Last year's WWF Raw was a first in a number of ways. For starters, it was the first World Wrestling Entertainment licensed game to make its way to the Xbox, and it also marked the wrestling game debut of Anchor, the development team behind the critically acclaimed Ultimate Fighting Championship for the Dreamcast. By all accounts, the game did not turn out as well as most people had hoped, as it simply didn't have much in the way of modes or overall depth. Also, the new gameplay engine, while rife with potential, simply felt sloppy and unfinished in the final product. Eighteen months after WWF Raw, THQ and Anchor have released WWE Raw 2. Although the game does its best to try and alleviate its predecessor's numerous problems, overall, Anchor appears to have spent more of its development time adding new bells and whistles to the game rather than really improving last year's flawed gameplay in any notable way.
WWE Raw 2 is, for certain, a much deeper game than last year's title, and, unlike last year, Raw 2 has all of the match types and modes you'd expect from a modern day WWE title. In exhibition mode, you can choose from normal, hardcore, street fight, ladder, table, TLC, cage, hell in a cell, and battle royal matches. King of the ring, tournament, and royal rumble options are also available as separate selections on the opening game menu. All of these matches are pretty much comparable to their SmackDown! and Wrestlemania counterparts, except for a couple of slight but noteworthy differences. The biggest difference is in the hell in a cell match, which doesn't really seem to play as well as in other WWE games. Unlike other hell in a cell matches, you simply can't break an opponent through any part of the cage after repeated hits. Instead, you have to use predetermined entry points--that look like doors--on either sides of the cage. You can still force your opponents through the cage after slamming them once or twice, however. Additionally, throwing your opponent into the cage doesn't seem to cause the same amount of damage or look quite as impressive as in other titles.
Raw 2 features a brand-new season mode that lets you and up to three friends take WWE superstars or created characters into the thick of WWE competition. The season mode starts you off nearly one full year before the next Wrestlemania, so, you're effectively building your career toward it. Each month of the season is represented by one episode of Raw, one episode of SmackDown!, and one pay-per-view (PPV) event. You'll be taking part in all three events in one capacity or another. During the season, your progress is marked by your popularity level, which is based on a 100-point scale that measures how well the WWE fans perceive you, and a spirit meter, which is basically a stamina meter that carries over from show to show.
Along the way, you won't really find any predetermined storylines or set paths. Instead, it's basically up to you to decide how you want to progress. This is handled is by giving you a number of different options at the beginning of each show. You can cycle through the list of matches on a show's card and decide what, if anything, you want to do during that match. If you want to rest up and replenish your spirit meter, you can simply hang out backstage and do nothing. However, you also have the option of calling out opponents, ambushing and/or setting traps for them, asking different superstars to manager you, and even throwing words of encouragement to your compatriots. This may sound simple, but determining how you progress can be a bit tricky, as sometimes you aren't able to make your set actions go down the way you want. For instance, occasionally you'll be resting up backstage, and an opponent will rush into the locker room and attack you. Or maybe you'll call out a superstar by demanding a match, but another superstar will answer the challenge instead. Sometimes, however, no one will show up at all.
While there's no denying that there are plenty of options in the season mode, there are still some hitches here and there. One of the most perplexing aspects of the season mode is how the different cutscenes, related to your various actions during the season, play out. None of the cutscenes feature dialogue--whether it's text, voice, or otherwise. So whenever something happens, you're basically left watching as wrestlers and managers flap their lips meaninglessly--without so much as a hint as to what's happening. Eventually you find out what happened, at the end, when a screen pops up that explains whether or not your intended action has worked out and whether or not the end result has earned you an ally or a foe. The scenes themselves can be pretty meaningless. Another irritating aspect is that there really doesn't seem to be much continuity in how matches, feuds, and the like play out. For example, you'll often find yourself randomly thrown into a feud with another wrestler by one of the WWE general managers. Past history with that wrestler doesn't even matter. So, you could spend show after show going after Brock Lesnar and inevitably end up in a PPV match against Jamie Noble. This isn't a constant problem, however. In some cases, we did seem to get some decent feuds going against our chosen opponents, but it definitely took a lot of effort on our part to make it work.
WWE Raw 2 plays very similarly to its predecessor. If you never played WWF Raw, the game employed a simplistic, albeit sluggish, style of gameplay, with strike, grapple, block, and action functions as the primary controls. The basic control scheme for Raw 2 is largely untouched, but some of the actions themselves are handled a bit differently. For one, there is no longer a block function to speak of. Instead, your only method of avoiding attacks is to dodge or counter--both of which are now controlled by one button. One new addition is the game's movement scheme, which uses both the D pad and the left analog stick. The D pad is employed for normal movement around the ring and arena, whereas the left stick is now used for running. Simply tapping the left stick in any direction will send your wrestler sprinting off. While this is kind of a cool idea, the controls with the left stick are extremely loose, and it's pretty easy to miss your targeted opponent altogether when and if you don't line him up perfectly.
While Raw 2 does feel a bit sped up, as opposed to its predecessor, the game still feels like it moves at a snail's pace. Part of this is due to the way grapples and ground attacks are handled. Grapple moves are executed by pressing the grapple button and choosing a direction on the D pad that corresponds to the move you want to perform. The problem is that most times, you'll simply grapple a guy and end up holding him for a couple of seconds before you actually perform the move. This is the same when performing submissions or picking up an opponent. To perform either function, you have to tap the grapple button while your opponent is down. Once your wrestler has the downed opponent on the ground, you either tap the button again to lift him up, or you press it with a direction on the pad to perform a submission. This grappling functionality slows the game up quite a bit and ultimately destroys the pacing of the action.
Last year's voltage meter is back for Raw 2, though the in-game stamina meter appears to have fallen by the wayside. The voltage meter appears to work roughly the same way, building up as you beat your opponent silly and dwindling if you're getting beaten down or performing the same move too many times. Once your meter is filled, you can perform your wrestler's finisher by pressing the A and X buttons simultaneously from the necessary position. Because it's actually pretty easy to get your voltage meter to stay peaked throughout a match, you'll tend to have plenty of opportunities to finish off your opponent using a signature move throughout a match.
Another holdover from WWF Raw is the game's AI, which, while marginally improved in some areas, is still extremely dumb. Opposing CPU wrestlers still do a lot of peculiar things, and many of the same AI bugs from last year's game have gone pretty well untouched. Interfering wrestlers still run into the ring, and, instead of attacking you, immediately jump on your opponent. In the meantime, you just sit back and watch. CPU opponents also, for some reason, have a bizarre tendency to try and repeatedly pin you if it gets late into a match. In one match, we actually had the CPU try to pin us 11 times in a row, and, because our opponent immediately went for the pin after we kicked out, we never had the chance to get up. Ladder matches and cage matches are extremely hit or miss. Sometimes you actually get a good, competitive match, and other times the CPU just goes right for the dangling belt or heads straight for the top of the cage to escape--without giving you any real chance to compete. This problem is especially apparent in three, four, and six wrestler matches. We actually saw all five of our opponents head off to climb the cage within 30 seconds of the start of one match.
Raw 2 also, for lack of a better term, just does a lot of weird, inexplicable stuff that doesn't make much sense. For example, the game supports up to six players in the ring at once. However, you can't have six wrestlers at once during the royal rumble, but you can have six wrestlers at once in a standard, six-player battle royal. Another issue is in the game's targeting system, which, unlike practically every targeting system found in a modern-day wrestling game, doesn't autotarget an opponent who attacks you. So, for example, let's say you're in a triple threat match, and you're fighting one specific opponent. Then the other opponent runs up and clotheslines you from behind. When you get back up, you have to manually target that opponent, or you'll be stuck targeting the previous foe. This really becomes a problem in four to six wrestler matches, where you basically have to cycle through the gamut of guys in the ring until you get to the one you want--even if he's beating the hell out of you. While these types of issues, by themselves, are rather minor, if you start adding them up, they become a much bigger problem.
For all the negatives in the game, there is one mode in Raw 2 that stands out as a major positive, and that is its create-a-wrestler mode. Anchor clearly spent a great deal of time making the create-a-wrestler mode extremely deep, and it really does show. Nearly every facet of a character can be molded to your preferred design in the create-a-wrestler mode--from all the basic appearance functions, to logic and wrestling style attributes, to practically every aspect of your character's entrance. There are hundreds of different clothing, accessory, and other appearance-related options, as well as hundreds of different moves and taunts. New attributes can be unlocked during the season mode as well. The most impressive part of the create-a-wrestler mode is definitely the new entrance editor, which really gives you a stellar amount of control over how your character arrives on the scene. Lighting schemes can be designed in a multitude of different sections and colors, and different types of pyrotechnics, fog, and the like, can be programmed to your particular desire. Additionally, you can even program your own Titantron videos for your wrestler. Though the feature is a bit limited, you can decide what move you want your wrestler to perform in the video, as well as select from an array of different text animations and video filters. Raw 2 also features custom soundtrack support, so copying your favorite songs to the Xbox hard drive lets you have your wrestler come out to whatever song you please. Though there are already over 60 wrestlers in the game, you can store up to 64 created wrestlers, giving you over 120 wrestlers from which to use.
WWE Raw looks great for the most part, but there are a few parts that lack polish. Practically all of the wrestler models in the game look great--especially the top-tiered wrestlers like The Rock, Steve Austin, The Undertaker, and Kurt Angle. Even some of the wrestlers that didn't look so great last year have been improved quite a bit, like Triple H and Chris Benoit. Unfortunately, some of the newer models, like Rey Mysterio and Goldberg, aren't quite as impressive, and generally seem a bit off-kilter when compared to the rest of the models. Overall, the game animates very well, and nearly all the different moves and taunts look like they should. Transition animations are still somewhat lacking in certain areas, however, and periodically, you'll see some pretty unpleasant movement glitches.
There are also a number of rather prevalent performance issues in Raw 2. The game features some of the most horrific clipping problems ever seen in a wrestling game. This is especially troublesome outside of the ring, where it's incredibly easy to have a wrestler's legs clip right through the ring when performing certain moves. We were even able to periodically run right through the announcers' table. Collision detection is equally spotty. At one point, we were able to actually punch and kick an opposing player on the opposite side of a solid object--in this case, a cage wall. The game is not above some frame rate issues as well. These mainly occur during entrances, when certain pyrotechnics go off.
Raw 2's audio is also quite good. Nearly every wrestler has his correct theme song, and, since the game supports custom soundtracks, any missing track can simply be uploaded to the Xbox hard drive. All of the in-game effects and music are good enough--though not definitively impressive in any way. As mentioned before, there's no dialogue in the game to speak of, and, in fact, the only voice work of any kind is that of the ring announcers and the generic referee voices. Both Lillian Garcia and Howard Finkel lend their voices to the ring announcing. While Finkel sounds just fine, Garcia's statements sound incredibly forced and are periodically inaudible during certain entrances.
All in all, WWE Raw 2 just doesn't feel like much of a step forward in the series. Instead it feels more like a big step sideways. Truth be told, Anchor has done a great job packing the game full of fringe benefits, like an excellent create-a-wrestler mode, a gaggle of different match types, and the new season mode. However, these benefits are somewhat negated if you can't back them up with a solid gameplay experience, and Raw 2 simply can't. If you were a big proponent of WWF Raw, you may find Raw 2 to be more to your liking. However, to the more discerning wrestling game fan, you'll have to keep on waiting for a great wrestling game for your Xbox, as WWE Raw 2 just isn't what you've been hoping for.
Editor's note 09/23/03: When the review was originally posted, it stated that players could execute a wrestler's finishing move regardless of whether the wrestler's voltage meter is filled, which is incorrect. GameSpot regrets the error.