be considered an all-time great, SmackDown vs. Raw 2009 brought about enough positive change that the series began moving in the right direction again - but fans were still left waiting for a potential successor to the likes of SmackDown! Here Comes The Pain.
Overall Rating: 8/10 - Very Good