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Smackdown! vs. RAW 2007

Hands-on impressions of the game that'll shake up Xbox wrestling like ECW shook up the WWE...

It must be something in the water up there at THQ towers. Like its stablemate MotoGP, the Smackdown Vs Raw series is so fundamentally polished and complete that it looks like this year's improvements have been implemented with a keyboard in one hand and a clasp of straws in the other. But don't go hurling yourself through a table just yet; a flurry of innovative online modes, a refined control system AND the series' debut on the lovely Xbox 360 still means we're as excited as a duck that's received a breadmaker for its birthday.

About that control system. Mapping the grapple commands to the right analogue stick not only feels more intuitive, but it also opens up an army of neck-snapping moves - over 40 are only a single stroke away, if you include context-sensitive moves. It gives proceedings a more natural flow, and frees up the face buttons for strike moves, but otherwise it's the same free-flowing system that has served the PS2 editions so well over the last five years. It's slightly disappointing in a way; the gameplay remains practically untouched, and the new elements (such as the backstage area) feel a bit too gimmicky, if we're honest with you. But as ever, it's Xbox Live that ensures Smackdown Vs Raw 2007 still feels lemon-fresh.

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SMACK MY BITS UP
An entire structural reorganisation that simply wasn't possible on the PS2's online bodge-o-strategy means that Smackdown offers a true next gen grappling experience online. There will, of course, be ranked and unranked matches, and once again you're also given the chance to create your own belt and defend it online. Successful title defences will ramp up your belt's prestige and this can be tracked on an online leaderboard. Other details couldn't be confirmed, but we'll chow down on our headgear if there aren't six or eight-man brawls and TLC matches, and although a 30-man Royal Rumble might be slightly unrealistic - for now - THQ promise us its got something special baking in the wrestle oven.

Slightly disappointingly, our chat with the developers revealed that Marketplace content is unlikely for the 2007 version - although they were adamant that it is a route they're looking to thoroughly explore further on down the console's lifespan. On the plus side, Smackdown Vs Raw 2007 is, to paraphrase the developers, set to be the most comprehensive WWE package yet, so we're unlikely to be yearning for more just yet anyhow.

One of the best parts of Smackdown Vs Raw has traditionally been the level of customisation you have with your grapplers (hunt out the footage of The Undertaker skipping out in the style of Christy Hemme on YouTube.com, by the way - the expression is priceless). Naturally, this will be beefed up on 360, but with an added twist from Xbox games past. Remember how on Xbox 1 you could shove your own tunes into a game and use them as your theme? This feature is winging its way to a Smackdown engine for the first time, and while the developers were still mulling over the final details of how it's going to work online, the very fact that they said it's a 'no-brainer' means that if it doesn't come off, you should riot in their direction, not ours. Well, actually, don't riot at all - just write a polite letter of complaint. Phew. Legally watertight.

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HEY GOOD LOOKING
Smackdown Vs Raw 2007 represents a massive leap in graphical quality over its PlayStation predecessors - there's so much spit and polish on the visuals that the game looks shiner than Hulk Hogan's big orange forehead. The wrestlers feature independently flexing muscles, if that's your thing (and why wouldn't it be?), alongside the obligatory next gen layer of sweat. But the biggest change you'll find is the near-elimination of clipping - the early build we played had 2"4 mini-man Rey Mysterio locking horns with much larger opponents, and the whole process was seamlessly animated. But it's the little things that make Smackdown '07 such a tasty eye-feast - the small squirms of feet-tapping pain when a wrestler's caught in a submission hold, or when the fans bombard you with popcorn when you're fighting in the crowd. The attention to detail is what is known as 'incredible'.

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