Things we learnt during our press trip to WrestleMania 23, number #47: America as a country can be quite odd. Take our pre-show meal at Detroit's Hard Rock Café as an illustration. We're halfway through a portion of chicken wings large enough to feed Middlesex for a fortnight, when suddenly the song on the radio (I Write Sins Not Tragedies by Panic! At The Disco, context fans) blurts out the word 'damn'. Honestly, certain sections of the restaurant went so quiet we had to check that the head chef hadn't waddled out with a horse's head on a platter.
Yet in the short time it takes to walk through the turnstiles of the nearby Ford Field Stadium, the atmosphere becomes something quite different; with a rabid crowd of 78,000 baying for blood around the ring, you get the impression that unless someone gets piledrived head-first through the Spanish announcers' table real soon, a riot could break out. And it was by tapping this particular side of the American psyche that a small independent wrestling company named ECW broke out of the bingo halls and into the big time.
The legacy of the small Philadelphia-based wrestling promotion that rose up to challenge the WWE in the mid-nineties is such that to this day young punters who were still filling their nappies when the likes of Terry Funk and Sabu were ripping chunks out of each other back in '94 chant 'E-C-W' at the merest whiff of a chairshot. Five years removed from its demise, the brand name was so strong that WWE decided to bring it back as a separate brand on TV. And in 2008, the Extremists will debut in Smackdown Vs Raw.
Smack My Bits Up
Despite the omission from the title, ECW will be on a level footing with both Smackdown and Raw, taking pride of place in Smackdown's new WWE 24/7 mode. 24/7 is an amalgamation of the previous year's Season and GM modes, with the ultimate goal of your superstar being to enter the WWE hall of fame and become a Legend. Now, although the word among WWE fans is that the new ECW is a poor shadow of its former self, for the purpose of Xbox 360 we needn't worry about such politics, because THQ promise that Smackdown '08 will capture the essence of the original ECW. This means small stadiums, fiercely loyal crowds and - we'd imagine - more environmental hotspots than you could shake a kendo stick at.
But as ECW enters the fray, it finds itself passing the onscreen meters in the hallway. One of the main criticisms of Smackdown over the years has been that the screen is often more HUD than action, but this year Yukes have decided to whip out their magical coding brush and sweep away much of the on-screen clutter. The maniacal button-bashing has been carefully replaced by a more refined system, where the wrestler on the offensive can manually apply the pressure with creative use of the analogue sticks.
'But what about the poor sweat-stained meatboy on the defensive? How the freaking hell does he know when to counter?!?' we hear you scream. Calm down! We're getting to that! One of the most important changes in Smackdown '08 is that the wrestler on the defensive is always able to launch an offensive attack, eliminating the loooong periods of enforced inactivity that had many a Smackdown player booing their eyes out. Countering moves 2008-style is still very much a case of timing the move correctly, but instead of looking at some random meter for a while, you observe the onscreen action and wait for exactly the right moment to strike.
The ability to do this is brought to you by the power of Improved Animation. The choppy, crapariffic animation sequences from the PS2-era Smackdown (that wiggled their way into Smackdown '07 like a big, fat unwelcome worm) have been stripped out and replaced with a new series of animations that even at this stage look noticeably more fluid than those of its predecessors. The need for a new series of animations has been necessitated by the new categorisation of the wrestlers - where previously they were differentiated by size alone, now they're separated into eight distinct fighting styles - from brawlers like The Sandman to powerhouses such as Lashley, from submission experts such as Chris Benoit to showmen like Mr Kennedy, with technical, high-flyer, dirty and hardcore rounding off the octet of wrestling styles. Each wrestler has a secondary and a primary category, minimising the occurrence of cookie cutter wrestlers and giving each 'Superstar' individuality.
The gameplay options are as 'robust' as ever (their word), with over 50 playable characters and a raft of modes playable over Live - with extra attention being paid to Create A Championship and Entrance modes, now with an improved interface. We liked what we saw. More soon.