While THQ has been relatively mum on the subject of their Legends of Wrestlemania title, which is scheduled to be released later this year, that hasn't stopped them from churning out another entry in the well-established Smackdown franchise. The series has seen its share of peaks and valleys, with last year's title being one of the company's more "average" efforts. Nevertheless,THQ has a devoted and vocal wrestling-game fan-base from which they not only take suggestions, but the more feasible of which they actually incorporate into their titles. This fact shows in SvR 09, which offers a few compelling additions in a series that has adopted virtually everything the hardcore fan could ask for. SvR has had a virtual monopoly in the wrestling market for the past few years, and withthe modest success of Midway's TNA Impact, it's as good a time as any for THQ to lure players back. SvR 2009 will do just that, in what is not only a considerable improvement over last year's game, but one of the finest installments inthe entire franchise to date.

Despite numerous opportunities to mix things up, THQ has again kept the status quo in terms of graphics, gameplay, and the like., In short, if you've played even a tiny bit of any of the more recent SvR's, or even the those under the former Smackdown label (especially on the next-Gen systems), then you know what you'll be getting. Despite receiving some legitimate competition from Midway this time, SvR 2009 still outshines its opponent in all of the important areas: number of wrestlers, match types on offer, a functional and robust control scheme, solid online play, and customization. Impact might look a tad prettier by comparison, but THQ has built a formidable reputation, including that always-growing resource of fanse and by making enhancements year after year, they keep the SvR series fresh and in the lead. . That being said, SvR 2008 was more style than substance, and for the first time since the original SvR , the reigning champion was looking like it had exhausted all options in remaining the top in its game. Leave it to the fine folks at THQ to listen to "the people" and turn around with a respectable amount of new features, keeping Midway's grappler at bay, but also giving Smackdown and WWE fans worldwide a treat that will curb the anticipation for Legends of Wrestlemania.

Quite possibly the greatest additions to this year's SvR is not one, but two career-style modes. Last year's career-mode was boring, lacked any real excitement, and was ultimately nothing but redundancy with a little randomness thrown in--a rather unappealing experience. The "career" mode in '09 is straightforward and does not have any real pizazz to it, but is well designed, engrossin,g and more in-depth than you might initially think.

The premise involves taking a wrestler (either your own or one of the WWE's) and beginning a quest to win every single title the WWE has to offer. Sure, weight restrictions are thrown out the window, meaning your 300 lbs behemoth can win the Light Heavyweight title, but the process of obtaining your belt of choice is a long one. At first, you only have a few championships to choose from. You select the one you want to acquire and then face a handful of wrestlers. By beating them, you accumulate stars (which I will go over in more detail shortly). When you have 15 stars or more, you get the chance to become the #1 contender for the title. Beat one of the aforementioned wrestlers, and your next bout is with the champion. The kicker is, each championship bout is accentuated with a specialty match. Therefore, if you want to get that belt, you might have to climb a ladder, put someone through a table, or scale a steel cage. Once you win the championship, you unlock not only the specialty match (which can now be used in the paths for other titles), but also paths to more prestigious titles as well. The process repeats itself until you get every single belt, or until you tire of beating on jambronis.

Getting back to the stars you accumulate, they represent your ranking after the match is over. Putting on a 5-star classic is the ultimate goal, and how you go about doing this is entirely up to you. Upon the conclusion of the match, you receive points in three categories: match results, excitement, and technical. Every 200 points is equivalent to 1 star, so basic math will tell you that 1000+ points is what you should be trying for if you want the maximum amount of stars. On top of this, the following screen shows you how much you've leveled up certain attributes, and rewards you with medals based on what you did in the match. These feats are given some rather snazzy monikers, such as "Invisible Superstar" (when your partner does not get involved), "Suit of Armor" (for not taking damage), and "No Cover Charge" (for not attempting any pin falls). Finally, if you meet certain conditions, you can unlock new abilities for your superstar, such as becoming a specialist in a certain fighting style, orbeing able to perform dirty pins, outside dives and springboards. The number of abilities you can unlock is astounding, and considering you can wrestle as many times as you want, perhaps to achieve all those 5-star efforts, or just to raise your attributes and acquire more abilities, Career mode provides you with a challengeso simple and addictive, it's surprising this formula hadn't been thought of before.

The other single-player mode, coined Road to Wrestlemania, is also excellently done. Granted, it is limited when compared to the Career mode, consideringer that you can only select half a dozen superstars. RtW puts you in control of some of WWE's finest as you follow a particular storyline on your way to Wrestlemania. Without giving anything away, the WWE writers (who actually had a hand in the development of these storylines) should be applauded for their efforts. Not only are these storylines better than some of the nonsense we've seen in Smackdowns past, but they actually engage you to the point where you want to know what will happen next. Sure, the acting in the cut scenes is laughable, but seeing them play out as you go from week to week keeps the experience entertaining. This road is a short one, spanning only about 14 weeks, but like the Career Mode, RtW will keep you busy with optional goals, which if met will unlock things such as additional superstars, costumes, and move sets. The tag-team RtW is the best mode of the bunch, simply because it allows you to play as either of the two wrestlers yourself, or to go at it with a friend. As far as attempting to emulate what goes on in television land every week, '09's RtW does it better than any previous Smackdown title to date.

While the single player experience has been enhanced prominently, multiplayer has been given some additional polish in the form of new tag-team mechanics. Whether you are playing with a friend or a CPU-controlled partner, '09 provides the non-legal wrestler on the outside with a few options that could change the course of the match. The most notable feature is being able to build up momentum for the hot-tag, which gives your team an extra finisher or two to turn around what would otherwise be their impending doom. This as well as less subtle things, such as being able to move away from the neutral corners around the apron, gives tag-team wrestling a boost in gameplay but experienced gamers will likely be so well-versed that they will fail to take advantage of these new features. If anything, it does help improve the AI to a small degree, meaning you could place a little more faith in your computer-controlled partner to not just stand idly by while you take a beating that is supposed to serve two.

Among match types, all your favourites are here, and little has been done to alter how they are played. However, THQ thought enough to introduce one new match type that may look fabulous on television, but doesn't quite provide as much appeal in video game form: the Inferno Match. , The WWE has only displayed this type of bout a handful of times, and with good cause: the premise of the match is to set your opponent on fire. How THQ has translated this to your video game console is as follows. The wrestlers are surrounded by a ring that is engulfed in flames; as you exchange blows the temperature of the ring increases. When you reach 500 degrees Celsius, you have a short period to muscle your opponent over to the ring ropes. Once you accomplish this, the computer takes over and tosses the hapless victim (on your behalf) over the ropes, and onto the floor; you can then cackle with glee as you see video game EMTs put out the fire and the poor wrestler tries to stop, drop and roll. THQ has made it a habit to throw these less common gimmick matches into their games (remember the bra-and-panties matches?), and while they have made the Inferno Match playable, it becomes tedious trying to bring the temperature up and then rushing to slowly drag the wrestler over to the ropes before the temperature goes back down. There are other, more worthwhile matches to engage in.

In light of the new gameplay features, THQ has also tweaked SvR's customization options. Granted, the Create-a-Wrestler is still plagued with that layers issue, which results in having thousands upon thousands of items to choose from, but only a handful of places in which to place everything. Considering the DS version does not appear to have such an oversight, you would think THQ would have perhaps been able to adjust this minor annoyance for the console. They don't, but despite this limitation, it is still heads and shoulders above what the competition is offering.

One feature for which fans have been frothing at the mouth is the ability to create your own finishing maneuver. '09 succeeds in some respects by making it rather simple to string together a few movements--before you know it, you have yourself a nice looking Pedigree with a head butt thrown in. In actuality, with a little bit of patience and expertise, you can create finishing maneuvers that are not mere extensions of the ones that the wrestlers use (such as the Canadian Destroyer, for example). Considering that creating (or perhaps modifying) a finisher was one of the few things gamers could not do when crafting the perfect wrestler up until now, its inclusion adds to the already remarkable amount of depth that has come to be expected from the Smackdown series.

One other new customization option (not available in the PS2 or PSP versions) is the Replay mode. Think you can create the ultimate Pay-Per-View spectacle? Well, you have the opportunity to do that and more, with a fully functional system that allows you to alter virtually any type of match the way you see fit. Whether you want to change the camera angles, slow down or speed up certain parts of the action, add incredibly-cheesy-yet-equally-entertaining sound effects and comic-style text bubbles, the choice is yours. About the only thing missing from this innovative feature is the ability to input your own full-fledged commentary. You can use some of the canned material provided by the WWEs mouthpieces, but really, when has the commentary been a high point in any Smackdown title?

SvR 2008 did little to improve upon the 2007 edition and was bound to leave many people (this reviewer included) wondering if THQ had gone to the well once too often and was planning to devote all of its time and resources into its upcoming Legends of Wrestlemania title. '09 proves not only that THQ respects its loyal fans, but that they would much rather provide gamers with an appropriate send-off to a series that has reached almost a decade of video game domination. Sure, there are some flaws that continue to carry over from year to year (such as the sometimes porous AI, and the wonky counter system), but compare that with significantly improved loading times (even if you the number of loading screens hasn't quite diminished) and the best selection of wrestlers, match types, and customization options around, and you have a title that redeems itself against its own laurels (Please verify for me: Is the previous sentence an actual turn of phrase?). More importantly, however, THQ and the WWE have once again shown the world that they got this video game wrestling thing in a choke-hold, one that should continue well into release of Legends of Wrestlemania and beyond.

Final Comments: Please read my corrections, and check your future drafts for sentences that express more than a single thought, ones that lack subject-verb agreement (or have multiple verbs and tenses for one subject), and ones that run on for two lines or more, with and without punctuation. You have a fine vocabulary, but the review needs to adhere to the golden rule for expository writing: thorough and concise.