It’s an annual ritual for me when the new WWE video games are released: spend the weekend with some buddies playing the game, drinking beer, and eating Taco Bell Value Menu items by the sack full. This time around, the game was Smackdown vs Raw 2009 for the Playstation 2. Heartburn aside, it was a fun-filled weekend indeed.

It helped that SVR09 is a very good game. Yukes, the game developer, took the best elements from the 2008 version and added in a lot of new features to build a game that will be hard to top with future editions. Fellow SLAM! Wrestling gamer Mark Xamin covered a lot of the bases in his review (for the X-Box 360 version). So here’s the skinny for more old-school gamers (i.e. too cheap to invest in new gaming technology) like me:

The Look

Visually, the game is stellar, as is the norm for the SVR series. Wrestlers are accurately depicted, from their body types, eye colour, tattoos, and outfits. Ring entrances are picture-perfect and some, notably the entrance for DX, are actually realistic enough that they look like actual video footage.

The look of the arenas is also top-notch. The on-screen venues capture the look and feel of the associated show or pay-per-view perfectly, including pyro displays and crowd shots that depict fans not just as indistinguishable blobs of colour, but rather with visible faces, clothes and signs. Particularly impressive was the outdoor desert arena for the Tribute to the Troops show, which features a crowd full of soldiers in uniform. Including that venue in the game was a nice touch, considering how important that show has been in the past few years.

On the negative side, there were some visual problems. First, there was some graphics leakage noted during gameplay — i.e. character images bled over into each other, particularly when two wrestlers were fighting in the corner. Another glitch came up during a no DQ Texas Tornado Tag Team match. Suddenly, mid-match, all of the characters started moving in very slow motion. Possibly this was a case where there was too much going on and the PS2 engine couldn’t keep up? To be fair, it only happened once during a multi-hour gaming session, so it’s probably just one of those things. The last minor irritant is that the camera angle doesn’t move with the action, so occasionally -– mainly while on the floor on the far side of the ring — you can’t always see your opponent when he’s lying on the ground. But again, that was the exception as opposed to the norm, and didn’t really detract from the overall visual presentation.

The Look – 9/10

The Sounds

As is par for the course in all WWE games, music is featured heavily throughout. Every wrestler’s actual theme song is included and used for their ring entrances. There is also a library of other original songs that are included which can be used for customized characters (more on that later). Music is also played when you’re navigating the menu screens, and this range of tunes also includes songs by semi-famous bands like P.O.D. and Disturbed. A cool feature is the “jukebox” facility which allows you to change the song that’s playing over the title screens –- after all, who wouldn’t want to hear Biscuits and Gravy over and over again?

Match commentary is provided by actual WWE announcers, and they are brand-specific. Note that the game development must have preceded the recent draft lottery, meaning that Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler are still the voices of RAW, Tazz and Joey Styles handle ECW, and Michael Cole and The Coach cover the action on Smackdown. Despite the added commentary roster, though, I have to echo Mark’s comment that the phrases become somewhat repetitious very early. Fortunately, you have the option to turn down the commentary volume, because eventually, you’ll get tired of hearing the same one-liners over and over.

The Sounds – 7.5/10

The Stars

Here’s where the game earns its stripes. Nearly every current (well, up to a couple of months ago) superstar and diva are available to play right from the get-go. Part of the frustration with the TNA game released a few months ago was that you had to unlock way too many characters. With SVR09 on the other hand, you can put in the disc and immediately choose to be HHH, HBK, Y2J, JBL and any other acronym you can think of. All of them feature a few of the wrestler’s signature moves and finisher.

Some people might be disappointed by the lack of legends in the game, apparently because the company is saving their appearances for the upcoming Legends of Wrestlemania game. While my guess is that they will bring in some characters to download for newer platforms at some point, PS2 users will be out of luck if that comes to pass.

That’s not such a big deal, however, since the Create-a-Wrestler feature is bigger and better than ever. With all of the options available in terms of appearance and wardrobe, you could probably create any legend you want. Or, better yet, create a superstar in your own likeness. The ability to create your own finishing move is a neat new feature as well. Thankfully, it appears that all of the Create features have been included in the PS2 version — of course, any future downloadable content won’t be.

The Stars – 9/10

The Spectacle

Ultimately, all the bells and whistles don’t mean much unless there’s a solid game behind them. Fortunately, SVR delivers in spades.

There are multiple types of matches, including a variety of WWE’s most famous gimmick matches like the Hell in the Cell, TLC, and Elimination Chambers. New this year is the Inferno match. This looks great, with flames surrounding the ring, increasing in intensity as you punish your opponent, until ultimately you throw your opponent into the ropes where he catches on fire. While it’s a bit goofy, there’s still something oddly amusing about seeing Big Daddy V roast around ringside in flames.

Other improvements from earlier versions of the game are tag team matches, which the advertising really stressed as being more realistic. This clearly was given some attention by the developers, I noticed a lot more intelligent behaviour from the computer-controlled partner than in other games.

The other big change is in the new Road to Wrestlemania story mode. This is an interesting switch from the traditional “career” mode that you see in a lot of games. In Road to Wrestlemania mode, you control the career of a WWE superstar, and go through his career for the few months leading up to the big show. The stories are limited to a few main eventers, with each one having a unique storyline. Wrestler-specific cut scenes and dialogue (actual wrestlers’ voices are used) enhance the story. Each story should last for a few hours, so there is certainly some replay value there.

The only feature that I believe isn’t available on the PS2 version is the ability to capture instant replays from the matches and save these into movie clips for future viewing. While this feature seems pretty meaningless to me, if it’s that important to you, you might want to consider a system upgrade.

The Spectacle – 8/10

The Summary

Overall, Smackdown vs Raw 2009 is a very good wrestling game that fans of the franchise will certainly want to pick up for their PS2.