Smackdown vs. Raw 2006 has hit stores across the world, and, without being too dramatic, this may indeed be the best wrestling video game created for the North American gaming nation.

The game, which hit stores in November, has been jam-packed with all the candy-coated goodness of the previous Playstation 2 series titles, but has added a lot since Smackdown vs. Raw.

Gameplay — 9/10

This is where the game has changed most dramatically, and definitely for the better.

Added this year is the stamina meter, which fluctuates based on the amount of damage you take and the difficulty of moves you perform. This means that you can’t just go straight to power moves to destroy your opponent in five seconds — you have to employ some strategy to weaken your opponent to have a better chance at pulling off the big moves.

The momentum meter has also vastly improved, with high risk moves earning a bigger payoff if successful.

Modes — 8.5/10

I was very, very impressed with this year’s season mode. Incorporating a lot of the “WWE” wrestling style, there has been a revamping of cut scenes. Along with giving created players voice options, the storylines are immensely better and more varied. The animation on the cut scenes has also vastly improved.

New to the SD! line is a General Manager Mode, which is basically a simulation format. While I was a bit bored by this element, that’s my personal taste and it was infinitely better than other sims I’ve tried.

Also hot is the ability to fight for championships outside of season modes. This is a very welcome addition, since this was primarily restricted to Season Mode in the past. This goes along way in ensuring replay. Another bonus is that all of the current WWE belts are included, as well as the retired Hardcore title.

The biggest disappointment, however, is that King of the Ring has still not been re-introduced. Yes, the PPV is gone, but gamers always love tournament-mode options.

Match Types — 9.5/10

Oh, how this game has evolved in such a short span.

All of the favourites have returned from last year, while a couple new matches to play.

The biggest addition is the Buried Alive Match, which is actually more challenging than one might expect. While you can easily goad your opponent to move towards the waiting cemetery plot, actually stuffing him/her in the casket and shutting the lid is extremely hard. Timing and precision are musts.

Also in the game is the Bar Brawl, which hasn’t been seen since No Mercy in the days of Nintendo64. The environments here are very interactive and really work well.

Roster — 5/10

This is the only real failing point of SD’06.

Several grapplers on the roster, including Muhammad Hassan, Mark Jindrak and Joy Giovanni, are no longer with the company, which really sticks the game in limbo. While the lead time for the roster is months ahead of the release date, there certainly are wrestlers that could have been seen as not likely to be around, or at least major players in the WWE by release time. For example, Spike Dudley is in the game, while THQ had the foresight not to include the Dudleyz.

The other failing is that wrestlers teased in the game’s intro are not included. Rather than create a unique opening, THQ simply borrowed from Smackdown and Raw’s openings. This includes images of the Mexicools and MNM. Considering all of these wrestlers were on board with WWE by ECW One Night Stand in the spring, there is no reason why they aren’t in the game, especially when THQ had a partial mapping of guys like Juventud Guererra and Psychosis from their WCW days.

Create — 8.5/10

While the design-a-wrestler and moveset aspects have largely remained the same, other elements have been added.

One interesting aspect is the addition of an entrance creation mode. In the past, one solid entrance was available; now, however, you can edit all kinds of aspects of the entrance, including stage and in-ring gestures. Additions of fireworks and lighting also make for a more unique experience.

A disappointing aspect of entrance, however, is the lack of music. The generic music, which has been around for four games, is gone. Instead, there are a series of admittedly crappy songs that really aren’t suited for wrestler entrances.

The belt creation mode, however, still really is weak. A lot of the options for your title are still smacking of cheese. If you’re going to include this option, you really need to have options players will use.

Unlockables — 7/10

There is a bevy of unlockables here, but many of them are absolutely useless.

The major unlockables, as always, are a variety of WWE Legends that can be purchased in the WWE Shop. While many of the stars can be had from the start of the game, others are a little bit trickier, in that you have to complete tasks and then earn enough money (in season mode or through challenges) to buy them.

Unfortunately, one wrestler, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, is only available if you have the PSP game as well and synch up the two.

There are other standard unlockables like movesets and arenas that are cool additions.

From here, however, it all goes downhill. First, unlike last year, you cannot get experience points in the Shop to improve your created wrestlers. This was a big plus last year, as you didn’t continuously have to go through season after season to earn points to improve your created wrestlers.

Instead, you can buy an insane amount of accoutrements for your locker room, which essentially is useless. This is a serious drawback to the Shop program.

Graphics and Sound — 9/10

I have to give THQ credit. After last year’s game, I thought they’d be spent as far as the lengths they could go in terms of graphic development, but they blew me away.

The cut-scenes are light years ahead of where they were last year and the animation has become nearly flawless. The only beef here is that at times in matches, wrestlers appear to get absorbed into the mat still, but this occurrence has been drastically reduced from previous editions.

The sound is also more realistic, and save for my previous entrance music complaint, is spectacular. As always, the voiceover commentary gets repetitive quickly, but has improved since last time.

Overall — 8.5/10

The true measure of a new game in a series is if it’s good enough to make you forget about the previous edition. SD vs. Raw ’06 accomplishes this task by leaps and bounds. Improved gamplay and huge replay-ability options really make this game stand head and shoulders over the first Smackdown vs. Raw game.

This one is a must have, as it is likely the last on the PS2 system.