In the past, THQ has relied on AKI and Yukes to develop its wrestling games for the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation, respectively, but the publisher has opted to bypass those developers in favor of some new blood for its upcoming Xbox wrestler, WWF Raw is War. This time out, Anchor--the developer behind the excellent Ultimate Fighting Championship game for the Dreamcast--has been selected to take on the task of developing an original wrestling game for the Xbox. Of course, there are a few differences between the action in the octagon of UFC and the squared circle of the WWF, but Anchor has adapted the pace of the UFC into a wrestling game that isn't quite as slow or methodical as AKI's No Mercy but doesn't really match the faster, more arcadelike speed of Yuke's Smackdown series. In fact, Anchor seems to have stumbled on a recipe that blends a little of both worlds, which should go a long way in appeasing fans who have a preference for either simulation or arcade-style wrestling games.
The philosophy of creating a balanced game that doesn't lean toward any particular gameplay style extends to the types of modes that are available in WWF Raw. There are no table matches, there are ladders but no ladder matches, there are no casket matches, and there are no other match types that would seem a little too over-the-top for the casual wrestling fan. Instead, in the exhibition mode, you'll see matches that are a little more basic, such as one-on-one, tag team, two-on-two tornado tag, triple threat, fatal four-way, battle royal, two-on-one handicap, and three-on-one handicap matches. In the tornado tag match, you and a tag team partner take on another tag team, but the tag rules no longer apply, so all four men are in the ring at once. A triple threat match pits three wrestlers against each other, and whoever pins another wrestler for the three count first wins the match. The fatal four-way match is similar, but four wrestlers participate. In the battle royal match, four wrestlers can also participate in a contest to eliminate each other by pinfall or by disqualification. Wrestlers who have been eliminated in a battle royal match can remain at ringside and attack any other wrestler who happens to fall outside the ring. Lastly, the handicap matches let you take on two or three opponents at a time.
Before starting any of these modes, you have a few options that change the stipulations of the match. First, you can decide if it's going to be a normal or hardcore match--the major difference being that you can pin another wrestler anywhere in the hardcore mode, whereas in a normal match, you can pin them only in the ring. There are options for changing the time limit for the match, as well as the count-out time limit when a wrestler leaves the ring. You can also toggle pins, submissions, rope breaks, disqualifications, and outside interference off and on to suit your preference. If the exhibition mode isn't enough to get you excited, WWF Raw includes other features, including a separate title match mode.
Though the exhibition mode will probably offer plenty of excitement for the wrestling fan, there are other modes that will occupy an equal amount of your time. The first of these is the title match mode, in which you can select a wrestler and go after the WWF championship, the intercontinental title, the European belt, the hardcore title, the light heavyweight championship, or the women's title. In each of these categories, you'll encounter a varying number of wrestlers who are waiting to sabotage your shot at a specific title. For example, if you choose to make a run at the women's title, you have to face only three other wrestlers, but as you try to win belts of higher prestige, the number of opponents you have to get through increases. In the WWF title match, you'll have to go through 12 other wrestlers before winning the title. Unlike in the exhibition mode, you won't be able to change any of the rules for the match, so if you're not aware that disqualifications are turned on and you happen to swing a baseball bat at another opponent in the ring, you can lose the match.
The title matches have some quirks in the current build of the game. For whatever reason, there aren't any restrictions on the title matches, so if you want The Rock to win the women's title, you can go ahead and make it happen. Or if you think Rikishi deserves to be light heavyweight champion, you can go right ahead and enter him in the light heavyweight title mode. In addition, there is no tag team title option, which is somewhat understandable, considering the present lack of active tag teams in the WWF--though, there is a king-of-the-ring tag team option, but more on that later. The hardcore title matches are also worth noting because they can be quite difficult, due to other wrestlers constantly interfering in the match. Indeed, one match saw up to six other wrestlers run down to the ring to disrupt action, and though they'll eventually enter into a passive mode and remain on the outside of the ring, their presence dilutes the entire purpose of the hardcore match. But these are all problems that can be and, hopefully, will be addressed before the game's final release.
If you happen to win certain title matches, you'll be rewarded with a brief celebration sequence of the selected wrestler jumping around in the ring with the belt on, and you'll unlock additional wrestlers who aren't available in the default roster. Moreover, the belt that you've won becomes available in WWF Raw's create-a-wrestler feature, so your wrestler can strut to the ring, sporting one of the WWF titles. Unfortunately, unless you plan to make one up in your head as you play through a title match, there is no story to accompany the gameplay, so when you win the belt, that's it--Vince McMahon won't be brooding over the fact you won the belt, and other wrestlers won't challenge you. Still, the title matches offer a substantial challenge that should keep you busy for a while.
The last of the actual gameplay modes is the king-of-the-ring tournament. When you select the king-of-the-ring option, you'll have four match types to select from, including one-on-one, tag, triple threat, and fatal four-way. The match you select is the type of match that takes place throughout the entire king-of-the-ring tournament, so if you select triple threat, you must compete in two triple-threat matches to win the tournament. If you select singles competition, you have to go through three other wrestlers to win it all. But before the tournament actually begins, you can select the participants and even adjust the rules, which are identical to the rules available in the exhibition mode. There doesn't seem to be any sort of reward for going through the tournament in this build other than to see your wrestler dance around in the ring with pyro igniting all around the ring, but fans of tag team wrestling should have a great interest in this mode, since a tag team championship mode is noticeably absent from the title match option.
As previously mentioned, WWF Raw also includes a create-a-wrestler feature that lets you build a wrestler from the ground up and enter it in any of the gameplay modes, like king of the ring. The current version of WWF Raw's create-a-wrestler is impressive, if not a little restrictive, in the early going. Within a few minutes of tinkering, we had respectable versions of Rob Van Dam (complete with thumb gesture on the prematch screen), Hawk from the Legion of Doom, Kevin Nash, and Bret Hart participating in matches. Clearly, Anchor anticipated a wrestling fan's desire to create popular wrestlers who either are no longer with the WWF or weren't available to the development team while creating the game. As such, you'll find some textures and pieces of clothing that are suited for specific wrestlers but have received subtle changes to avoid any legal trouble. There is a pair of tights with a pink streak and the word "Hotmax" going down the side of it--a perfect fit for your version of Bret "The Hitman" Hart. Additionally, there is a tank top that reads "Yosh" in the same font and color that Kevin Nash uses on his gear. There are little hints of other wrestlers throughout the entire create-a-wrestler feature, ranging from tights with two scorpions going down the legs to a save icon that looks suspiciously like a bald version of Booker T.
If you want to create an original wrestler, there are plenty of options to manipulate to your liking. WWF Raw's create-a-wrestler mode lets you change just about everything, from the type lighting and pyro for your wrestler's animation to your wrestler's hands or the moves that he or she can execute. This mode becomes even more versatile as you play through other parts of the game and pick up items that are lingering about ringside, including sunglasses, cheese heads, and swan tutus.
When it's finally time to enter the square circle with your created wrestler or any one of the WWF Superstars, there are a number of factors that can dictate the outcome of a match--in fact, one of these factors takes place during the wrestler introductions. When your wrestler of choice has made it into the ring and another wrestler is being introduced, you have the option to run out of the ring and attack the wrestler coming down the ramp. Obviously, the advantage here is that you get the first blow in and can follow it up with a series of devastating moves; however, there is some risk. There's a distinct chance that the opposing wrestler will counter your move with a backbody drop to toss you onto the steel ramp and then proceed to stomp on you, and in the case of multiwrestler matches, all of the other wrestlers will join the match immediately, opening up the possibility that they'll team up against you. But that doesn't seem to happen as often as you might think, and it's always fun to disrupt another wrestler's entrance particularly if you're playing with a few friends.
Probably the most important thing to be aware of in a WWF Raw match is the stamina bar located just underneath your wrestler. This meter basically tells you how much energy your wrestler has available to execute a move or throw a series of punches. If the meter is empty, your wrestler has to take a moment, catch his or her breath, and let the meter recharge a little. If you go into a match just mashing buttons, you'll quickly find that you won't be able to move your wrestler at all, because the game has been designed to prevent that. The stamina bar is also important because the small square next to it indicates your overall status. When this square begins to blink, it means you're in danger of being pinned and losing the match, and when it blinks faster, you're probably going to lose the match without any chance of kicking out.
At the bottom of the screen, there's an enormous meter divided into different sections that coincide with the participants in the match. This is your crowd popularity meter--or what Anchor calls the voltage meter. Whenever you execute a move, your portion of the meter grows to indicate that the crowd enjoyed the move you just pulled off, and with more complex maneuvers comes more praise from the crowd. The catch is that if you perform one move repeatedly, your portion of the meter not only stops growing, but, in some cases, also starts to shrink to show the crowd's dissatisfaction with your performance. As you start to get a feel for the game and the way it plays, you should have no problem executing a succession of different moves and charging your popularity meter to the point where it starts flashing.
This is an indication that your wrestler is ready to perform a finishing move. For the grappling style of finishing moves like the pedigree or even the stunner, your opponent has to be knocked dizzy--which is indicated by a slight screen blur whenever you strike an opponent--before you quickly grapple with them and execute the move. Other types of finishing moves, like the people's elbow, don't require you to grapple a dizzy opponent. All you have to do is knock them to the ground as the popularity meter flashes, press A and B on the Xbox controller, and then watch your wrestler execute the move--it should be noted that in the case of the people's elbow that you actually have to execute the elbow, as it won't be performed automatically for you.
Successfully executing even the most basic move can be a little more difficult than it might seem, especially when playing against computer opponents. You have to be aware that you can't really pull off too many spectacular moves in the early moments of a match, so you have to stick with punches and kicks for a little while before attempting to execute any devastating grappling moves. Even if you happen to knock your opponent dizzy with a well-placed kick early on in a match, he or she will likely recover before you can execute the move and then push you away. An easy way to vary your moves is to use every part of the ring--try a basic Irish whip maneuver, throw your opponent into the turnbuckle and perform a variety of special turnbuckle moves, and then top it off with a flying elbow. It makes the game much easier if you have a plan of attack before going into the match, and in that respect, WWF Raw is much more of a simulation than it really appears to be.
As far as graphics go, WWF Raw looks great. Most of the character models are incredibly detailed and carry all of the little mannerisms of their real-life counterparts. Jeff and Matt Hardy do their team-extreme sign as they jog down the ramp, X-Pac does his crazy walk, Steve Blackman does his karate routine, the wheels on the Undertaker's bike actually move, and Kurt Angle proudly displays his gold medals upon entering the ring. WWF Raw also has some of the most realistic pyro effects and one of the better-looking wrestling crowds to date. However, there are still some rough areas that may annoy some of the hardcore WWF fans. For example, Steve Austin doesn't walk down to the ring wearing his vest, Al Snow doesn't carry head with him, and in general, some animations--particularly walking animations--could use some work. But even if these problems aren't fixed, most will probably be able to overlook them since the rest of the game looks so good.
In its current state, WWF Raw looks like it's shaping up nicely. While it currently lacks the massive number of over-the-top match types in games like those in Smackdown: Just Bring It, it still has plenty of traditional-style matches to keep you busy. Since the game includes only wrestlers before the WCW/ECW invasion took place, the create-a-wrestler mode offers a chance to create a few of the more popular wrestlers who were a part of that particular angle, as well as a few who are no longer on the WWF roster. Even fans of the old days--those who don't really know what's going on now--can use WWF Raw's museum mode to learn a little about the wrestlers, as well as some of their more prominent angles. WWF Raw is scheduled for release on February 12.