WWE SmackDown! vs Raw was one of 2004's best wrestling games, and this year's follow up builds impressively on its solid foundations. WWE SmackDown! vs Raw 2006 may still have some noticeable flaws, but its new gameplay tweaks and added game modes makes this entry the most accomplished wrestling title available on any console.
The 2006 game surpasses last year's effort in many significant ways. The season mode in 2006 has been greatly enhanced - while there's no longer many branching paths to take, the overall narrative quality is high, thanks in no small part to the impressive voice work supplied by all of the real WWE wrestlers. There's also multiple storylines to be discovered, depending on which brand you're wrestling in (and sometimes which wrestler). This makes 2006's season mode something completists will want to play through several times.
Controls have also been improved in this year's game. Reversals in particular have been tweaked to be more forgiving. Anyone who played WWE SmackDown! vs Raw in 2004 knows just how much of a lottery the reversal system was due to the speed with which you had to press a button to execute the move. Reversals in 2006 are much more manageable, although it's still by no means slow. Most players will find themselves reversing strikes and grapples with skill before too long - and trust us when we say that it's a skill that's needed when playing the game at higher difficulty levels.
Veterans to the series will have no difficulty in picking up and playing 2006 as most of the controls are similar. This year's title has, however, added two new systems to the in-ring action - stamina and momentum. A wrestler's stamina will now gradually lessen during a match, and will lower noticeably after performing strenuous moves. Apart from looking visibly tired, wrestlers with low stamina will not fight or defend as effectively. Players will need to recover a wrestler's stamina by either standing still for some time or pressing the PS2's controller's Select button. A momentum gauge measures how well a player is wrestling determined by the in-game audience. Do all the same moves and you'll get booed - vary up your spots and your momentum will increase. Momentum is an important part of any match, as building it leads to the ability to perform a finishing move on your opponent.
Both the stamina and momentum systems add a tactical flow to matches that help WWE SmackDown! vs Raw 2006 evolve from being just a mindless button masher. Players will now have to switch their offensive strategy regularly - fight too hard and your stamina drains, while relying on the same moves will do nothing for your momentum.
As well as the expanded season mode, WWE SmackDown! vs Raw 2006 adds several new match types into the mix. You'll find all of the old favourites here (the game developers claim more than 100 different match types), as well as some interesting additions such as the Buried Alive match (you have to slam your opponent into a casket sitting on top of a mound of dirt near ringside) and the Bar Brawl.
Perhaps the biggest addition to this year's game is the all new general manager mode, which sees players taking on the duties of a GM in an effort to be the number one WWE show. As a GM, players will create a roster of wrestlers (with limited funds), book matches, continue feuds, rest wrestlers, initiate promos and more. The bigger and more popular your wrestlers, the more ratings your show (either SmackDown! or Raw) receives. While GM mode is an interesting addition, too much of it is text-based to be truly exciting (although you can choose to play any of the matches you've booked). It can also be tough to sometimes gauge exactly what will be a popular match, and therefore a ratings winner.
Graphically, WWE SmackDown! vs Raw 2006 is gorgeous, with the wrestlers sporting plenty of detail and expressions. Some of the wrestlers in this game look eerily life-like which, when added to the solid voice work, adds up to an impressively realistic whole. The game still suffers from some collision detection issues at times, though, as well as some glaring graphical glitches. You'll often see sections of a wrestler's arm disappear when wrapped around another wrestler's head, or have hits land that clearly did not connect.
WWE SmackDown! vs Raw 2006 is an impressive overall package. The wrestling mechanics have been tweaked to near perfection, and the game's many modes means plenty of play hours for fans.
Keep up to date with the latest games news, reviews and features by signing up to CNET.com.au's free Games Spotlight weekly newsletter. Sign up now!