The companies in the business of making wrestling games recently played a high-stakes game of musical chairs. Longtime WCW collaborator THQ managed to get hold of the WWF license, leaving Acclaim to sit around and talk about its secret plans for a new wrestling game. Electronic Arts stepped in and grabbed the WCW license. The company is taking the same approach to the WCW license as it has taken with most of its sports titles. The development team aimed to be as faithful to the source material as it could. The resulting game, WCW Mayhem, is a great first effort, but it still feels like a first-year title.
Mayhem contains loads of different rings, all based on WCW television and pay-per-view events, ranging from your basic Monday Nitro set all the way up to Souled Out and Bash at the Beach. EA has provided an entire slew of WCW wrestlers to fight in these rings. Most of the popular wrestlers are featured, including Kevin Nash, Sting, and Goldberg. The game also features a slew of midcard wrestlers, like La Parka, Rey Mysterio Jr., and Disco Inferno. As in most other wrestling games, the roster isn't entirely accurate (Chris Jericho and Raven are still in the game, Hogan appears in his old NWO gear, etc.) but this doesn't really get in the way of the game at all.
The main emphasis of the game is the ability it gives you to get out of the ring and fight your way to the backstage area, which is filled with chairs, tables, tasers, and other objects that you can use to bash your opponent's skull in. As a result, the game defaults to no-count out, pin-anywhere matches.
WCW Mayhem's gameplay is much more arcade-like than most of the wrestling games that came before it. There's still plenty of strategy involved, but it's more of the "step out of the way of that drop kick" variety than of the "what move should I do next" type. Reversals are easy to perform, but very tough to master. If your opponent hits a button to execute a move, and you hit the same button shortly after, you'll reverse his attack. But reversals aside, the game really boils down to who can do a move first. There aren't any fancy fighting-game moves here, either. Each of the four main buttons is capable of three moves, depending on which direction you're pressing on the controller at the time. The arcade-style gameplay is a nice change of pace from the other games on the market, but it's not without its flaws. Rather than focus too greatly on health, the game relies on a momentum meter that tells you how well you're doing at any point in the match. The meter moves back and forth, and it will move toward your side when you execute impressive moves or find the time to taunt. If all the wrestlers in the match are fairly inactive, the meter will center. The more momentum you get, the harder it will be for your opponent to stop you. When your momentum meter is full, you can perform your finishing move. This allows for some good back-and-forth swings, but in actual use, it really just makes coming back from a deficit much tougher. Also, the emphasis on momentum rather than health allows for some pretty unrealistic gameplay. For instance, I can't imagine that Stevie Ray would be able to kick out of a pin after receiving eight consecutive Diamond Cutters. Once you and your friends have all gotten good at dodging attacks, it becomes very hard to pull off a string of moves, and the result is a stalemate match that takes forever and ends on a lucky pin after a weak move.
The computer player doesn't fall prey to that problem, though, because it's got problems all its own: It lacks the ability to put together a decent offense. The computer will get off a few kicks and punches from time to time, and it may even reverse a move or two if you've got it set to the hardest difficulty setting. There's no one move you have to do - any move or hold will work. All you need to do is get off a few quick attacks at the beginning of the match. Then, after you've worn the enemy wrestler down a bit, just start grappling and pulling off moves at will. It's possible to hit a finisher within the first 30 seconds of the match, though you won't be able to complete a pin until much later. The difficulty setting has less to do with how aggressive the computer plays and more to do with how long it takes to damage the other wrestler enough to successfully pin him. The PlayStation version has slightly more aggressive AI than the N64 version, but it still can't put up a decent fight. The computer is also very shy about getting out of the ring. If the computer player doesn't think it's close enough to attack you once you're both outside the ring, it will simply climb back into the ring and taunt a few times. Since one of the main points of the game is getting out of the ring and wrestling in the backstage area, this is extremely annoying.
The create-a-wrestler feature is nice, but it doesn't really touch WWF Attitude in terms of depth and choice. The textures provided are a bit more realistic than some of Attitude's clothing, so most of the wrestlers you create will look as though they actually belong in a ring. There's even a set of clothes that look a bit like Kane's. Graphically, WCW Mayhem is more about speed than graphical shine. The wrestlers look good enough, but the game is rife with collision problems. There's also some really bad clipping bugs - get out of the ring on the far side and walk close to the ring and you'll be able to see your wrestler's chest through the bottom of the ring. The game has a pretty good camera, which covers the action from a distance when you need to see all the action, but it'll zoom in and show the action from dynamic close-ups during the more powerful moves. The motion capture looks best in the wrestlers' reactions to punches and kicks.
The sound is one of the PlayStation version's strong points. Most of the wrestler themes are there, and the two-man team of Tony Schivonne and Bobby "The Brain" Heenan sounds incredibly realistic. You'll occasionally hear them repeat phrases, but for the most part it's varied and interesting.
Despite its flaws, WCW Mayhem still manages to be a really fun game, and it is definitely worth picking up. But after playing it at length, I can't help but wish there was more to the game. It's got all the prerequisite modes that you'd expect from a modern wrestling game, but the flawed AI makes single-player too easy, and the multiplayer has its own set of problems that you may or may not be able to look past. Hopefully, EA will make good on its promise to include more of the storyline aspect of professional wrestling in next year's sequel.