Although there are many changes to Smackdown this year, the one that sticks in our heads most is how weird the wrestlers' mouths have become. You can see how oddly wrong they are by glancing at Edge over there, but it's most apparent just after a failed pinfall, at which point they all pull a frustrated grimace and chomp their lips together flappily in the pained expression of a dog who's just stuck his nose in a patch of stinging nettles. It really is very odd.
Anyway. Having spent the last couple of years bemoaning the lack of change in WWE games from year to year, it's something of a shock to find that this time around it's actually had a bit of an overhaul. Out goes the vaguely-mechanical button-jabbing and in comes a Fight Night-esque system utilizing the right stick. While the face buttons are still used for basic jabs and punches, get into a grapple situation and a flick of the right stick will unload a hip-toss, a suplex, a jab to the eyes or whatever. Click R3 during a grapple and you'll get access to the strangely-named 'user-controlled' grapple moves - these are your more showy, powerful manoeuvres (powerslams, neckbreakers and so forth) - and can punish your opponent further. Finishers continue to be applied with L1.
And it works well, offering up scrapping that feels rather more fluid than before. It takes a little time to get used to - it took us ages before we were reeling off user-controlled grapple moves fluently - but once you do, it feels entirely natural.
OUT OF STAMINA
Unfortunately, last year's accursed stamina system survives - although now mapped onto Circle rather than Select, which is marginally more sensible - meaning every time your wrestler gets a bit tired, you have to stop and hold down the button until he gets his breath back. This, again, leads to farcical situations every two minutes where both fighters will be having a bit of a punch-up, but then get a bit wheezy and have to retreat to opposite sides of the ring for a rest. The poor lambs. We said this last year and we'll say it again: this is a game, THQ, not a sim. It doesn't need this cack-handed approach to realism. While this sort of thing happens occasionally in 'real' wrestling to heighten the drama it's got no place here.
Other new stuff? There's the dressing room redecoration option - see the box on the left - a fleshed-out Management mode with loads of proper stats and the chance to hire scriptwriters to make your wrestlers' feuds more popular with the viewing public there are new Season storylines, the ability to nick weapons from the crowd, an updated roster (but one that feels a bit slim as there are loads of minor wrestlers not present) and better commentary. This year, the King and Jim Ross (or Michael Cole and Tazz) even acknowledge the wrestlers in the ring by name, which doesn't sound much but is an immense improvement on the genero-commentary of the last few years. They also offer facts and insight too. Create-a-wrestler mode, meanwhile, is as in-depth as ever, allowing you to create any number of freaks - our first experiment created an overweight dwarf with blue skin, pink hair, a red suit, horns and giant monster feet.
OUT FOR THE COUNT
But. For all the new things going on in Smackdown 2007 the series' faults haven't been corrected. Again. The AI, again, is far from stellar - the amount of times our opponent approached our downed bodies menacingly before wafting a steel chair apologetically through the air above our heads is obscene. Also, in tag team matches, it's still not out of the question that your partner might freak out a bit in the scrum and start beating you up instead of your rivals. Sticking with tag bouts, if both your opponents happen to be in the ring at once, you can almost guarantee at some point you'll wind up attempting to attack the wrong one and, while you can correct that with a button press, the disorientation inevitably results in your face getting stamped on.