Professional wrestling has always been about spectacle. From the bombastic entrance pyrotechnics to the high-flying action, WWE strives to entertain in an easily consumable package. Its videogames always seem to bridge the gap between spectacle and sport even better than the actual product. With “WWE Smackdown vs. Raw,” developer THQ refines its established series by adding further polishing to an already strong game engine.

Eston Bond
Bret screwed Bret. (Courtesy of THQ)

However, “Smackdown vs. Raw” is not the next great wrestling title many gamers hoped for. While it offers improvements upon its exemplary predecessors, there are few major structural changes. Players can still choose from a seemingly endless list of customizable match types, compete in a storyline-propelled season mode or create their own superstar.

The new additions don’t add up to much. Though online play was included, it is limited to just single matches — a travesty considering the strength of its multiplayer mode lies in its incredibly varied options. Fans hoping to play Elimination Chamber or Hell in the Cell matches online will find nothing but disappointment.

The streamlined storyline mode eliminates all of the backstage roaming that led to the branching story paths in the previous “Smackdowns.” To compensate, the developers added voiceovers for the wrestlers’ dialogue, but even this addition falls flat with recordings that vary in quality.

“Smackdown vs. Raw” only adds one match type to the game: Parking Lot Brawl. Cars become interactive weapons, each reacting differently when one player throws the other into a vehicle. Yet, after a few bouts, the Parking Lot Brawl becomes repetitive and doesn’t offer the drastic game-altering changes that previous new match types had.

Another limiting factor is the decreased roster. Fans hoping that last year’s disappointingly small list of wrestlers would increase will actually be surprised to find even fewer grapplers. Each wrestler that did make the cut is incredibly detailed and captures the personality of their real-life counterpart well. To alleviate the depleted modern-day wrestler set, Yukes included Legends, unlockable superstars from the WWF’s past. Old school wrestling fans will be elated to find Andre the Giant, Bret Hart and Roddy Piper, among others. The legends also feature full entrances, with music and pyro, addressing a big complaint from “Shut Your Mouth.”

Matches play out in almost the same manner as “Shut Your Mouth.” The tight controls remain relatively unchanged which is both a plus and a minus for “Smackdown vs. Raw.” The few changes include mini-game type stare-downs and shoving battles before the bell as well as the ability to make the wrestler a good guy or bad guy in the middle of the fight. These nuances add to the ambiance of actually playing a WWE match, but the basic gameplay is still the same as last year.

“Smackdown vs. Raw” took baby steps forward from “Shut Your Mouth.” By playing it safe, Yukes produced an enjoyable game, but one that doesn’t offer much to entice players to replace last year’s edition.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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