Xbox 360 Preview

WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011

Lip-smackingly smackings

Wrestling's a funny thing, isn't it? Large, oiled up men in skimpy shorts rubbing themselves all over each other, then pretending to be kicked in the balls. Or equally oiled up ladies with boobs made of pure muscley gristle, grappling in bikinis. It's bizarre.

Yet it's huge. Indescribably massive. An odd concoction of dance, athletics, gymnastics and piss-poor soap acting, it's incredibly popular. Squillions of people watch it. Yup, squillions.

It's also presumably an odd sport for games developers to get their heads around. Give them a boxing title and they'll concentrate on making those punches look like they're really connecting. Or give them a shooter and they'll try and make it look like you buried a bullet in that bloke's skull.

But with wrestling, which is deliberately bad acting anyway, what should they do? Try and make it look like what the wrestlers are trying to make it look like, which doesn't actually look like what it looks like?

While I ponder all that nonsense, let's go through all the basics.

WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 is the latest in a long line of licensed wrestle-y grapplers that started with WWE Smackdown vs. Raw in 2004, but really began with Smackdown! in 2000. It's the only proper WWE game there is and as such is the place to go for a bit of homoerotic muscle-(wo)man action.

Like any series that has been iterated upon ad-infinitum, WWESvR2011 has more options than wrestler in a steroid shop. The characters and modes and venues and settings on offer here are dizzying. As well as all the single fight match-ups, playable across a plethora of rulesets, from Inferno to Submission, the two are main game modes: WWE Universe and Road to Wrestlemania.

The latter is a narrative Career mode of sorts, a kind of ultra-light RPG in which you can wander around backstage encountering rivals or friends and perform miniquests. As befits a game largely made for young uns there's a handy rewind feature in the form of a time machine, on hand just in case you mess anything up. Nicely embracing WWE's knowing brand of tongue-in-cheek campery, Road to Wrestlemania channels the soap opera aspect of the sport' perfectly well.

WWE Universe, meanwhile, cleverly combines exhibitions, championships, rivalries and whatever else into an infinitely customisable mode that is always active. Put simply, it allows you to dip in and play the matches you want to play, against whom you want to play, while crafting a kind of ad-hoc story around it. It's a great idea.

Something that will please long-term fans of the series are the revamped Hell in a Cell matches. Hell in a Cell is probably the most bonkers of all the match types, with a giant metal cage covering the ring. Inside, or indeed outside or even on top of the ring, anything goes. Previous instalments haven't done the mode justice, with a too-small outside the ring area and no weapons secreted under the aprons. WWESvR2011 addresses all these problems.

The gameplay itself offers up few surprises. It's all reasonably intuitive stuff. Standard kicks and punches are mapped to a face button, while chain-able grapples are triggered with the use of the right thumb stick. Everything is contextual too, so the resulting move from either of these inputs will change dependent on your position relative to your opponent. What this does is add a little variety to fights, but the truth is there is little depth to the system.

Counters mix things up a little. When an opponent goes to strike you, a RT prompt appears above your head for you to pull the right trigger. At first it appears that the timing of these prompts are a little off, but once you find its rhythm counters actually become pretty easy to execute. After just a few matches, my opponent and I were regularly counter-reversing. Though we weren't sure if that was necessarily a good thing.

Amoung the other big changes this year are an improved physics system. Employing the increasingly ubiquitous HAVOK physics engine, WWESvR2011 now has reasonably realistic looking physics built in to tables, ladders and chairs. You can lean ladders against the ropes, throw objects and generally interact with objects in the environment in a believable way.

Which brings us back to the distortion of reality field around WWESvR2011.

The game faultlessly represents the glistening, hulking hyper-reality of the sport. All of WWE's top stars are present and nicely rendered in all their shiny, sweaty glory. Even that odd disconnect between the cause and effect of moves that look like they should cause immediate hospitalisation is present. You may be able to shrug off several kicks to the nuts, but a single stamp on the foot can send you reeling. It's true to its source material.

WWE Smackdown vs, Raw 2011 will more than likely be the ultimate wrestling game. Just the use of the license, the presentation, the options and the thought that has gone into providing the most robust package possible should ensure that. Strip away the gumph, however, and what you are left with is a light, limited fighting game that contains little depth. In catering for as wide, and arguably as young, an audience as possible the core mechanics themselves look to be a largely vacuous affair.

But then that's exactly what WWE is, isn't it? Dumb fun. In that regard WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2011 gets it exactly right.

E3 Trailer