I’ll admit it; I’m not a big fan of wrestling. The painfully obvious fake fighting, soap opera-like story lines and excessive amount of cheese just doesn’t appeal to me and televised WWE matches fail to hold my attention for longer than a few minutes. Though, despite my lack of passion for pro wresting in general, I get a real kick out of playing wresting videogames. They are, after all, nothing more than glorified fighting games with a heavier emphasis on grappling and four-player skirmishes. When I found out that THQ was publishing WWF Raw for the Xbox, I was quite excited, remembering the incredible amount of fun I had with THQ’s Nintendo 64 titles WCW vs. NWO Revenge and WWF No Mercy. The hype began building up around THQ’s new wrestling title months before its release and rumors swirled about the possible inclusion of custom soundtrack support, the ability to fight in the crowd and an in-depth career mode. Then, after a few delays, the final product hit store shelves and it turned out to be nothing more than a bare-bones wrestler with sluggish, flawed gameplay. That’s not to say it is the worst pro wrestling game ever developed, but its numerous problems and decidedly rushed feel keep it from dethroning THQ’s own impressive efforts on the Nintendo 64.
The gameplay system in WWF Raw is very unique, but not necessarily in a good way. Wrestling matches revolve heavily around two factors: how much stamina you have and whether or not the crowd likes you. Stamina is represented by a small on-screen energy meter that stays underneath your wrestler during the entire match. Everything you do, be it sprinting, striking, grappling or whatever, depletes your energy and once it’s gone you become temporarily immobile, therefore susceptible to attack. This may seem like a nice touch of realism, but, unfortunately, it is not handled correctly. You see, if you are using a chair to strike a downed opponent, you may only be able to perform five or six swings before your wrestler becomes ‘tired’ and is forced to drop the chair. So what Anchor (the game’s developer) is trying to tell us is that a huge muscle-bound guy like The Rock can only swing a thin folding chair five times before he reaches total exhaustion? Yeah right. All this does is break up the flow of the matches, because you and your opponent are constantly forced to manage your easily depleted energy gauge for fear of leaving yourself vulnerable.
I liked the old Undertaker better…but what do I know?
The other main gameplay feature, the crowd meter, also seems like a decent idea, but is equally flawed. At the bottom of the screen there is a long meter that represents the crowd’s current affinity towards one wrestler or the other. The more varied (and stylish) you make your moves, the more the crowd will love you, thus resulting in your portion of the crowd meter getting larger and your opponent’s getting smaller. If you use repeated attacks, such as striking a downed opponent over and over again with a foreign object, the crowd will hate you and your meter will shrink. Having a larger crowd meter than your opponent means you will be able to pin them relatively easily, but it will be nigh impossible for them to do the same to you.
The flaw with this system is the fact that it puts too much emphasis on the crowd and not enough on the beating the wrestlers are taking. Let’s say, for example, you have been pummeling this poor fool with a lead pipe for a good fifteen minutes. His energy and life are as low as they could possible get and he should be dang near dead. But, because you are doing the same move over and over, the crowd will be completely in his favor and you will be unable to pin him. Even worse is all he has to do is knock you down once and, even though you have near full energy and life, he’ll pin you easily. This is just ridiculous in my opinion and will inevitably leave you frustrated on numerous occasions.
Here we see one of the most psychologically devastating moves of the game: the pants
On the positive side of things, once you do learn to play by the game’s rules (even if they do seem a bit nonsensical), things become more entertaining. Striking, grappling and performing actions like climbing in and out of the ring are easy to pull off; though I find that picking up foreign objects can sometimes be annoying, as you have to stand directly over the object to grab it. Speaking of foreign objects, there are quite a few crates located around the ring, which contain various items that you can collect. It’s fun looking in one of the containers and finding crazy items like bazookas, fish and microphones, all of which can be used to trounce your opponent with.
Unfortunately, the game modes in Raw are very shallow. You have the typical Title Mode, which allows you to play through a series of matches with the goal of winning a championship belt, but it is uninspired and lacks options. Bafflingly, there is no tag team Title Mode in the game, so you’ll have to go at winning all those belts solo. The other game modes include Exhibition, Handicap, Tag Team, Fatal Four Way and Battle Royal, but these are all very basic and only offer slightly different gameplay experiences. Ladder, Cage and other crazy match types that have been a staple in all wrestling games since the Nintendo 64 are nowhere to be seen and you can only presume that WWF Raw was rushed in its release.
The Rock busts out the People’s Elbow
The Create-A-Wrestler option in Raw allows you to build your own brawler from the ground up and, unlike many other aspects of the game, is actually quite polished. You have plenty of different body types and clothing styles to choose from and individual body parts can be meticulously adjusted to your heart’s content. You can also assign various moves to your created wrestler, and the menu system used to do so is easy to navigate. Possibly the best option in the Create-A-Wrestler is the ability to edit your fighter’s entrances. You can edit the lighting color and intensity (in many different locations around the ramp and ring), music track and intro animation, as well as add smoke and fireworks to make some pretty cool looking customized introductions. Using Raw’s robust Create-A-Wrestler I actually managed to create some very accurate renditions of Zangief, Ken, Ryu, Sagat and Balrog from Street Fighter, as well as a deadly tag team duo of Dr. Evil and Mini Me. On a negative note, it really is too bad that ripped songs can’t be used for the wrestler’s intros, as that would have been incredibly cool. Also, why can you only create a limited amount of wrestlers when there is an entire hard drive inside the Xbox just begging to be used? Puzzling to say the least.
Undoubtedly, Raw’s strongest asset is its fabulous visuals. Wrestlers like The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Undertaker and nearly everyone else all look dang near identical to their real life counterparts. Tattoos, clothing and other personal effects are textured with the utmost realism, and skin flexes and moves just like a real person’s would. The wrestlers even have different facial expressions, so when someone is on the mat getting their ankle twisted viciously, you’ll see them grimace in pain. The only downside with the character models is the slightly goofy looking females, but they aren’t so atrociously bad to take anything significant away from the game.
It’s nice to see two men this comfortable with each other
The animations in Raw are realistic for the most part, as all slams, chops and turnbuckle leaps seem to have been motion-captured for added fluidity. The only oddity regarding the animation is that the wrestlers all seem to walk like they have a banana shoved up the tailpipe. Most of the individual entrances have been recreated faithfully in the game, complete with fireworks, intro song and Jumbotron movie, which plays actual video footage of the wrestler kicking butt. The first time I saw The Undertaker drive out on his motorcycle as Limp Bizkit’s Rollin’ blared in the background, I knew the visual presentation in Raw was something special.
Unfortunately, Raw’s audio doesn’t quite match the quality of its graphics. The grunts, smacks and slams are all done well enough, but for some reason THQ didn’t include any wrestler speech in the game. It really would have been something special to hear Stone Cold repeatedly ask, “WHAT?! WHAT?! WHAT!?” as he beats down his opponent, but, sadly, the brawlers all remain mutes. Another blow against the game’s audio presentation is the lack of any kind of ringside commentary. There is an announcer’s table that can be smashed, but the actual announcers are nowhere to be seen. This is just another example of why Raw feels so rushed.
I sure hope they have the emergency fire exits clearly marked
The menu music in the game is fairly annoying and you’ll most likely be reaching for the mute button early. The tunes that play during actual wrestling consist of cheesy, repetitive guitar riffs that grate on your nerves extremely quickly. You do have an option to turn off the in-game music, but if you do so then the wrestler’s entrance songs don’t play either. Bad, THQ, bad. And why no custom sound track support? The good news is that many of the wrestler’s official entrance tunes are in the game and this should make fans happy.
WWF Raw is a difficult game to review. On one hand it is fun and will keep you playing for hours on end, but on the other hand it has a particularly unfinished feel that detracts significantly from the overall experience. It is hands-down the best looking wrestling game ever developed, the create-a-wrestler is deep and the multiplayer is entertaining, but the inability to use your own soundtracks, questionable gameplay and a lack of game mode variety definitely hurts. With just a few more months of development time WWF Raw could have been a masterpiece, but as is stands it is just a slightly rushed, yet moderately entertaining game that wrestling fans may want to check out.