Although the WWE has not ever been afraid to flirt with controversy, we reckon the legion of terrible WWE branded videogames we've been subjected to over the years have been responsible for more tears and angry parents than backstage skits such as dead-mannequin-sex could ever dream of achieving. And the reason why they've largely been poor, to wheel out a tired cliché, is that making a wrestling game is like trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
Wrestling means different things to different people: some associate it with big, hairy brawlers lobbing each other through burning tables. Others expect to see cruiserweights flipping through the air like click beetles on Lucozade.
The casual fan, on the other hand, just wants a straight-up fight. What a palaver. At least it's not the bad old pre-2002 days, where confused environmentalists would pick up a copy of WWF Rage In The Cage in the hope of playing out a mini-game where you quell a claustrophobic panda by prodding it gently with razor-sharp bamboo shoots. The seeds of today's Smackdown series were sown from AKI Corporation's blooming efforts on the N64, again pollinated by the THQ bee, yet it's a wonder that they grew at all after the careless way their predecessors Acclaim stamped the genre into the mud. What AKI did differently from previous attempts was to create a system that understood basic ring psychology. Their revolutionary grapple system lifted the wrestling game out of the candle-lit times of button bashing and into a new, futuristic age of pace, rhythm and tactical choice. While it's largely accepted that current day torchpassers Yukes have yet to achieve the heights of AKI's parting shot, the N64's transcendent No Mercy, they've managed to refine their grappling system and produce a stream of widely-acclaimed WWE titles. What a beautiful story - except that the Xbox consoles were nowhere to be seen in the credits (aside from AKI's pseudo-followup, Def Jam - good, wasn't it?).
But this time round, the 360 is getting in on the action from the opening bell. Is this the first good wrestling game on Xbox? Without a shadow of a doubt. But how good is it? Well, that depends entirely on your entry point. So, in the spirit of Smackdown's season mode (and with apologies to Choose Your Own Adventure fans), we offer to you the world's first (and probably last) multi-choice review:
- If you don't like wrestling, and are sitting there wondering how the hell it would ever appeal to you, then go to option 'One'.
- If you're unfamiliar with Smackdown and want to know how it works, go to 'Two'.
- If you're a veteran of the PS2 series and want to know how 2007 on next gen uses the 360's 'oomph', go to 'Three'.
If you're not into wrestling, forget about it. In a fight against a conventional beat-'em-up like Dead Or Alive, Smackdown would be lucky to bruise its opponent's fist with its face. Non-wrestling fans tend to hate Smackdown before they open the box, because to get anything out of it, you need to have a basic, fundamental understanding of how wrestling plays out. That is, the idea is to ensure that both wrestlers have a chance of winning the match for as long a period as possible, and Smackdown allows this to be without eroding the skill factor at all, by allowing you to hypothetically reverse any move with a well timed trigger press. Parrying, say, a punch is fairly easy, but blocking Shawn Michaels' sweet chin music is bastard-hard. If you're on the offence, the trick is to vary your move set enough so as to thwart your opponent's counters. Human chess at its finest - but if you don't understand wrestling's rules and conventions it'll feel like trying to get a dead pigeon to dance by playing a Relaxing Ocean Sounds Album. Unresponsive.