The section about “downloadable comment” has been updated.

About five days ago, during WWE’s SummerSlam weekend, THQ held an event for the press to see what sports-entertainment and video game fans everywhere could expect from the latest installment of their flagship franchise, WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011.

Though I was unable to attend this year, I’ve nonetheless managed to gather up a ton of info about the game. There’s a lot to cover, so getting right to it…

The Box

What better place to start than with the image of the packaging you’ll be picking up when you go to the store on October 26th (29th in Australia) to pick up your copy? Different cover art for a game between different regions is not an uncommon occurrence for video games, and this year, THQ is adopting that very methodology by placing different Superstars on each region’s cover.

As seen above, the North American release will feature The Big Show, John Cena, and Mr. Money in the Bank, The Miz. This lineup also applies to Australia, Hong Kong, India, New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan, and is shared across the Xbox 360, Wii, PlayStation 2, PS3, and PlayStation Portable platforms. Strangely, it seems this year may not have a DS release.

Meanwhile, those who live in Europe have an entirely different lineup to look forward to on their packaging. The legendary Undertaker, “The Viper” Randy Orton, and the currently-reigning WWE Champion, “The Celtic Warrior” Sheamus adorn this region’s version.

“John Cena, Undertaker, Randy Orton, Big Show, The Miz and Sheamus are incredibly talented WWE Superstars who took part in some of the biggest moments ever witnessed in WWE,” commented Danny Bilson, Executive Vice President, Core Games, THQ. “We look forward to delivering an unparalleled WWE simulation experience with WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011, including best-in-class creative tools and decision-making abilities for players to define their own virtual WWE moments.”

In addition to the covers seen above, other covers for additional regional releases are slated to be revealed in the coming months.

The Pre-Order

So far, no official pre-order bonuses have been announced, but Amazon.com has revealed that if you do so with them, you will receive a $10 gift card.

For last year’s edition, pre-ordering for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 editions of the game would net you a free download of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, one of the WWE’s most famous Superstars and one of the game’s most formidable characters. As with many such pre-order bonuses, he was later made available as downloadable content for a fee.

Update: Destructoid now reports that Bret “The Hitman” Hart, listed above as part of the roster, is in fact the bonus character those who pre-order the game will receive. This seems limited to Best Buy and “all major Canadian retailers,” and he’ll be available for download some time after the release.

The “This Is Your Moment” Trailer

The Roster

As one who watches WWE programming knows only too well, the roster is ever-shifting. Releases, injuries, and new recruits keep things dynamic. Unlike, say, your Madden NFL titles, where year-to-year roster changes essentially flip the number on a jersey and how fast a player can run, roster changes in the WWE Smackdown vs. Raw series tend to carry a bit more weight.

For every new Superstar added, there are new moves to learn, new taunts, new sound bytes, new finishers, new entrance music… it more closely resembles a new addition to a Street Fighter title than a sports game, despite its annual frequency.

And that’s not even taking into consideration changes in Superstars who appear from year to year, such as The Miz. New attire, a new theme, and a new finisher have followed the United States Champion and Money in the Bank winner since his inclusion in last year’s title, which has no doubt helped raise his overall stats from last year’s 78.

While the full roster has yet to be revealed, THQ has confirmed the following on their forum:

  • Bret Hart
  • Undertaker
  • Randy Orton
  • Chris Jericho
  • The Miz
  • John Cena
  • Sheamus
  • Rey Mysterio
  • Jack Swagger
  • Triple H
  • Big Show
  • Evan Bourne
  • Christian
  • Edge
  • Michelle McCool
  • Eve Torres

Other rumored Superstars, such as “The Chosen One” Drew McIntyre, new WWE Diva’s Champion Melina, and the new bad boys of wrestling, the Nexus, are all said to be no more than rumors and speculation at this point. Hopefully they’ll be included, particularly one “American Dragon” Daniel Bryan.

In the end, expect to see more than 70 Superstars and Divas appear in the game.

The Game

Each year, THQ and developer Yuke’s work on fine-tuning different aspects of the game. For 2009, they worked on the tag-team portion of the game. In 2010, they focused on creating a full array of customization options: revamped Create a Superstar, story creation, highlight reels, entrance videos, and so much more, which could all be shared online (in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions, anyway).

This year, the focus seems to be on creating a living, breathing WWE Universe. Rather than having Career Mode and Exhibition and such modes acting as independent entities within the game’s structure, they will all be as one in the optional WWE Universe Mode.

In WWE Universe Mode, a new addition to the franchise, gameplay scenarios will change based on player decisions, allowing for new rivalries, alliances, championship matches and more spontaneous WWE action in and out of the ring.

In addition, the “Road to WrestleMania” story mode returns with new stories and additions, including “the ability to freely roam through locker room areas, select opponents, break into impromptu matches and fulfill destinies based on player choices.”

“WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 is on track to deliver the most incredible WWE simulation experience to date in our storied franchise,” said Danny Bilson, Executive Vice President, Core Games, THQ. “This year’s game will offer players a variety of intuitive new gameplay features, impactful upgrades, industry-leading creation and customization tools, as well as unparalleled freedom to experience their own virtual WWE moments in line with those seen weekly in WWE.”

THQ is also boasting over 100 types of matches, including the infamous Tables, Ladders, and Chairs, the Satanic structure known as Hell in a Cell, and of course, Money in the Bank, plus new playable arenas. Augmenting these matches is a new physics system to ensure “all matches and object interactions look and feel unique, dynamic and unpredictable,” just as in WWE’s actual product.

The Downloadable Content

Aside from “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, as mentioned before, last year’s game did not do very much with downloadable content, instead allowing the “WWE Community” to come up with and share their creations. This year, however, will be a different story.

The plan for WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 is to boast “the franchise’s largest online feature set to date,” with downloadable content featuring new playable Superstars, Divas, and even new arenas and alternate ring gear. Included in the package is a back-of-manual download code for the game’s first batch of DLC, which contains “The Masterpiece” Chris Masters, Rey Mysterio in Halloween-themed “Dia de los Muertos” attire, and Kelly Kelly in Halloween-themed “Devil” attire.

Similar to the EA Sports Online Pass and THQ’s own UFC Undisputed 2010, those who purchase the game used will have to shell out for the package separately, and it is currently expected to cost 800 Microsoft Points/$9.99 on the PlayStation Network. But unlike UFC, Destructoid reports that second-hand buyers of WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2010 will get a free seven-day trial period for the game’s online features.

Announcements of further downloadable content and their respective prices are still to come.

And, as noted above in the pre-order section, if you miss out on the pre-orders, you’ll still be able to get Bret “The Hitman” Hart, maybe for as little as one dollar/80 Microsoft Points (the price “Stone Cold” went for last year).

The Question of Annual Installments

Whereas many hit games tend to see a development cycle spanning a couple of years, sometimes more, sports titles (or in this case, sports-entertainment titles) often come out on an annual basis. However, after two annual installments of its UFC Undisputed series, THQ has noted the possibility of pulling the reins back a little on that franchise, allowing it a potential development cycle ranging from 15 to 21 months.

Destructoid brought the idea up to WWE Smackdown vs. Raw Creative Director Cory Ledesma, who quickly dismissed the idea:

“We’ve been doing this for 12 years now [ed. note: 1999's WWF WrestleMania 2000 was THQ's first WWF/WWE game], so I think we have a pretty good track record of delivering quality each year.” Indeed, the SvR franchise has racked up more than 50 million sales worldwide in its ten years of existence, so the numbers would seem to indicate that WWE fans haven’t yet tired of the annual cycle.

UFC is a new franchise; it’s still fresh; it’s got some adjustments to make in order to address some of the fans’ requests and to really hit [the developers'] stride as far as the franchise [goes]. I think that strategy makes sense for them.”

Despite this, however, Ledesma is one to never say never:

“If it comes to the point that quality ever drops substantially, then of course I think any game developer would look at that strategy. [...] But it’s something that we haven’t explored on WWE, and we like to consider our strategy to be the best approach to delivering good content in a timely manner.”

Fortunately, while UFC continues to work to gain traction, it appears that WWE fans have little to worry about.

The Impressions

As noted previously, we did not have anyone on hand available to give the game a try in Los Angeles last weekend, nor at this week’s Gamescom. On the other hand, some other sites did have people there, and you can follow these links to learn what they thought of the game:

Enter the WWE Universe in WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 – Destructoid

Gamescom: WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 Blowout – IGN

We’ll bring you more of the latest on this WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 as the information becomes available.