WWF Raw is the wrestling game debut of Anchor, the development team that created the Ultimate Fighting Championship game for the Dreamcast. As it did with UFC, Anchor has focused its efforts on re-creating the intensity and excitement of a popular voyeuristic experience, this time being the continuing saga of the World Wrestling Federation. WWF Raw has impressive graphics and a beefy roster that includes many of today's most popular WWF superstars. Anchor has developed a completely original game engine for WWF Raw, and while the game does some things very well, it generally falls short of expectations.
Upon starting WWF Raw, you're treated with an impressive opening montage that perfectly replicates that of the televised Raw program. The opening video is high quality and makes an excellent introduction to the game, which for the most part shows off high production values. The in-depth tutorial shows how the game's mechanics--such as the voltage meter, stamina, and grappling system--work, with both text instructions and video demonstration. You can also take the time to peruse the museum, where you'll find biographies and other little tidbits.
Creating accurate reproductions of the popular WWF superstars is key to properly handling a licensed wrestling game, and in many cases, WWF Raw performs admirably. There are a ton of wrestlers here, including some of those who didn't appear in last year's WWF SmackDown! Just Bring It for the PS2, such as Haku, Justin Credible, X-Pac, and K-Kwik. Many of the wrestlers look amazing--The Rock looks absolutely great, as do many of the other wrestlers who were unveiled earlier in the game's development. WWF Raw's character models are replete with facial detail, nicely done muscle and skin tone, good-looking tattoos, and accurate overall body structure. Some of the characters aren't quite as well done as the rest, however. For example, the Triple H character model, representing one of the most popular wrestlers today, looks very little like the real-life wrestler. The artists also seem to have overdone it with the Chris Benoit character model, whose midsection just looks odd. The women also bear little resemblance to their real-life counterparts. They look rather good when making their ring entrances, as the high-quality Titantron video feeds, slick pyrotechnics, lighting effects, and animate crowds set the scene nicely.
The brand-new engine that Anchor has developed for WWF Raw is well suited to the task of accurately depicting wrestling maneuvers and their effects on other characters and the ring. When you perform a suplex on an opponent with your back to the ropes, you can send your opponent flying over the ropes to the ringside, with the ropes bouncing believably in the process. Striking opponents when near the ring ropes can get them tangled up, setting them up for strikes that will take them over the side. Tossing a hapless opponent into his or her tag-team partner is equally satisfying, since the collision detection is spot on, and the force of the blow will likely damage or knock down the second wrestler. Many other wrestling games have had problems with top-rope maneuvers, but WWF Raw has your wrestler nicely adjust for distance when going aerial, making these techniques worthwhile and quite satisfying. Better yet, if you scale the turnbuckles at the wrong time, and your opponents can reach you before you take off, they can knock you down, forcing you to endure an all-too-familiar groan-of-agony animation. As an added bonus, wrestlers sweat when performing, and you can see droplets appear across the mat, increasing throughout the course of a match. This little touch can easily pass unnoticed but adds considerably to the game's simulation-style aesthetic.
Anchor is known for delivering excellent animation, and in this respect, WWF Raw is quite impressive. When moves are executed, they look genuine, and in most cases each move has been tailored to animate in the same way that the real-life wrestler performs it. The Rock leans back and winces in pain while performing his sharpshooter, for example, and it seems that just about everyone in the game has a different way of throwing punch and chop combinations. There's quite a variety of moves as well, while you're standing up and while you're grappling. The same wrestler may throw a right-left punch combination, shift positions and use a slapping chop, throw a low kick or two, or even finish with a flying lariat. The number of moves you can execute is substantial, considering the simplified control scheme, and they all generally look great.
While Anchor has shown that it can animate character models extremely well, some of the animation in WWF Raw seems incredibly rushed. The wrestlers walk in a rather unnatural, waddling, almost Robocop-like way as they make their ring entrances. When your chosen wrestler grabs a chair and runs with it, he leans back a bit and holds the chair straight up ahead of him. However, this same two-handed grip is used while the wrestler is holding smaller, one-handed items, like the jack-o'-lantern. It's too bad that so much of WWF Raw seems unfinished, because with additional development time it could have been one of the smoothest-looking games around.
The way weapons and items have been made a part of WWF Raw is one of its greatest features. There's an absolutely dizzying array of items you can find, wear, and use, both in boxes outside the ring and on other wrestlers. For example, while fighting the Undertaker you can knock off his bandanna and put it on yourself. The same can be said for Kurt Angle's medals and Christian's big goofy sunglasses. The more-insane items you can find include drumsticks, coat hangers, spare tires, file cabinets, television sets, and of course, the delicately embroidered swan tutu. The items can be swung as melee weapons or tossed as projectiles, and each is rated differently for effectiveness in a number of categories. Some of the more traditional weapons, such as tables and two-by-fours, have been handled extremely well. Tables can be broken in a number of ways--just about any move you use on an opponent near a table can send your opponent crashing through it. Weapons and tables are prone to breaking in half, but you can use these splintered pieces as armaments as well. There are dozens of weapons to use and find, and exploring this facet of the game is rewarding.
You will have to become familiar with the pacing and style of WWF Raw, since it doesn't play exactly like the games that have come before it. The control in WWF Raw makes use of a simple system where you can strike, grapple, block, and perform a multitude of context-sensitive actions. The action button can, for example, make the wrestler perform a signature taunt, scale the turnbuckles, pick up and wear items, or climb out of the ring. It should be noted that WWF Raw uses the same blocking mechanism as WWF No Mercy, where wrestlers can nullify incoming strikes by sticking out their chests. Combining the strike and grapple buttons will perform a counter move, which, if used during the extremely brief window of opportunity, can deflect incoming attacks or let you sidestep them. In a manner similar to that of the highly acclaimed Fire Pro series of wrestling games, WWF Raw makes extensive use of stamina, which sets it apart from the competition. Each wrestler has a stamina indicator beneath his or her character model, which slowly depletes as the wrestler performs tiring actions such as running, throwing strikes, or attempting a grapple. This meter replenishes while you're standing still or performing a taunt, so if you pace yourself correctly, it's possible to avoid chronic fatigue.
What truly separates the play style of WWF Raw from that of other games is the way the designers have implemented momentum and crowd reactions into the system. Each player begins with an equal share of an onscreen "voltage meter," which represents what percentage of the crowd's support they've earned. The voltage meter will swing back and forth based on successful moves and appeals to the audience through taunts and poses. If a wrestler overuses a specific move, it will no longer generate voltage and may eventually reduce his or her portion of the meter. Executing a submission, like a figure-four leg lock, will generate voltage, while breaking out of it will add to the recipient's bar, much like a game of tug-of-war. Getting the voltage meter to flash for a few seconds while the opponent is groggy is the only way to pull off signature moves and finishers. While this system adds a lot of depth to the game, the extremely difficult prerequisites that need to be fulfilled to perform the exciting signature moves are frustrating.
It's extremely disappointing to see that many of the features that were reportedly going to be available in WWF Raw never made it in the final version. There is no story mode to speak of, so don't expect any of the exuberant backstage action and showmanship that make the televised broadcasts so entertaining. The wrestlers don't bleed, so don't expect any hard-core violence, either. And while there are lots of weapons to choose from, most of them are rather underwhelming. Flying off the top rope while wearing a swan tutu may be amusing the first time around, but in the long haul, a great many of the items seem like they were the result of poorly allocated resources--it would have been better if the item list had been cut in half in exchange for being able to climb the ladders or set up opponents by seating them in a chair. There are no backstage areas in WWF Raw; in fact, aside from the king-of-the-ring tournament, you'll always be competing in a single arena. The create-a-wrestler features in WWF Raw are fairly deep while remaining streamlined and allowing for easy reproductions of popular wrestlers that weren't included in the game due to licensing or time constraints. There are only 16 male and female faces to choose from, although there's a wide assortment of masks and other details to play around with. You can also invest quite a bit of time into customizing entrance routines, which is a definite bonus. But, considering that the Xbox has a built-in hard drive, it's simply criminal that you're limited to only 16 created wrestlers. While ordinarily this may not seem so bad, the omission of the former WCW and ECW stars from the roster makes this a glaring oversight. You will likely want to re-create popular athletes like Rob Van Dam, Booker T, Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, DDP, and many others, as well as create your own original creations.
None of these missing features eclipses the lack of game modes, however. You're limited to the following modes: exhibition match, king of the ring, and the various title runs. The only title matches you can compete in are the World Heavyweight, European, Intercontinental, Light Heavyweight Championship, and the Women's Title. There are no real distinctions between these title shots, aside from the level of competition you'll draw. You can enter any wrestler in these events, and we mean anyone--you can vie for the women's title with The Rock or enter Big Show in the light heavyweight competition, which totally eliminates their legitimacy. The king-of-the-ring mode is a seeded tournament, which can take a considerable amount of time to play through, considering that you need to watch the CPU-vs.-CPU introductions before you can skip their bouts. Playing through the single player modes can be quite fun, since there's a considerable challenge in trying to win a dozen matches with only three retries. The lack of a save feature makes these modes cumbersome, though, since it means you need to defeat all of the opponents in one sitting. The most glaring omission, however, is the lack of a tag-team title mode, which ruins any possible hope for extended cooperative play sessions. In addition, many of the modes that are now considered standard, such as cage matches, table matches, Ironman matches, multiple pinfalls, and six-man tags, are nowhere to be seen.
The overall lack of supplementary features isn't a major drawback, however, since what's important to a modern wrestling game, aside from the graphics, is solid multiplayer action and challenging CPU AI. Disappointingly, these areas don't fare much better.
When you're playing against the CPU, the grappling system and play mechanics in WWF Raw seem more than adequate, but when it comes down to head-to-head play, the game becomes totally unbalanced. Certain characters, like The Rock and The Undertaker, are overpowered in comparison to weaker wrestlers, such as K-Kwik and X-Pac. Their stamina bars let them perform a greater number of strikes while also replenishing much faster, and their appeals to the crowd are much more powerful. While this imbalance does adequately portray the real-life capabilities of these characters, it ruins the possibility for challenging matchups between equally skilled players. Many of you will find that the only fun of playing multiplayer games in WWF Raw is finding all of the bizarre items to use and wear.
The single-player action isn't much better, however. To state it bluntly, the CPU AI in WWF Raw is just plain awful. Countless times the CPU opponent will do things that are just unexplainable. Interfering wrestlers will race in and choose an opponent to batter, but there is no actual allegiance or loyalty in play, and they will just as quickly turn on the other side. Tag-team matches suffer from the same problem, as wrestlers have a penchant for attacking their teammates. During non-time-limit singles matches, an AI wrestler outside the ring will constantly run back into the ring and roll right back out, as if he were resetting the referee count. When maneuvering outside the ring, the CPU opponent has a tendency to hang on obstructions, like the announcer table and steel steps, and just continue walking in place until you come over and draw him away. If you stay inside the ring, the CPU does manage to put up a challenging fight, and it's quite proficient at avoiding grapples and performing counters. Playing through the single-player title modes is quite challenging and can be entertaining if you can look past the AI's limitations.
On the audio front, WWF Raw is solid throughout, with sound effects as varied as the many items you'll find in the game. Weapon strikes sound particularly brutal, and the constant crowd noises provide a wealth of atmosphere. WWF Raw employs frequent use of guitar-driven, high-intensity tracks that are clearly intended to quicken the game's pace. The entrance music sounds really good for just about everyone, since the real-life themes are used for such notables as The Undertaker and Stone Cold Steve Austin, and even Christian has his opera music. It's really too bad that THQ saw fit to ship this game without the ability to rip your own soundtracks and intro music--this seems like an extremely obvious functionality to include and is most relevant to this type of game, considering how often wrestlers cycle through entrance music.
The problems Anchor stumbled upon while creating WWF Raw are easy enough to explain. When compared with legitimate martial arts events like the Ultimate Fighting Championship, professional wrestling requires a greater amount of variety to properly emulate the many facets of the sports-entertainment experience. Without the benefit of a large variety of play modes, WWF Raw is forced to stand out on the merits of its grappling system and its single- and multiplayer experiences, none of which are truly satisfying. WWF Raw could have benefited by specializing in either of the two established directions: having a realistic fighting engine that takes location damage into account, like that in WWF No Mercy, or having a more arcade-style setting with a wide variety of play modes and a slew of wrestlers onscreen at once. Even more importantly, WWF Raw should have spent more time in development so that features seen in previous games, such as blood, fighting in the crowds, and backstage areas, could have been included, as well as an updated roster.
In the end, WWF Raw is a valiant effort by Anchor, which has succeeded in creating a formidable game engine that allows for a number of really great future possibilities. The many items to find and use are an absolute riot, and despite a truckload of missing features, the create-a-wrestler mode is solid. Those who absolutely need a wrestling game for their Xbox will obviously eat this one up--it's not hard to look past the considerable flaws and laud the virtues of what is easily the best-looking wrestling game currently available. The discriminating player, however, would do well to rent this one first.