When we got our first glimpse at Smackdown! vs. Raw 2011's Road To Wrestlemaina Mode with it’s embryo take on third-person RPG some months ago we were excited. In reality it’s a big disappointment.
You're presented with a small backstage area with a couple of fellow wrestlers tops. CM Punk may be just hanging around in the corridor, for example, stretching his arm slightly over and over again. And that's it.
Talk to him, at which point he'll swivel around and talk some grade one trash at you in an apathetic, primary school assembly tone, completely out of time with his own mouth. You're guy (there's a handful of superstars you can do the story mode with) might give a response but it's already set, there's no RPG style conversation tree or even a choice in what kind of manner to respond in.
In fact the only option you have to show any kind of feeling towards your friends/enemies is to push them. Push them twice and they'll get angry. Push again and the screen will fade and you'll be plunged into a backstage brawl.
You're surrounded by weapons and there are a couple of context sensitive points around the backstage area, but there's no crowd noise, sometimes there's no sound when colliding with objects and, amazingly, your moves are limited to a single one for each situation (standing facing front, back, head, feet etc).
And what happens after you've smashed CM Punk to pieces for no reason whatsoever? You're back in third-person RPG mode, CM Punk picks himself up off the floor and carries on with his little stretches.
Altogether it's a very sluggish, bland experience without any of the narrative structure or flow that it's trying to replicate. You'll want to get through those curtains and out into the ring as soon as possible.
Smackdown Vs RAW 2011: In the ring
In the ring Smackdown vs. Raw is as strong as ever. The controls remain the same, with the right analogue stick controlling grapple options, quick attacks and tie-ups depending on the state of your opponent and your positioning.
The character models have been given the usual annual make-over and the whole presentation is slightly darker and more detailed. The real visual improvement, however, comes in the animation.
Now everything around the ring is physical and interactive. If you drop your opponent near the ropes, the pair of you won't just slide more centrally in the ring as if you were never even close, you'll actually hit them. Better yet, there are a couple of different ways wrestlers can land on the ropes. Real pro-wrestling classics like a rope to the armpit or the groin are present and look plenty painful. It never gets old.
The same can be said for weapons too, and this is where it really matters. Now when a chair is lying on the mat and you get slammed into it you actually do get slammed into it.
In a flash of inspiration and convenience the developers have also added the ability to direct slams and throws. During the animation, pushing towards the spot you want your opponent to land will see your wrestler turn the slam as best he can. Ladders (and tables for that matter) can also be leant against ropes and barriers to make springboard ramps or just more devastating surfaces to perform moves onto.
Smackdown Vs RAW 2011: New modes
Generally, if you've come fresh from SvR 2010, you'll find 2011 a tad slower. That's not a problem in itself, but it does mean a lot of moves will feel like they have less impact. The detailed approach to contact and your surroundings does make up for it though.
Outside of the ring, all of the traditional SvR modes and features are present with some getting the usual updates and tweaks we see each year. The most important new mode (aside from that disappointing Road to Wrestlmania) is WWE Universe.
This is an odd one because it's not something you enter, play and leave, you turn it on and off. When it's on it runs in the background having some sort of effect on Exhibition matches.
Tag teams, alliances and feuds can be set along with rankings and title holders, but all this develops naturally the more you play as well. It's a really nice and inventive addition, which can bring some new and interesting dynamics to what would normally be just one-off, isolated matches. It means even Exhibition Mode can catch you by surprise and that's what the world of WWE is all about.
Smackdown Vs RAW 2011: Conclusion
What 2011's Smackdown! vs. Raw brings, is the usual visual upgrade and a few gameplay tweaks. The difference this year is that some of that tweaking has gone a long way.
Two major new features are also on offer but while WWE Universe works well and offers something quite different and unforeseen, the attempt to make Road To Wrestlemania an RPG fails pretty spectacularly in our books.
Those who are tiring of the Smackdown! vs. Raw format probably won't find a whole lot to perk them up either, the basics of the game still consist of the same stringing together of animations that has always been and quality is lacking in usual areas such as commentary.
We've been given just enough to keep us interested for a year though, and by then we'll be ready to see if something more can be done along the Road To Wrestlemania.
Smackdown Vs Raw 2011 release date: Out now
Smackdown Vs Raw 2011 price: £34-50