Wrestling is back! While this may excite a few WWE fans, some believe that the Smackdown vs. Raw franchise is down to its last leg, in terms of its potential to grow and its ability to progress. Many will be surprised, however, to find out that this year’s installment of Smackdown vs. RAW 2009 is still an impressive wrestling program. With the latest gameplay innovations that include a brand new tag team experience and an exciting feature called Road to Wrestlemania, this is the wrestling game to beat! Of course, there are also a few lingering issues here – like wonky target detection and slow load times. Despite these small setbacks, you’ll appreciate the new streamlined approach to the single-player components – more action, less tinkering. No matter what the others say, the Smackdown vs. RAW franchise is still alive and well – and far from the frightening “pinfall” people had perceived it to be!

The great part about this year’s performance is the revamped single-player modes. The career portion has been renovated to run at a much faster pace – eliminating the micromanagement factor such as silly training exercises that prevent your fights from achieving Wrestlemania fever! You start your career either as a custom character or your favorite superstar. Then you choose a branch of WWE from which you’ll establish your humble beginnings. It’s nice to see that players are given more control with the way they could progress through the ranks within their club. You can decide to brawl your way in a hurry, leading up to the championship match. Or take your sweet time beating each opponent to a bloody pulp. With the latter side, you’ll receive exciting medals – by successfully pulling off various maneuvers – and gain valuable points towards maximizing your athlete’s potentials. In addition, you can decide to change the type of bout on the fly; it can be a steel cage, a TLC match, or whatever turns you on.

Depending on your performance in each match, you will be rated on a 5-star scale. Obviously, punishing your opponents with advanced “technical” moves and pumping up the crowd with your showmanship will net you a better rating. Obtaining these stars is an integral part of becoming the number one contender, as you are required to complete a set amount of stars to advance to the next division. Collecting all of them is a slow process but exploring different tactics encourages players to get into the wrestling. The nice part about the career mode is that once you have acquired the title belt for a particular club, you can quickly change path and take on an entirely new WWE branch, let’s say the ECW division. Unlike last year, the choices in your career are mostly pre-defined and it seems to take forever to get a title shot!

Road to Wrestlemania is another exciting feature in this year’s edition of Smackdown vs. RAW. It offers six unique scripted storylines, heightened by a testosterone-ridden melodrama that’s always going on within the WWE business. You play as your favorite WWE superstar and beat up all oppositions, including rivalries you pick up on the side, as you work your way into Wrestlemania stardom! The matches are full of WWE action and the preliminary “trash talking” set the stage for firing up the personal vendetta. This soap opera-like atmosphere captures many of the thrilling aspects we see on live WWE programming, and Road to Wrestlemania is just the fix those hardcore WWE fans need to satisfy their wrestling appetite.

While the latest single-player components provide a brand new take on wrestling experience, it is the gameplay that gives the franchise the coveted punching power. The latest improvements to the fighting mechanics have revitalized the very action of the game. We are talking about being able to create your own ultimate finisher! Traditionally, a finisher would include two to three frames of animation. An example of a three-animation finisher would be to stun the enemy first, pick him up behind your back, and finish him off with a signature move. Thanks to this new feature, you can have as many as 10 animations, which allow you to open up a series of cheap blows before annihilating your opponent with a special move at the end! It also gives you a way to combine your favorite finishers from various WWE superstars.

The best highlights of Smackdown vs. RAW 2009 are found in tag team matches. Most of us like to have partners in our corner to cover our backs. THQ has put extra effort this year with regards to cooperative elements. It’s much easier to perform tag team moves this time around. When your opponent is dazed at the turnbuckle, simply point the right-stick in one of the directions, and your partner will automatically come out of his post to rally up a vicious double slam! To get the action fired up, turn off the “DQ” on the menu before the match begins. When your partner gets in the ring with you, the referee won’t shove him back to his corner for interfering. Now you and your partner can unleash an endless variety of tag team maneuvers. Of course, we are talking about traditional tag team match here. If it were a tornado tag, you wouldn’t have to turn off the “DQ” because all wrestlers are in the ring at the same time.

One of the nicest features about the multiplayer co-op is the innovative “hot tags”. Use this technique to bail yourself out of tight situations, particularly when your character becomes completely winded out! Have your partner hold up on the directional pad to build up the hot tag momentum while standing in the corner. As soon as the meter lights up in flame, move to your partner and press the RB and Y buttons together. Your partner will turn into this raging bull as he enters the ring, and is momentarily invincible. It’s interesting to see the action during this adrenaline charge, as most of his attacks will take place in matrix-style resolution, with twice the damage effect in clobbering both enemies. However, he has only a few seconds to do his evil bidding before his aggression wears off, so he has to make all his hits count.

You’ve heard of the phrase what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. In Smackdown vs. RAW 2009, there is no escape from heavy beatings. In fact, what happens in the ring also happens all over the concrete floor! The competition can get ugly at times with heads getting busted wide open. The main reason the game has become quite ruthless with the attacks is its expanded control scheme. Players would soon discover a number of exciting special maneuvers hidden in their fighting arsenals. Each wrestler can now carry two signature moves and two unique finishers. If you think unloading one of these heavy artilleries is enough to torture your opponent, then you guess it wrong. THQ has incorporated the ability to steal finishers and signature moves that guarantee to subdue any opposition six feet under.

The game is jam-packed with other wrestling features. You can remove the covers from turnbuckles to smash your opponent into; hammer his face relentlessly while he’s still lying on the ground; or go for broke and perform a devastating high-impact finishing move with your partner! Graphically, the game looks impressive. The animation is so good it hits close to home! From Summer Slam to the Survivor Series, each arena is decorated with authentic design of their counterpart. Character models and the multitude of fans cheering the match look excellent. The special effects on finishers are incredible where you’ll see the screen shatters into small pieces after pile-driving your opponent hard on the canvas. The audio system delivers a solid convincing tone for every slam and hard hit. The announcers have improved quite a lot; no longer will they overwhelm you with pesky play-by-play commentaries.

The Smackdown vs. RAW franchise still packs plenty of heat behind its wrestling package. This year’s version just proved there is more to the gameplay than anyone else has anticipated. The latest effort to expand the tag team concept turned out to be a good investment, yielding twice the return on entertainment. The improved fighting mechanics – that include abilities to steal opponent’s signature moves and create your own finisher – have certainly provided an immersive WWE experience. Many will find the action satisfying and the behind-the-scene drama true to its source material. However, the game suffers from awkward camera angles and unstable targeting system. Nevertheless, the incredible presentation set the stage for a brilliant Wrestlemania fever! Though there are some rough edges to this year’s performance, Smackdown vs. RAW 2009 still captures the beauty of a full combat sport.