There are only a few things you can consistently look forward to every year; doing your taxes, getting a year older; and that dreaded annual checkup. Then there are the finer things in life like video games to help chase away those yearly blues. While it is a given to expect a new EA sports title, a Tony Hawk game, and about half a dozen Sims 2 expansion sets a year; the Smackdown series has been successfully churning out new titles in the series without fail every November. For the past few years THQ has been giving gamers decent enough wrestling games but it was easy for them and the WWE to rest on their laurels as there was a lack of serious competition for those who wanted to get their wrestling fix elsewhere. This year, competition is on the horizon and the latest WWE release needs to kick up their game or risk being overshadowed. Fortunately, it looks like they've done it.

The newest Smackdown game looks and plays like its predecessors. This is the third Xbox 360 Smackdown title and the second PS3 release. If there is one thing gamers have come to expect from THQ in its wrestling games its playability. SvR 2009 promises to provide all the perennial favourite match types you have been accustom to year after year. While Impact keeps the gimmick matches to a minimum, Smackdown provides them at a premium meaning it'll be difficult to run out of things to do. Throw in a large roster of wrestlers, divas, and the always robust create-a-wrestler mode and there's no reason for the average WWE fan not to be pleased. If there is one thing that has become prevalent with the Smackdown series it has become complacent with regards to what it has had to offer. The first of the new features on display is the inclusion of yet another gimmick match, the Inferno match.

For those not in the know, the goal of an Inferno match is to set your opponent on fire, grisly much? This is one of those types of matches that might be entertaining to some but to be used in a video game, just because you have the ability to include it doesn't mean it's going to be a good idea (think the bra-and-panties matches of previous Smackdown titles). Considering the WWE has only done a handful of these matches themselves with either the Undertaker and/or Kane as one of the participants, serves as an indication that these matches are best kept to a minimum considering its extreme nature. As for the video game rendition, it is no doubt functional. You and your opponent battle around a ring engulfed in flames. Meanwhile the temperature of the ring rises from each slam, attack and so forth. Once the temperature reaches a modest 500 degrees Celsius you are given a fixed amount of time to win the match. To do this, you must drag your opponent from a standing grapple position towards any of the scorching ring ropes and the computer does the rest. Your opponent is thrown over the fiery ropes where they roll around on the canvas below on fire before they are quickly extinguished. Accomplishing this is not as easy as it sounds as I watched a handful of others settle for beating their opponent into unconsciousness because it appeared too difficult to get to one side of the ring before the temperature went down. When the conditions revert back to normal, you now have to bring the temperature back up until the window of opportunity presents itself to try again. The match itself works fine, and for those who want to see a certain superstar set on fire well look no further. However, including a match type as violent as this can be considered somewhat unsettling and makes one wonder how this title cannot give the series its first M ESRB rating.

In the build on display, THQ provided a create-a-wrestler mode to play with, and anyone who has spent any time doing this will know that you could spend hours tweaking and adjusting your wrestler. The selection of wrestlers available to play as was also minimal but with superstars like John Cena, Batista, Triple H, the Undertaker, and Rey Mysterio available there was at least some star power. The game's season mode and online options were both veiled in secrecy with only an assurance that they would both be the best the series has to offer.

Two major new features were announced and demonstrated to a small group of media at a recent event, these being the long awaited create a finisher mode, and the highlight reel. The create-a-finisher mode allows you to piece together up to ten segments of animation (with about 500 to choose from), adjust their speed for dramatic effect, and create a custom finisher for your character (or any other character in the game). The second of these features is the highlight reel, where you can create a video of your recent highlights, overlay graphics (logos, etc), and add sound effects, music (including all licensed tracks in the game and items from the user playlist), transitions, slow motion, and freeze frame effects. Both of these modes look really slick, and are a very welcome addition to the series.

Players familiar with the Road to Wrestlemania mode will notice a variety of changes this year as well. Instead of choosing any character (which previously resulted in some odd storylines), the development team has created six distinct campaigns written for a specific superstar, one of which is designed for co-operative play. Bringing in WWE writers, these campaigns should better reflect the storylines you'd expect to see and provide a more interesting Road to Wrestlemania.

With new competition entering the wrestling market, THQ has needed to up-the-anti to stay on top, and Smackdown vs. RAW 2009 may just deliver on that promise. An enhanced Road to Wrestlemania feature, new highlight reel and create a finisher modes, and the new "Inferno" match should provide some new content for players to explore, while various gameplay enhancements should be enough to keep the series feeling fresh. For fans of the series this one's worth keeping an eye on when it ships next month.