Every sport has its die-hards, but there's something particularly unsettling about the truly hardcore grapple aficionado. At this year's Wrestlemania 22 in Chicago, I was unfortunate enough to be sat in front of a so-called 'smart' fan who ranted and raved about 'ring psychology', 'booking matches' and 'backstage politics'. I started to think after a while that he'd missed the point.
Life's too short to not be able to appreciate wrestling for what it is; burly guys pretending to push each others' faces in for slapstick comedy value. If at this point you're still genuinely angry that "Brett got screwed!" then SmackDown Vs RAW 2007 will probably be Christmas come early. For everyone else, don't bother.
Like most wrestling games, SmackDown Vs RAW 2007 is too focused on attention to detail. Not enough work has gone into making a compelling game for a mainstream audience. Look at Tiger Woods 2007 and you have a fun and accessible game that non-golf fans can easily enjoy. On the other hand, this grappling sim is strictly for the hardcore.
It's a massive springboard in graphical terms. The 67 wrestler models are the most impressive ever seen in a WWE game. The skin textures are sharp and defined, plus the muscle placement and movement is very convincing. The superstars' facial expressions are the most remarkable though. Given that a lot of pro wresting is about performance and drama, their reactions need to tell a story, and they do so here. This time, you'll really notice the pain on your opponent's face when you put him in a submission hold. It also feels like the slams and splashes have more impact because you can see how much they hurt.
If that's not enough, there's always the opportunity to bust open their faces with a weapon and make them bleed. The attention to detail is quite intense, each superstar even sweats more the longer a match goes on.
Although most of the 20 arenas are from 2005, they're all very nicely modelled. The colourful lighting and pyrotechnics look particularly appealing. All of the pay-perviews are there, from Wrestlemania 21 to ECW's One Night Stand.
Presentation wise, it's sublime. Unfortunately, the gameplay doesn't stand up to scrutiny unless you're a series veteran. Certainly, there is no shortage of new gameplay features over last year's edition. Most of them seem like a move away from the standard beat 'em up toward the more serious wrestling simulation. This is not necessarily a good thing. Arguably the best of the new features is the ultimate control move set. All grapples are executed using the Right thumbstick, but you can take that to a new level by clicking the thumbstick down during a move. This gives access to a new move set where you can control the strength and duration of your attacks.
For example, you can choose exactly how long to hold someone in a gorilla press, by holding up the Right thumbstick. When they've suffered enough discomfort, you can then slam them into the mat by pressing Down. This makes you feel more in charge of the situation, as the blows feel like they have more impact because you're not just pushing a button to do them.
Unfortunately, some of the other features designed to make the game more realistic fall flat. We're particularly unhappy with the stamina meter that dominates the proceedings too heavily. While it might be realistic for a wrestler to run out of steam if they attack too often, it's not actually all that much fun. We can see the point of creating a cat and mouse style drama, giving the weaker opponent a chance to come back, but the effects are too extreme.