Obviously I'm a bit late on this since the game's been out for two weeks, but THQ didn't send me a review copy again this year. And hey, if you're looking for the standard kind of video game review, I'm sure IGN has an 8.1358219339 score up somewhere!
As I mentioned in my review for last year's game, I've never really been a fan of the Smackdown series, but with SvR 2010, they finally gave the series a big push in the right direction. Did they capitalize on that momentum or is SvR 2011 the next round of THQ taking one step forward and two steps back? First, the good:
WWE Universe - I obviously can't talk about this game without talking about the biggest "season" mode in the history of the series. WWE Universe is exactly what I've been looking for in a wrestling game, a season mode that's constructed by the AI, but you're not limited to playing as one wrestler, you have the entire roster at your disposal as you make your way through the WWE schedule. The mode is a ton of fun, you build rivalries, can change the matches around as you wish, and basically recreate the WWE experience in video game form. How no developer has never figured something like this out yet, I have no idea.
The little improvements - Last year, I bashed the developers for ignoring long-standing issues like a horrible Hell in a Cell match, PS1-era physics in table matches, and lack of options in matches, luckily a lot of these things have been fixed. Hell in a Cell's been revamped, the physics have advanced into something almost resembling a game developed in this decade, and the Match Creator options were long overdue. Seriously, that should've been in Smackdown 1 and they finally put it in for the twelfth game in the series.
Online Royal Rumble - Okay, it's awesome if you can get it to work. I'm not a big online gamer, but an online Royal Rumble is the kind of hectic fun that helps you forget that the Smackdown series is one of the worst games to play online.
And now the bad:
WWE Universe - Yeah, it's both the best thing to happen to the series and also one of the most disappointing. I don't want to nitpick, but there were just some mind-boggling decisions with it that really hurt my enjoyment of the mode. You can't defend titles anywhere but on PPV, which makes sense, it keeps the AI from making every match a title match, but there's no reason why the user shouldn't be able to change it. Title matches don't just happen on PPV, especially the lower card titles, six of the last seven US Title changes were on Raw or Smackdown, but you can't recreate that here. To make matters worse, when you do get to defend a title on PPV, you're limited to the match the game picks for you. If you don't want the person ranked as the #1 contender to challenge for that particular title, the game just turns it into a non-title match. Lame! Of course, this brings us to my #1 problem with this series from day one:
Needless restrictions - They made some big improvements in this department this year, like more CAWs in Story Designer, more options in Superstar Threads, and editing downloaded wrestlers, but they make news ones. All the restrictions in WWE Universe are annoying, the Match Creator options aren't as deep as they should be (and extremely limited in Universe), only one running strike per wrestler when there were previously two, etc.
The gameplay/AI - And then there's the biggest problem with the series... it's honestly just not that fun to actually play. They tweaked the gameplay this year, eliminating strong grapples and instead giving us chain and groggy grapples, which isn't bad, it keeps people from spamming powerbombs and chokeslams, but wrestler's movesets are loaded with repeat moves now. Why does Shawn Michaels need four inverted atomic drops? Also, with the new chain grapples, they're way too easy to reverse, making multiplayer extremely frustrating, and playing against the AI has always been a reversal-fest.
The AI is especially poor this year, they don't really do anything during the matches except reverse, and they're incredibly easy to pin. I usually play on Legend difficulty, and even then I can win matches in under a minute with weak moves, it's like the AI forgets how to kick-out(!!). The only challenge comes when you're playing against someone like The Undertaker, who will reverse everything you do and his moves do a ton of damage.
For a series that's nailed just about every aspect of the WWE presentation, they just can't seem to figure out the matches. WWE matches are fluid, often fast-paced and high on drama, Smackdown vs. Raw matches are disjointed, plodding and often anticlimactic. Perhaps it's the nature of the best with the source material, but I feel like there could be some major improvements if they pulled this game out of its last-last-gen gameplay.
Overall, Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 does what it always does best, present the WWE product in video game form, but the core elements of the gameplay are sorely lacking and the countless limitations hinder the player from having as much fun as they should. WWE Universe saved this game from being a complete disappointment, and it's certainly not a bad game, it's actually probably the best in the series, but as fun as many of the new toys are, the basic mechanics continue to show their age.