WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 Review (PS3)

Just like The Undertaker's ability to rack up an annual win at Wrestlemania, the Smackdown vs Raw franchise's yearly return is as certain as the cycle of day and night.. While 2010 was a comeback to form with some stellar new additions, 2011 aims to build on what's been put in place. Thankfully, THQ have now found a formula that moves away from the tiresome showings we saw earlier this gen, as the over-pumped, trash-talking superstars of the WWE aren't willing to play second fiddle to their cage-fighting brothers over at the UFC.

The main addition this year comes in the form of the WWE Universe Mode. Ever played endless exhibition matches, only for them to feel pointless at the end? Well, now they're not. Universe Mode creates an ever-changing and realistic WWE calender for you to indulge in. You're able to participate in Raw, Smackdown and Superstars shows, all of which lead up to a pay-per-view at the end of the month. If you don't like a particular card you can alter it, or simulate matches until you come to one you want to participate in. The great thing here is that you're not forced to do anything you don't want to. Each match that takes place (be it simulated or player controlled), contributes to your WWE rankings. Only those who loiter near the summit will be considered for titles shots, or number one contender matches, so there's an incentive if you want to take small fry such as Santino Marella towards glory. Get him up the rankings, and the monobrowed Italian may compete for the coveted gold.

Road To Wresletmania now forces you to talk to your opponents, often explaining why you pummelled their face through the announce table

Interestingly, you can add your created superstars to the mix, and see how they develop along the way. For those who just want to see what happens, whole years can be skipped. Relationships are formed throughout your roster, and new partnerships can be produced if superstars get friendly. The action's dramatic too, as it's not uncommon to have an interference from a rival wrestler, or Vince McMahon may stroll out to reveal you've got an extra opponent. These unpredictable events are what makes WWE so compelling in real life, and it's good to see THQ are now putting emphasis on the moments wrestling fans love. We wish they were a little more seamless, as you can generally tell when something is going to happen due to a slowing down of the game or a brief loading sign corrupts the screen, but hopefully this gripe can be reworked next year.

It really is an excellent addition, so much so it overshadows the ever present Road To Wrestlemania mode. While THQ have tried to mix things up here, there's not much to get the heart pumping You have the opportunity to take one of five wrestlers to the greatest pay-per-view of the year, but this time the backstage area is open for exploration. Most of your off camera communication will come through your mobile phone, and by talking to other superstars face-to-face. It's not exactly original, as trotting round the dressing rooms doesn't amount to much excitement. There's an air of pointlessness about launching an attack on someone backstage, as the points you receive in doing so don't alter your physical presence in the ring much. Although you're often forced to engage in conversation before heading out to the squared circle, we didn't find the new RPG-like elements to be worthwhile. Even more oddly, THQ have added a map to areas that can be fully explored in the matter of minutes.

Wrestlemania begins with the Money in the Bank match, one of the WWE's most exciting prospects of the year

Once in the ring, things are still a little hit and miss. We're glad you're not forced to catch your superstar's breath when the going gets tough this year, but some irritating inconsistencies still arise. Strong grapples are no longer in place, so you can't manually decide when you want to slam your opponent harder than before. The moves you pull off depend on if your rival is groggy or not, so a huge part of the decision process has been eliminated. It's also frustrating as it means a lot of the same moves will be reused early on. There's only so many times you want to seen an armbar or identical DDT, especially when you're trying to build momentum. Quite oddly, this year's game seems to be a lot easier than past iterations. We went straight in on the highest difficulty, and had no problems finishing off the best wrestlers with some of the lesser known. There's plenty of match types to play through, with the Hell In A Cell being the most entertaining. Even still, the particular challenge of each match comes down to getting that 1-2-3 or submission, and we'd hope for something a little tougher.

Players can now participate in all match types online, but it's the addition of the 12 man Royal Rumble that's most intriguing. This is an absolute blast, and thankfully if you're eliminated early, you'll enter as the next superstar who comes into the ring. Only 6 can be in the ring at the same time, but there's enough going on to make sure it's continually frantic on screen. THQ have added a simple XP system throughout the entire online experience, with players earning points from creating storylines, winning matches, and just about anything multiplayer related. As ever, the same issue persists when playing against a human opponent, as reversals appear all too often, meaning many matches become as repetitive as The Miz's wisecracks on the mic.

You gotta get that, dirt off ya shoulder...

There's plenty of familiarity in Smackdown vs Raw 2011, but eagle-eyed players will notice a new physics engine has been put in place. THQ's use of the Havok engine allows for some minor improvements that make the action feel more like the real thing. You can now slam opponents into the steel steps and watch their backs curl with pain, instead of the metal moving out of the way when any contact is made. Wrestlers might even lay on the floor with a foot over the rope, or their head might dangle outside the ring, ready for a neck-breaking leg drop. Subtlety is key here, and just like any other decent sports game, when a moment like this takes place, it's often acknowledged with a welcoming nod of the head.

After the massive improvement of last year, we're glad to see the WWE brand is back on track. Smackdown vs Raw 2011's major new features add longevity to a series that often lacked staying power. Throw in an addictive online mode, and this is going to make the fans happy. We expect to see the roster of 70+ superstars added to over the coming months, and who knows, maybe John Cena will be removed after his recent 'firing' from the corporation (Note: This will never happen). Although we still miss the over-excited quips from 'Good Ol' JR,' there's still a lot of spandex-filled fun to shout about in the world of sports entertainment.

Best Game Moment: The new WWE Universe mode is an excellent way to keep players interested.