For long years I've argued that the Smackdown vs. Raw series is in need of a serious overhaul, that the gameplay needed something else than false attempts at realism (such as the Stamina system) and little bells and whistles that show up in one match out of twenty. Each and every year, people buy or rent the game, create their superstar, take them thorough the necessary trials in order to make them equal or superior to John Cena, HHH and the Undertaker (the highest stat superstars in the game, historically), and eventually grow bored of it down the line, only to repeat the cycle again.
I first started slowing down my wrestling game purchases with Smackdown : Here Comes The Pain – Arguably the best wrestling title Yuke's has developed for the WWE. However, others go further back for their wrestling game nostalgia with WWF No Mercy, Aki Corp. (now syn Sophia)'s last WWE branded game. Aki Corp, whom you may remember as the people who brought the Def Jam Vendetta/Fight For New York games as well as some of the Gamecube/PS2 era Kinnikuman/Ultimate Muscle games (and if you don't remember those, it's perfectly understandable – the games were far better than the second generation anime's translation).
So, I was perusing VGChartz (some of you may scoff at this suggestion, but I've yet to find an alternative for PS2 era sales charts) to write this article, trying to paint a negative picture of the current state of wrestling video games. I figure : "Hah! With the decline in quality (although the 2010 title was quite good in it's own right and shows signs that the franchise is getting better) in current titles, surely the games mustn't have sold as well as my beloved Here Comes The Pain!"
Turns out, I was wrong. Well, not entirely wrong : Here Comes The Pain had a great run at 2,56 million sold, and none of the current gen titles have come even close to that on one single console, barely selling a million, and not even if we are talking about the 2010 edition. However, after that year, the Smackdown vs. Raw series were now multi-platform titles. Counting all sales, they almost outsell HCTP by a million, total sales being 3,66 million for this year's edition (if you want a good comparison, this year didn't have a lot of advertisement in gaming press, and as such, there was less sales than the 2009 edition).
So, the product goes down in quality (in my eyes), but they sell more. What am I to do except admit defeat?
Admitting that the games have become better after a two-three year slump (The original Smackdown vs. Raw and the two editions after were extremely sub-par, culminating in the playable '09 version and the decent enough '10 version) must surely mean there's something I like about them, but what?
While the concept of 2010's storyline creator means a great way to write down angles and share them with your friends, the tools given were slightly limited in scope and, well, we know what happens if you give a gamer tools to express his creativity yet no way to improve it beforehand. The results are often awful at best, mindboggling at worst (but they'd still be better than David Arquette as World Champion, or the Reverse Battle Royal.)
Another good thing would be the addition of a feat-like system. Achieve certain things within your career, and you will be able to use certain feats. Except that they're mostly unlockable by stat gains, and there's not a lot of them. Even worse, a combination of two feats can lead you to get your most devastating maneuver at the beginning of match, three times in a row (the rest range from interesting gameplay twists to useless). To be fair, they made grinding stats easier than ever last year with the ability to gain stat points from any match as opposed to just career matches.
Since we're on the career, they've simplified it to WWF Attitude levels, having you go through a gauntlet of opponents, fight a #1 contender's match and then fight for the belt. Once you're done, you do that anew for another belt. They've stripped down everything that made the old season modes fun (walking in the backstage from Shut Your Mouth, branching paths from No Mercy, etc.) and they did it in favor of the Road to Wrestlemania mode, which has pre-set storylines with little player output on how they unfold. Worse, if you wish to unlock everything, you must do every single one as opposed to having an alternate way.
To be brief, they added things I like (challenges, feats) but removed lots of things I loved (create mode depth, enjoyable career mode). More importantly, the gameplay shifting from completely arcade like to simili-simulation (a pleonasm, but it's the best term in this case) simply made the games far less enjoyable to those who aren't WWE fans. We won't play this for the superstars, we'd play this for the gameplay, and it has been lacking ever since HCTP.
The only alternatives to the THQ product are in Japanese, untranslated for the most part (and many agree those alternatives are better in a gameplay sense, which is strange because some of them are made by the exact same company : Yuke's Future Media Creators.) Worse, I know that while I may say that the wrestling video game fan inside me has died, I know that like comic book superheroes, you can't keep him dead for long. When he comes back, will he return to a quality title that was just looking for it's niche, or return to a yearly title with the dreaded sports game syndrome of a roster update and that's it?