Every way a winner, WWF RAW electrifies both the wrestling genre and the Xbox itself. Review of THQ’s first stab at an Xbox wrestling game inside!

Looking at the recent history of Sports-Entertainment and the WWF, one cannot avert the conclusion that Professional Wrestling has lost a little bit of its steam in recent years, the steam that was garnered in 1998 and 1999. Wrestling fans have since been divided into two groups, the hardcore fanatics, who have been watching wrestling ever since the tender age of three, and never have missed a show, to the casual fan, who just enjoys wrestling for what it is. Unfortunately, most casual fans have left the wrestling scene, resulting in a decline in ratings for WWF TV and other bad news for the mega conglomerate company.

While the TV industry may be slowing, the wrestling genre of video games has never stopped growing. Ever since WCW vs. NWO World Tour for Nintendo 64, wrestling games have been selling millions of copies, amassing millions of dollars for the developers and publishers, and creating a somewhat enjoyable experience on varying consoles throughout the past six years. Wrestling games have stretched from the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance to the Playstation and Nintendo 64, and now to the Playstation 2 and Xbox. The WWF’s latest brawler, WWF RAW (shortened from WWF: Raw is War due to political tensions) is quite possibly one of the best wrestling games ever created.

Although WWF RAW was original scheduled to be released alongside WWF Smackdown! 3 for the Playstation 2, this version of WWF fame did not complete on time, and got the extra time to be polished. Although the games are really not the same, because they were produced by the same mother company, and because they were originally scheduled to be released along side each other, many comparisons exist between the two. I must say it here; the two are two horribly different games for two horribly different types of gamers.

RAW truly excels in this aspect. Anchor, who also developed Ultimate Fighting Championship for Dreamcast, simply amazes with this graphical achievement. The visual aspect of this game is flawless. Pyrotechnics look great, entrances are done with fantastic lighting effects (beware of epilepsy seizures!), and TitanTron videos are accurately reflected in high resolution onto the famed big screen’s virtual counterpart. The most amazing part of the aesthetics has got to be the wrestlers. Accurate muscle texture, insane facial detail, super realistic builds, dead-on body proportions, and a people’s elbow so good you will quiver, RAW simply astounds and astonishes. This is without a doubt, the BEST looking wrestling game ever to hit store shelves.

Most wrestlers look exactly like their real life counterparts, but some…don’t. Triple H, for instance, doesn’t look like Triple H very much at all. Also, the developers went a little overboard on some of the character designs. Chris Benoit looks like the incredible hulk- enough said.

Back to facial detail. The game features moving faces, and no, not like Smackdown! has moving lips and squinting eyes. I mean full facial expressions, all rendered in real time, with grimacing, grunting, squinting, oohing, ahhing, and so much more. Have Kurt Angle lock the Rock in the Ankle Lock, and the look on the Rock’s face will definitely tell you how he feels. Things like this have never been attempted, and it is things like this that truly amaze you. I mentioned a submission where it is obvious, but look subtly and you will see a grimace at every punch and every grapple. Just marvelous.

The camera is dynamic and is one of the best yet. Roaming freely around the arena, the camera never once got in my way of the gameplay. When a particularly devastating move occurs, the camera will zoom in for a dynamic shot. When a super move occurs that is just two good to not watch twice, the screen will split into a double feature (just like on real TV) and show you the move again while you wrestle in the other screen. The presentation in this game is top notch- it is near impossible to tell the difference between this game and TV.

Animation is generally excellent, but there are a few oddities some may not understand. First the good- moves are picture-perfectly motion captured and look great in the game, and that is the major aspect of the game. Animations when you are carrying weapons, however, lacks severely. I don’t like watching the Rock waddle like a four-year-old girl when he carries a chair. It’s just odd. Also, the same animation for two handed weapons exists for one handed weapons, meaning that the way you carry a chair, is the way you carry a microphone, I.E. with one hand dangling in outer space. Walking animations are just awkward. I think Anchor was trying to achieve the different walking styles of each wrestler. The Rock, for example, looks real as he walks, but Stone Cold waddles like a duck and makes his swaggering walking style make him look constipated. I am rather surprised they couldn’t fix that.

The gameplay of RAW is where things get controversial- some people adore it, and some abhor it. Would I call it a mixed bag of sorts? No, I can’t because it’s not mixed, it’s more subjective.

First, we have the bad. If the wrestling game you are looking for is loaded with features, like a souped up Ferrari, this game is more like a stripped Honda Civic. What I mean is that this game is literally devoid of extras- you’d be hard-pressed to a game this barren on the market today. First off, the game has no gimmick matches, meaning no ladder, table, cage, or Hell in the Cell matches. While there are tables and ladders in the game, a match that specifically features them is not present.

The game also lacks the ever-important story mode. Most wrestling games (including you-know-who) have a “career” mode of sorts, where you get to take your wrestler through the ranks of the WWF, playing as your favorite superstar until they find ultimate fame and glory. This game does have a mode similar to WWF Attitude, where you lead your wrestler up a ladder of matches until they earn the title, but a “story” mode in the traditional sense of the word is absent.

The game has two types of moves, striking and grappling. Striking consists of punches, kicks, weapon strikes, and any move that involves brief physical contact with a large payoff at the end. Grappling moves consist of piledrivers, suplexes, powerbombs, and the like.

The actual interface of the game is new, fresh, innovative, and quite possibly the best wrestling engine I’ve seen in a long time. The game consists of three main bars and meters: 1: the Stamina Bar, 2: the Energy “light”, and 3: the Voltage meter. The gameplay revolves around these three bars, and all three dictate just how the match progresses.

Perhaps the most integral part of the gameplay is the stamina bar. Unlike other wrestling games that allowed you to pull off twenty piledrivers in a row and then pin your opponent, this game requires a bit of planning and strategy. All moves take up stamina. For instance, around 6 striking maneuvers depletes one stamina bar. Because of the limitation, cheaters who like to use a one-button attack strategy will tire quickly and be easily defeated. Although the stamina bar might sound like a restricting part of the gameplay, it does in a way you, but the bar fills up in less than a second if you should give your wrestler a break, and all in all makes for a more strategic, more higher-level thinking wrestling match, if that itself is not an oxymoron!

If you neglect to pay homage to the stamina bar, you will tire and all of your moves will be reversed by the opposition. The game basically forces you to remember what moves do what, when which move would be most effective, and how much stamina each moves takes. It’s overall a very unique experience.

The energy light is the simplest meter in the game. Just like a traffic light, a solid light is the best. When the light starts to blink, the more susceptible you are to a pinning or submission maneuver. The light, however, is not, and energy meter that tells you when you will die and when you won’t, as it fluctuates throughout the match. The light does not dictate when you have been beaten the most though- consider this the “attitude” meter, almost. It reflects your performance thus far.

The final bar is the Voltage meter, a new and unique innovation for WWF RAW. The Voltage meter depicts how the crowd is feeling, and who they are behind at this point in the match. The Voltage meter is more important than the energy light, because even if you are susceptible to a pin, a high Voltage rating will allow in a boost of stamina, making it more difficult for you to be defeated. As you do crowd pleasing moves, and entertain the crowd, the bar rises. As you repeat the same move over, and bore the crowd it falls. When your part of the Voltage meter begins to blink, you can execute your finisher and win the match.

While all of this sounds perfect on paper, the game presents a few problems, mostly in the form of the game’s Artificial Intelligence. Oddly enough, if the stamina meter is not depleted on your enemy, the enemy will get up, even if you have just performed your finisher. You must totally tire out the enemy to win. While this may seem like a good thing, it is very difficult to actually wear down the computer. The matches no longer take two minutes- many of the matches in this game can take over a half hour.

In tag-team modes, your partner will actually occasionally attack you! That glaring error totally ruins this game in its single player-multiplayer aspect. I’ve experienced a lot of bad AI, but that is just a glaring error that needs to be fixed.

Another problem with the stamina meter is that not all opponents have the same stamina, which should not be. For instance, the Rock has near infinite stamina, allowing him to execute strings of moves at a time. In a Rock vs. Triple H match, who also has a lot of stamina, this is fine, but in a Rock vs. Spike Dudley match, it is near impossible for Spike Dudley to win the match. Rikishi also has almost no stamina, which makes it incredibly frustrating to play as Rikishi. I first noticed that while playing as him, but as time went on, I realized that his moves are much more powerful, so I presume in a way the game does counteract the stamina difference. The game also recognizes who is a babyface and who is the heel. That’s good right? Wrong. Because of that, the crowd usually never cheers for the heel. God forbid you are a nobody heel- you are as good as dead. Although you can get the crowd behind you, it just isn’t worth the extra effort it takes to get them to follow you. Even though the roster of wrestlers in this game is pretty big, you’ll end up sticking to wrestlers like the Rock, Stone Cold, and Kurt Angle simply because Spike Dudley, Matt Hardy, and Tazz are near impossible to win with. If you work, you can do it though.

There are only two arenas in the entire game, and no backstage areas. I was quite amazed to find that out at first also, but wait until you actually get into the RAW and King of the Ring arenas- they are gargantuan to say the least. I’ve never seen an arena so big. You can go under the stage area, on top of the stage, around the ring, to the announcer’s table, anywhere. You name it, you can go there. Impressive and surprising at the same time.

Items also play a large part in the game. Any item you find can be used in two ways: as a weapon, or conventionally. You can pick up a hat and wear it, or you can go and wack somebody over the head with it- your choice. You can do this with any item you find, and I think there are almost 120 items. Finding secret items also makes it quite a fun aspect of the game, and an original one at that.

Overall, I liked how the gameplay worked, but it definitely could use some work, and a lot of it needs to be polished and evened out. The game just feels like it could have been so much more in this department. A lot had been promised that had not been delivered.

The Create-a-Wrestler mode is fabulous. Although there is a limiting 16 faces to choose from, that is the only downfall I found in the game. There are hundreds of moves to choose from, and you can alter everything from the thickness of the left arm of your create a wrestler, to the way he or she walks down the entrance ramp. The selection of pyrotechnics and other amenities is astounding.

The sound in the game is pretty standard. Entrance themes are all crystal clear, and weapons make their usual banging and clashing sound, even if they do sound particularly good.

Commentary is absent from the game. Although other games do use it, it wasn’t exactly stellar in those games, so I feel that it was better left out and implemented when the technology is ready.

Ripping songs onto your harddrive and using them as themes for your created wrestler is also missing. Sadly, the developers felt they just didn’t have enough time to implement this feature, and promised it for WWF RAW 2. It’s salivating, isn’t it?

To be honest, I really enjoyed this game. I don’t think I’ve played a game with quite as good a wrestling engine as I have here. The game is beautiful, the gameplay is refined, yet could be refined more so, and all the other features of the game are relatively good. While it is disappointing because of what we were told to expect, this is an excellent wrestling game by any other means.