It's like this. There are no energy bars in Smackdown - your slugger can effectively 'go' forever. What is a concern is the little man in the HUD - this represents your pain meter and your body parts will go from yellow to orange to red as they take punishment, before healing over time. Smart players will concentrate on certain areas, as wrestlers do in real life - so if, like Ric Flair, you have a leg punishing finisher, it'll pay dividends to work on the old 'pins'. "Finishers?", you say? "Finishers", say we. Fill up your momentum bar by dominating the match and you can save your finisher for use whenever you want - but if your momentum level drops, your finisher will be as forceful as a bum-guff in a jacuzzi. Keeping your momentum rolling is complicated further by the presence of a stamina meter, which drains rapidly as you exert yourself, turning Smackdown into a sweaty game of cat and mouse. Smackdown is packed with so many game modes that they practically froth out of your 360 like an over-sudded washing machine. With 51 greased-up grapplers (and 16 further unlockable Legends), and pretty much every match type imaginable, this has more variety than the fallout from a Trebor- Bassett factory explosion. More or less anything you can see on WWE TV can be and is reproduced perfectly on your screen, and there's no shortage of ways to see them. The main path, Season mode, allows you to play through a succession of suitably OTT storylines, all of which are well-written but don't necessarily tally up with one-another. For those with the Football Manager twitch, there's also the GM mode, where you draft a roster, hire writers, line-up PPVs and try to out-draw your opponent. It's brilliant. A turn of phrase that sums up Smackdown's options in general - there's so much that it's almost impossible not to get your money's worth.
What's new? Not as much as we'd have liked, really. The only new game mode is the 'Money In The Bank' match - like a ladder match, except that with five opponents it's now almost impossible to complete a match. Environmental hotspots and in-crowd fighting are also nice additions - and flow into your matches without feeling forced. Visually, Smackdown Vs Raw on 360 isn't so much a graphical leap as it is a full-on Snuka splash - the character models, entrances and in particular the superb crowd are all giant improvements over the PlayStation 2 titles. Clipping is still an issue - but it's a lot better than before. What really sets Smackdown 2007 out as the best WWE title in years is the simplified grappling system. Previously not a series known for being particularly accessible for the short-term user, these Yukes folks have finally turned it around by mapping grapples to the right analogue stick, allowing you to reach out and achieve dozens of context-sensitive moves in a single keystroke. For the most part it's a logical and simple affair, and although it still assumes shared knowledge on the part of the player, it's a giant and significant step in the direction of mass-market accessibility.
Up to speed? Good, good. Now it's time for your next set of choices:
- If you want to know what problems Smackdown has, go to 'Bad Things'
- If you want to know why these problems don't really matter, go to 'Good Things'
Although good, Smackdown is inescapably flawed and at times slightly broken. Computer AI, while better than the PS2's simpletons, is mortifyingly cheap at the highest setting and disastrously dim at the lowest. The only difference between the cast, aside from their finishers, is which move set they utilise, dependent on which of the four weight classes they belong to. Even then, you control their moves in exactly the same way, seriously diminishing the replay value once you've played through once with your favourite character. This is a problem Capcom resolved with Street Fighter II at a time when Chris Masters was probably flicking ruler-propelled ink blots at his geography teacher, so the lack of variation seems little less than archaic here. Similarly, there's no incentive for Yukes to balance the characters - like real life, practically nothing that Kid Kash can throw at The Great Khali will faze him. It makes Smackdown feel cheap like market stall trainers during the first week of January. But by far Smackdown 2007's ultimate Achilles' heel, the outy belly button in the otherwise ace-filled title's chiselled physique, is the Storyline mode. It lacks freedom of choice, freedom to choose partners, freedom to start fights, freedom to do anything other than make a few arbitrary choices from time to time and obediently follow where the story arc goes. The storylines are just about on the right side of entertaining - but we expect slightly more in the year of your Lord 2006 and we're hopeful that 2008's Story mode will be less of a crossroads and more like Birmingham's Spaghetti Junction. (And we don't mean backed up with cars...)