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Series: SmackDown vs. Raw (Previously SmackDown!; it would become WWE in future)
Released: November 2 2004 (US) and November 12 2004 (UK)
Has any wrestling game had a tougher act to follow than SmackDown! vs. Raw? SmackDown! Here Comes The Pain was such an outstanding game from top to bottom that nothing less than absolute perfection would have been considered an acceptable sequel. Unsurprisingly, SvR failed to reach such a lofty standard, and some weak areas meant that it was ultimately a step down from HCTP. However, that isn't to discount what the game did provide, because there was still a lot to like about the first SmackDown! vs. Raw.
To begin with, the name of the game had changed to suggest some sort of brand warfare theme, which played a role in the revamped Season mode (more on that shortly). The name change from a popular wrestling tagline to the concept of the two brands colliding was significant because, from the subsequent game onwards, the series retained this new title adding only the change in years, thus leading to the series becoming one associated more with annual updates than wholesale change. This would prove to be a major issue for fans in the future, and is a big reason why some would argue that there may not have been a truly exceptional WWE game since the mid-2000s. That was all to come, however, and in the first year of using the SmackDown! vs. Raw name at least, the game still added enough new content and features to satisfy its hardcore fan base.
Moving on, the graphics were enhanced so that all characters had 25% extra polygons, allowing their facial features, physiques and general appearances to be fleshed out in more detail than ever before. More interestingly, this would be the first WWE game to allow for online grappling, although it was limited to simple one-on-one matches rather than allowing players to have the likes of Hell In A Cell and TLC matches over the wireless broadband connections (which were still relatively new back then). Nevertheless, with the videogame industry about to be changed forever by the increasing significance of online gaming and downloadable content, this was an important first step for the series to take, even if it would be several years before online functionality reached its full potential.
The other major draw for this game was the inclusion of full voiceovers during Season mode. For the first time, during the single-player adventure through lifelike WWE storylines, one could actually hear the characters speaking as opposed to relying on text-based subtitles. This made the mode feel more like actual episodes of Raw and SmackDown! than ever before, and with new cut-scenes being used to set up matches or advance plotlines, it was the closest any game had ever come to replicating the real thing.
The downside, however, was that there were now far fewer story arcs which characters could play through, since the limited time and space for wrestlers to provide extensive voiceovers meant that there couldn't be the wealth of branching and flexible stories seen in previous games. What's more, whilst you could play through a Raw Season and a SmackDown! Season, the mode as a whole didn't last very long, there were only four championships that you could vie for, and many of the wrestler voiceovers were either of a low quality or simply phoned-in. Fortunately, Vince McMahon is definitely on-point with his voiceovers as he sounds as enthused as his real-life persona, and we're even treated to a vintage Vince "You're Fiiiiired!" It's a shame that there weren't more WWE personalities who you could say the same for. Overall, it's understandable why the development team went down the voiceovers path, and people do forget that Season in HCTP wasn't perfect either, but it would take a year or two for the voiceover-based Season to really flourish in a WWE game. Some would say that the Season/Story modes have never been the same since voiceovers were incorporated, but I wouldn't necessarily go that far.
One area where the game was never going to succeed was the roster. Since the release of Here Comes The Pain, Steve Austin, Goldberg, Brock Lesnar, Kevin Nash, SCott Steiner and others had left WWE, with very few suitable replacements. Therefore, the line-up (the first of the series not to include Stone Cold) was always going to be a disappointment, but it didn't prepare fans for just how poor it would be - amongst the regular crew. There were just 41 characters outside of Legends, and since six of them were Divas (which in itself was low, as the likes of Lita weren't included), there were just 35 regular male wrestlers, the lowest number since the series began. This also made Royal Rumbles less prestigious, as you had no choice but to fill it up with fairly weak names, plus Rene Dupree and the revamped John Bradshaw Layfield were the only new faces. Fortunately, the retro roster justified the purchase as we had a series debut for Bret Hart, along with Andre The Giant, Brutus Beefcake, retro versions of The Undertaker and Kane, the return of Mankind, a Legends cameo for The Rock, and the second consecutive appearances for Roddy Piper, Jimmy Snuka and The Legion Of Doom. So, yep, the roster was weak, but the Legends saved the day. (Incidentally, Vince McMahon was not a playable character as he only appears during Season mode in his authority role, which makes it strange that he was chosen as the cover star, even if the visual is very cool.)
The game was also notable for its two new, or returning, create modes. Create A PPV was back in, having not been seen since SmackDown! 2 Know Your Role, although the old match ratings were no longer a factor, which was a shame. The created PPV cards did provide some neat opening video montages based around your main event, which was neat. Better, though, was Create A Championship, which was making its series debut and was better than ever, as you could create all sorts of title belts with specific materials, jewels and plates, some of which had been used on classic titles. The created titles could only be defended in Create A PPV mode, but this helped to boost the prestige of the created belts and was a simple way to tie the two modes together. On the downside, the titles were very expensive to make using dollars earned for WWE Shop (yes, the Shop was back in after appearing in HCTP), but overall both modes, combined with the new morphing and attire options available in Create A Wrestler, helped the game to stand out above its predecessor from a creation standpoint.
The only new match type was the Parking Lot Brawl, which took Hardcore scraps in the car park to a new level with several hotspots and environmental moves involving a variety of vehicles, and was inspired by the real-life PLB between John Cena and Eddie Guerrero on SmackDown! in September 2003. On the downside, there was only one (albeit very long) backstage area now for Falls Count Anywhere battles, and the dodgy camera angles during battles outside the ring made brawls that took place in the aisleways and on the stage very hard to see. On the other hand, Royal Rumbles were improved to allow for more elimination options and the use of struggles between the offensive and the defensive wrestler during elimination attempts; it wasn't perfect by any means, but the system did provide the most authentic Royal Rumble matches to date. Otherwise, the match types remained the same, although we now had a Six-Man Tornado Tag option for the Elimination Chamber.
The control scheme remained the same too, with two exceptions: the use of mini-games and a new Clean/Dirty system. The mini-games consisted of several back-and-forth battles during specific moments, such as the opening test of strength and a battle of knife-edge chops in the corner (complete with "Whoooo!" chants from the crowd). The Clean/Dirty elements were more notable, as for the first time you could have a wrestler cater to their babyface or heel status with moves and taunts tailored to their alignment on the face/heel scale. You could showboat to the audience as you revel in their cheers before hitting your opponent's finisher, or you could taunt them arrogantly before striking your adversary with a Super Low Blow. The only problem was that fans still weren't actually booing those cast as villains, but overall the system was a success and added something which hadn't been a factor in HCTP.
The other positives to mention are that colour commentary and ring announcements had returned, and were now provided by both brands, keeping in line with the brand warfare theme of the game. Entrances were slightly better than in HCTP, with some being very good, and others being a disappointment. The game featured a soundtrack of real-life tracks for the first time, most of which were hard rock themes not unlike the vast majority of music featured on WWE television at the time. Matches would now broadcast using the "hard cam" angle rather than facing the aisleway, as seen on actual programming (camera cuts were also more frequent and took place from new angles, such as behind the Raw announce table near the Titan Tron). The wrestlers posing during menus were replaced by Divas doing the same, with their models dancing in bras and panties available as a bizarre unlockable. Speaking of the menus, there were two menus available, again one for each brand, and the loading screens for each wrestler also catered to the brand theme. Legends now had theme songs and proper entrance moves, but they still didn't have entrance videos (which to be fair only really mattered for the more recent stars such as The Rock). Finally, there was a brand new Challenge mode featuring four levels of 15 tasks, with each level representing more difficult challenges for the player to complete. As tricky as some of these were (and some were extremely difficult, not necessarily in a good way), the mode was a very welcome inclusion, and marked the first time that the series provided more than one single-player mode aside from Exhibition.
On the downside, there were only 16 arenas, and none of the new single-brand PPVs introduced in 2004 were included in the game. With the UK PPVs being abolished in 2003, the game unfortunately did not choose to replace them, and whilst the "alternate" Raw and SmackDown! venues in HCTP were pointless, they werne't being replaced either, making the game feel weaker than HCTP in that area. Plus, only a few characters had unlockable attires, in contrast to the dozens on offer in the previous two games, and many "regular" costumes for certain wrestlers were a bit colourless and disappointing (seriously, Rey Mysterio had dozens of colourful costumes to choose from, and with the exception of his black attire, the yellow-brown attire that he sported in this game was the least vibrant option). Create A Taunt had disappeared, and has yet to return to a future game as of this writing, over twelve years later. And you could now only save up to three finishers during a match now, in contrast to five in the previous three games.
As stated earlier, SmackDown! vs. Raw had the impossible task of following Here Comes The Pain at a time when the WWE product was entering a rut, which had a knock-on effect towards the company's flagship videogame series. As well as the notable absentees, Season mode's replayability dropped dramatically with the introduction of voice-overs; the new match types were a bit barren; backstage fighting was more limited; and certain areas were noticeably weaker than in HCTP. All of which resulted in a wrestling game which, on the whole, wasn't as good as the outstanding entry from one year earlier.
However, SvR did bring a lot of good to the table. Although the number of storylines had been greatly reduced, Season still did a very good job of mirroring WWE television with its presentation and plotlines. Challenge was a fun inclusion, and the two new create modes were greatly welcomed. Add to that the more impressive graphics, the Clean/Dirty options, the debuts of some big-name Legends, the return of commentary and ring announcing and the other neat improvements, and it's safe to say that whilst it couldn't best Here Comes The Pain, SmackDown! vs. Raw was still a rather enjoyable game to play.
So, judged on its own merits, SmackDown! vs. Raw was very entertaining, but as an overall package, it was a shade inferior to Here Comes The Pain, even if some of its drawbacks were no fault of THQ/Yuke's (such as the high number of big-name stars who had departed WWE in the preceding twelve months). Fortunately, what some may consider this to be a dip in the series would be followed by another peak in SmackDown! vs. Raw 2006. That being said, if you happened to pick up a copy of SvR, chances are that you'd still have plenty of fun playing it.
Overall Rating: 8/10 - Very Good