When Electronic Arts took control of the World Championship Wrestling license, everyone expected big things. The wrestling market was truly blowing up at the time, and EA was poised to capitalize on this explosion. WCW Mayhem, the company's first WCW-licensed game, took a more arcade-style approach to wrestling that generated a lot of mixed feelings. Now, EA has released its second WCW game, which uses the same gameplay engine but takes a radically different approach to wrestling. WCW Backstage Assault doesn't feature any rings. All of the gameplay takes place in backstage areas, such as parking lots, locker rooms, and loading bays.
WCW Backstage Assault has a pretty comprehensive roster. All the major players - from Jeff Jarrett to Booker T - are included, and the roster even includes a few faces that haven't been seen around WCW lately, such as Scott Hall and Hulk Hogan. At the start of the game, there aren't too many wrestlers available, but they're easily unlocked by playing through the game's most interesting mode, the hardcore challenge. The hard-core challenge works a lot like the Madden challenge that EA has been putting into its NFL football games for the past couple of years. Each level has a few different objectives, such as knocking out your opponent with a particular item, setting your opponent on fire, or simply using a certain object in the level to dish out some damage. Each completed challenge results in some sort of bonus, usually in the form of unlocking a new wrestler or a new move for use in the create-a-wrestler portion of the game. The other modes are pretty standard, including an exhibition mode and a survival mode. The create-a-wrestler mode has returned with new pieces to use in your quest to create the ultimate wrestler, but it's largely the same as Mayhem's.
Backstage Assault has a very choppy look to it. The textures are all extremely muddy and pixilated. The models look extremely odd, especially with their overly skinny legs and feet. The animation for the moves is decent, but the game lacks any sort of transitions between moves, so the wrestlers end up looking extremely choppy. The gameplay, which is mostly identical to that of WCW Mayhem, is pretty simple to pick up. You have three different strike buttons and a grapple button. After grappling, hitting a direction and one of the strike buttons results in a move. You can also run, block, counter attacks, and climb up onto various objects for aerial attacks. Countering was fairly difficult in Mayhem, but in Backstage Assault it has been reduced to a single button press, making it more of a timing issue than a guessing game.
Given the sad state of commentary in today's wrestling games, it's good to hear a game that actually has some decent commentary. The two-man team of Tony Schivonne and Bobby "The Brain" Heenan remain on top of the action, though the move call-outs occasionally fall behind the action. Also, much of the voice work from Mayhem has been reused in Backstage Assault. The sound of the action, such as wrestlers bouncing off of trash cans, walls, and kitchen sinks, is pretty good.
Overall, it's hard to recommend a wrestling game that doesn't contain any actual in-the-ring wrestling. EA's Backstage Assault is a novel idea, but in the end, it doesn't have enough variation to make it worthwhile. This one is only for the hard-core WCW fan.