At first glance, WWE Road to WrestleMania X8 doesn't appear to be much more than a slight update of last year's WWF Road to WrestleMania. The more you play, however, the more you'll realize that the tweaks it makes are all for the better and make the game worth owning for any fan of the WWE. The game features 15 recognizable superstars, four different gameplay modes, a whopping 12 different match types, and a number of customizable options. Link-cable support for up to four players is also present. About the only thing missing is a create-a-wrestler option, which is doubly unfortunate since recent stars such as Brock Lesnar and The Big Show aren't in the game.
Still, the cast is a select group and includes many familiar names: The Rock, Hulk Hogan, Triple H, the Undertaker, Kane, Chris Jericho, Bubba Ray Dudley, D-Von Dudley, Christian, Test, Rob Van Dam, Kevin Nash, Edge, Booker T, and Kurt Angle. All the match types you'd expect are here, as well as a few you might not, such as cage, lumberjack, handicap, and fatal four-way. Hardcore matches are also included, which means that you'll be able to bring weapons out from under the ring and use them against your opponents. Most of these matches are spread throughout the game's four modes, which include a championship mode that lets you run through an entire WWE season and compete for four different title belts, a pay-per-view mode that lets you set up a series of matches in order to please an audience, a gauntlet mode that's similar to the survival modes found in traditional fighting games, and an exhibition mode that allows you to set up a number of other matches and tournaments. Special matches, such as royal rumble and king of the ring, are present in the exhibition mode as well. Your incentive to play through all these myriad options is the Shopzone, an in-game mall that lets you gawk at the nearly 100 different WWE merchandise items you'll unlock as you win a variety of matches and reach certain milestones.
Considering the many combinations of wrestlers, matches, and options, it's a good thing that WWE Road to WrestleMania X8 is easy to play and enjoyable. It's actually pretty similar to Bam Entertainment's Fire Pro Wrestling, if you're familiar with that game. The grapple system requires that you input the command for a move during a brief window of time right after the wrestlers lock arms. To perform a takedown or hold, all you need to do is push a direction on the control pad and press the A or B button, which will result in suplexes, pile drivers, and the signature moves you're accustomed to seeing every Thursday night on television. Reversals, counters, submissions, foreign objects, running takedowns, and takedowns from the turnbuckle are also possible.
As for the pace of matches and all the little details you've come to expect from the WWE, the game does a pretty good job with those as well, although there are some blemishes. Each character has a fair number of standard signature moves in addition to his trademark finisher, so you can actually perform The Rock's punch combo or RVD's wheel kick before moving on to the "rock bottom" or "five-star frog splash." During hardcore matches, you can pull weapons out from under the ring with a single button press and swing them like you would a baseball bat. They don't do a ton of damage, but they add an additional amount of WWE flavor to the game. Exhaustion is another aspect that's implemented really well. You have to weaken your opponent before you can perform high-risk moves without opening yourself up to a counter, and you can actually watch your opponent's body start to slouch as he tires. One of the more significant changes to this year's game is the ability to trade a full level of your finisher meter for a guaranteed near fall, which will rescue you from a three count no matter how destroyed your character is.
WWE Road to WrestleMania X8 isn't perfect, however, and some of the imperfections are just downright puzzling. Every character has the same standard set of punches and kicks, even though most wrestlers in the WWE tailor their basic moves to their unique style. The behavior that you'll encounter while playing against the CPU is laughable on the normal difficulty setting, as it will fall for the same running takedown time and time again. If you increase the difficulty, the CPU will dole out more damage and counter some of these repetitive tactics, but not to the extent that you'll have to work hard to earn the championship. The CPU opponents are also shaky when it comes to tag matches and interference. Don't be too surprised to see Bubba Ray put D-Von, his tag partner, into a half Boston crab for no apparent reason, or to see your tag partner finish an entire match without ever tagging you back in.
Of course, one of the main reasons why WWE followers will like Road to WrestleMania X8 so much is that it's visually similar to the matches you can tune in to twice a week or during pay-per-views. The ring is viewed from a side angle, which gives the game a three-dimensional appearance despite the use of 2D characters and backgrounds. The graphics aren't all that different from the graphics featured in last year's installment, but Natsume used digitized character sprites this year. As a result, the characters look just like their onscreen counterparts. They also move rather smoothly as well, thanks to an overall increase in animation. There's more movement in the audience in this year's installment too, and their signs change at varying intervals, so you won't be stuck staring at the same static "Austin 3:16" sign in every single match like the people who played last year's Road to WrestleMania. The only real problem with the game's visual presentation is that it's missing the pyrotechnic Titantron introductions from the previous installment, although that's not really something to cry over, as they were terrible.
The audio is good too, though there isn't much of it. Each wrestler has a brief theme and there are a handful of music tracks that play during matches, but the audience is silent and the only sound effects you'll hear most of the time are for punches, kicks, and tumbles to the mat. The speech samples you'll hear when the referee calls the match or during a couple of the wrestler introductions are great, but the game needs more of them.
In the end, WWE Road to WrestleMania X8 is going to sell a ton of copies due to the strength of its license alone. That's not a terrible thing, because prospective consumers will get a game that's faithful to the televised broadcasts and offers a great deal of variety in terms of overall wrestler choice and match options. The absence of a create-a-wrestler feature is a glaring omission, and the game could still use a few minor improvements, but that's nit-picking. If you like the WWE, you'll probably enjoy WWE Road to WrestleMania X8.