Thursday, 5 January 2017

WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw 2006

Image Source: Amazon
Written By: Mark Armstrong

Publisher: THQ
Developer: Yuke's
Genre: Wrestling
Series: SmackDown vs. Raw (Previously SmackDown!; it would become WWE in future)
Released: November 14 2005 (US) and November 11 2005 (UK)
Certificate: 16
Consoles: PS2 and PSP

SmackDown! Here Comes The Pain was and is considered to be the holy grail of wrestling games, at least within the SmackDown! series of titles for a variety of reasons. However, one game which doesn't get quite as much adulation, but arguably provided a stronger overall package, was SmackDown! vs. Raw 2006.

The first SvR immediately followed HCTP and was more of an update than an innovation, but SvR 2006 would be a truly worthy successor to Here Comes The Pain. For starters, Season mode still utilised voiceovers, meaning fewer storyline options and reduced flexibility as well as not being able to use all of the available characters for the mode; however, the stories themselves were brilliantly told, and the presentation was spot-on, as realistic and close to actual WWE television as one could have reasonably expected at the time. A Legends Tour, a Whodunnit involving Theodore Long, an ECW revival - these were just some of the tales on offer, and whilst as noted the number of stories was on the short side, meaning that one didn't get to complete a full year of WWE action, if you emphasise quality over quantity, this was the most engaging single-player experience to date from a pure entertainment standpoint. Granted, the Season mode in HCTP had many more layers, but the voiceovers and minutes-long cut-scenes found in the Season mode on SvR 2006 swung things in the opposite direction.

Even if you didn't care for Season, though, SvR 2006 introduced a brand new General Manager mode, which allowed you to take the role of Eric Bischoff or the aforementioned Teddy Long and run Raw or SmackDown! It would be in direct competition with the other brand in terms of garnering interest and high ratings, so you had to pick your roster strategically and build matches and feuds which would be appealing to the fans, as well as carefully determining which matches would be perfect to blow off said rivalries on Pay-Per-View, from Hell In A Cell to TLC to Iron Man. One could argue that the mode could have provided many more options, and it would in future games, but it was still a tremendous amount of fun, and provided wrestling fans with a videogame experience that had never been seen in a WWE title before.

As if those two weren't enough, Challenge mode returned on a slightly more simplified scale. The first two levels were basic tasks, such as hitting a certain number of finishers or winning matches without trying to reverse any manoeuvers. On higher levels, this extended to reliving classic matches or dream bouts involving the then-current WWE roster. The unlockables were cooler this time around, with completion of the top two levels giving you access to the ECW One Night Stand arena and even the old-school WrestleMania IX venue, the first ever appearance by a classic arena in a WWE game. What's more, you could now complete Challenges against a fellow player rather than against the CPU, which whilst putting at risk the opportunity to "cheat", it nevertheless was a nice option to have, and once you completed a Challenge, if you repeated it in the future, you would receive a minor financial bonus. So, for example, you may earn $1,500 for completing a Level 1 Challenge the first time around, and second or third time, you would get $150, which was cool as it ensured you would always have a chance to build up cash for the WWE Shop.

Speaking of which, the Shop was back and you could purchase Legends once more. Of particular note, though, you could buy items for the all-new Locker Room, which existed as a home base of sorts as you could view the various Championships and their current holders, your in-game Trophies (a new feature which provided further objectives such as winning an Elimination Chamber match on the highest difficulty level), wrestler stats and win/loss records on the game, and various points around the complex which you could customise, from posters to props to wrestler items ranging from Bret Hart's sunglasses to JBL's cowboy hat. Locker Room was one of those things which, in the grand scheme of things, only served a minor purpose, but it was pretty fun to take the time out to make it your own, so to speak, and to build a mini WWE pad of sorts.

All of those modes should have been enough to see you through the usual 12-month lifespan of these games, but even if they weren't, the range of match types had been expanded once more. This game marked the debut for the Buried Alive match, although it was part-Buried Alive and part-Casket really, as you fought your way to the gravesite and used a shovel for additional damage, but it would be a casket that you would have to dump your opponent in if you were to be victorious, which was followed by a cut-scene of said box being covered by dirt via a JCB. It was still enjoyable, though, and while it could be tough at times, it was nevertheless a welcome inclusion.

Joining the Buried Alive bout were the new Backstage Brawls. Revamping the old backstage shenanigans of Hardcore scraps, you now have three interactive areas to choose from, between a regular Backstage zone, the Parking Lot and a Bar. The Bar was the best of the three as it included some pretty neat props, such as ramming your opponent into a basketball arcade game, but all three areas had their standout elements, and you could even interact and attack any staff members who happened to be walking by. Sure, it wasn't quite the same as the old backstage roaming in the early days of the SmackDown! series, but while limited in number, the interactivity that the three rooms provided should have more than made up for that.

The Bra & Panties match had been replaced by Fulfil Your Fantasy, where you chose from one of three outfits for the Divas and had them battle in an intimate setting, complete with a heart-shaped bed in the middle of the ring. For those who enjoyed these softcore porn-esque Diva matches on WWE television at the time, this was fun, although in hindsight, there are aspects of said feature which almost make one cringe when looking back on it today. As it turned out, this would be the last game to have a Diva-based match, and strange as it may sound, this was actually considered a disappointment back in the mid-2000s.

Rounding things off in the stipulation department was the new Legend Cage match, whereby you had a regular Steel Cage match but within the confines of the old-school blue bars structure. Having such a bout in the vintage WM IX arena involving two Legends was cool to say the least, and marked the first step towards later games that were completely based on nostalgia such as Legends Of WrestleMania. That you could now use the Cage door to escape, as well as winning via pinfall or submission, was an added bonus. The team also threw in variants of usual matches, such as a 3-on-2 Handicap match and a 10-man Royal Rumble, giving us around 100 match options in total (and you could put any championships on the line during any of the matches in Exhibition where appropriate, which hadn't been an option for several years). This, along with all the old favourites returning like Ladder, Table, Elimination Chamber and Battle Royal. If that sounds like a huge number of match options, well, it was.

The gameplay was enhanced, too. Circle and Triangle now provided the Irish Whip, meaning that Circle on its own gave access to four more moves from a front position, resulting in 20 basic move options, a series high. What's more, you now had to build your momentum up to a certain level before a limited window of time gave you the choice of hitting or saving a finishing move, and your momentum would decrease if you repeated certain moves (in the past, you could hit the same move over and over again, and you would keep on gathering momentum). Plus, Stamina was now a factor whereby you had to manage your conditioning during a match for fear of tiring at a crucial point (although the execution of this was panned a bit at the time), and a new Sleeper Hold mechanic provided memories of the Hogan-era matches where the wagging of a finger or an arm at the last second kept the match alive in dramatic fashion. Add to that the pace of the matches being slowed down ever-so-slightly so that they were more in line with real-life WWE bouts, and a more manageable Submission bar during holds, and you have yourself a great wrestling engine which doesn't get praised anywhere near as much as it should. Fans of today's WWE 2K games would be delighted with a control scheme and gameplay engine like this.

As for the roster: it was largely a spotlight on the WWE stars of the time, as ever, but many of them ultimately didn't last very long in the company or weren't very big stars. In other words, many spaces were filled by the likes of Heidenreich, Orlando Jordan, The Basham Brothers, La Resistance (all three members, although each had just entered into a new gimmick by this point), Muhammad Hassan, Daivari and others. Fortunately, there were some cool new faces like Carlito, Chris Masters and Eugene, and all of the heavy hitters for the era were here such as John Cena, Batista, Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Kurt Angle, The Undertaker and Eddie Guerrero (who sadly died on November 13 2005, right around the time this game was released, which incidentally made one Season storyline uncomfortable as an Eddie-Undertaker rivalry ends up with Latino Heat being put into a coffin). And the Legends crew was the best yet, as Steve Austin and Hulk Hogan made welcome returns (Hogan had three characters for his 80s, 2000s and nWo personas), and there were debuts for British Bulldog and Jake Roberts (more on him shortly), along with further appearances by Bret Hart, The Rock, Mankind, Andre The Giant and a return for Ted DiBiase. Overall, the roster was crammed with big names, although the weaker faces dragged it down a peg, even if they were indicative of WWE at the time. Mind you, the roster total was still higher than the almost threadbare line-up one year earlier.

(On a side note, it was a wise move to have John Cena and Batista as the cover stars, as they had ascended to the top of the WWE mountain in 2005, and I actually think this played an underrated, yet very important, role in establishing these two as the faces of the company at a time when WWE was finally beginning to truly move away from the Attitude Era.)

Just in case all of the new content that I've already mentioned wasn't enough, the game introduced a new Create An Entrance mode, which allowed you to manage an entrance step-by-step, from their motions to the crowd reactions to lighting and pyrotechnics. There were slightly fewer options than in the similar mode on Day Of Reckoning 2, but it would be built upon in future and has become a vital creation tool ever since. The other Create modes were back, with Create A Championship in particular improving as you could now create Tag Team Titles, not to mention that it cost a lot less in WWE dollars to design them (that will make sense once you play the game).

Elsewhere, there were 20 arenas in line with WWE introducing some new Pay-Per-View events, so we now had New Year's Revolution, The Great American Bash and Taboo Tuesday for the first time. Ring announcements and commentary were more authentic this time around, with both the Raw and SmackDown! teams occasionally bickering with one another, and standing up as if to say "Come on, now!" when you invaded their workplace to drive someone through their table. Although this game had some authentic songs for the menu soundtrack (which weren't very good overall, to be honest), this marked the first time that a WWE game didn't have any BGM playing during matches, which made sense since one doesn't hear music constantly playing during matches in real life either. There were now three levels of blood and some new weapons, such as a barbed wire 2x4. Entrances would last longer than one minute for the first time ever, allowing the likes of Triple H and The Undertaker to complete their (superbly recreated) intros in full. This of course meant that theme songs would now last longer, although some were actually shorter than usual and would end abruptly when you played them (such as Paul London's music). Crowd reactions were more realistic, with the likes of Kurt Angle and HHH receiving hearty boos if they were cast as heels, which they usually were (so was Shawn Michaels, since the game fell during his brief yet brilliant heel run of 2005; although you could make him a babyface for most matches if you wanted to, in certain bouts you had to settle for the fans booing HBK every time). Oh, and the graphics were the best yet, even if there were instances where the colour balance seemed a bit lacklustre.

Finally, this was the first game of the series to be released on more than one console. The PlayStation Portable had launched by this point, and so the handheld PSP got a version of SvR 2006. It was largely the same, although the graphics were understandably weaker than on PS2 (although they were still very good) and the PSP version lacked commentary. However, it made up for those issues by providing some mini-games, such as a Eugene Airplane Spin race, a trivia quiz and even poker, as well as an exclusive Legend character in Jake Roberts (you could import The Snake to PS2, but suffice it to say that it would cost you more money if you wanted Jake on the bigger platform).

Really, the only limitation of the game (well, besides the relative lack of story arcs in Season, but when you're treated to scenes like an unexpected lights-off-lights-on appearance by The Undertaker amongst other moments, this can be forgiven) was that very few wrestlers had alternate attires to unlock, and the option was still not there for the player to create any additional costumes for grapplers. But when you factor in everything that was good about this title, the downsides are barely worth mentioning.

In case you haven't noticed, I absolutely love this game. Really, what wasn't to love about it? It basically had everything that you could want in a top-quality wrestling title, from superb gameplay to logical controls to realistic match pacing to a big-name roster to three really enjoyable single-player modes to some addictive creation modes, plus all the other bells and whistles that had been thrown in by THQ/Yuke's. This, to me, was the last game in the series which seemed to go all-out in attempting to improve every aspect of the game as much as possible, essentially attempting to become the best wrestling game to date - and it definitely succeeded as it is amongst the very top level of wrestling games, believe me.

It's funny, because if you ask any longtime fan what the best wrestling game ever is (at least amongst WWF/WWE titles), they're likely to say WWF No Mercy or WWE SmackDown! Here Comes The Pain. And for good reason, since both of those are amazing. However, SmackDown! vs. Raw 2006 is as good as both of those games, if not better in some cases: No Mercy didn't boast the match types or the star power that SvR 2006 does, and the 2006 title also excelled in areas where No Mercy didn't, such as providing full entrances (which were longer than ever) and voiceovers. And whilst HCTP was almost flawless, SvR 2006 boasts more create modes, more single-player modes, more matches and again has voiceovers, not to mention online play (which was a step up from the previous SvR, although it wasn't quite firing on all cylinders just yet). Sure, SvR 2006 had fewer story options and a weaker mid-card amongst its roster, but neither could spoil the game, and people wearing the nostalgia goggles forget that Season mode in HCTP would become repetitive after a year, despite its larger number of plotlines on offer. In fact, had SvR 2006 boasted more story branches, it would have achieved that perfect 10 rating and there wouldn't even be a debate as to which game is King Of The (Wrestling Videogame) Ring.

I'm not sure if I could say hand-on-heart that WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw 2006 is the greatest wrestling game ever, but it is definitely in the conversation and, if it isn't at the #1 position, then it comes pretty damn close. No wrestling game since this has provided the same amount of innovation, entertainment, excitement and satisfaction, and the 2K team should study what made games like this so good if they ever want future titles to be as critically acclaimed. As a matter of fact, stop reading this review now, plug in your PlayStation 2 and get playing this because SmackDown! vs. Raw 2006 is absolutely incredible.

Overall Rating: 9.5/10 - Classic

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