For those just now tuning in, the first WWE Raw video game is best described as a never-ending calamity that washes over its players like a tidal wave. With this in mind, there was every chance that WWE Raw 2 would become THQ’s ‘hold my beer’ moment.
Once again the advertising was full of promise for this sequel, as it showcased better graphics, more match stipulations and gameplay modes to tempt back players who had been burned by the previous instalment. And it has to be said, some of that effort did pay off.
At the forefront is a dramatically improved create-a-superstar mode that offers a very welcome variety of customization options. WWE Raw 2 remains a visual marvel for its time, with the creation mode benefitting hugely from the improved character modelling and the Xbox’s custom soundtrack feature that lets players use their own ripped music for entrance themes. Custom wrestlers look superb and are a lot more fun to create, with move sets and entrance routines likewise being more rewarding to tinker with.
You can spend hours tweaking a wrestler here, and you’ll be rewarded for the effort because of how effective custom wrestlers are when their parameters and move sets compliment each other. The music is abrasive and the user interface is lacking, but this mode is still a massive improvement and is easily the best thing this game has going for it.
That ties in well with the new match stipulations that your custom wrestlers can take part in. Ladder matches and table matches are present, as is the infamous Hell in a Cell that locks wrestlers inside a steel cage. Deal enough damage to the cage doors and the wrestlers can even escape and fight on top of the cage itself, all in the name of good, life-threatening fun!
Unfortunately though, getting into the ring is also where things start falling apart. Again. Things are certainly not as bad as last time, seeing as momentum is no longer shared and the stamina meters have been removed, but overall, matches still don’t flow very well.
Reversals are still too random; striking is frustrating and awkward, and the matches get impossibly chaotic when more than two wrestlers are in the ring simultaneously. Using tornado tag team matches as merely one example: these are made much harder to enjoy because friendly fire can’t be turned off. There are many nonsensical design decisions like that.
The computer AI is also bad. It’s extremely easy to trick AI wrestlers into getting themselves counted out, and I’ve never once seen them tag in their teammate during a tag team match. The matches with stipulations are even worse. I was playing a ladder match where both active wrestlers were dangling from the championship belt suspended above the ring, when two more AI wrestlers interfered and began clownishly running around in circles beneath the airborne participants!
To that end, ladder matches are nearly impossible for human players to win. I suspect they may even be bugged, and it’s not harsh to think that considering there are many more obvious bugs that severely drain the fun out of this game. Consider how the AI will take control of your wrestler after you interfere in a Season match; how it will also repeatedly attempt pins when your wrestler is down (leaving you no opportunity to stand back up); or how you can lose a title belt after a championship match, even if you won!
It’s a pity that the gameplay is so lousy because the new Season mode did have promise. This mode challenges you to wrestle a calendar year with the aim of winning (or retaining) two heavyweight title belts at WWE’s flagship super card, Wrestlemania. Along the way your chosen wrestler will forge friendships and rivalries as you determine what antics they will get up to during an episode of WWE programming.
For instance, your wrestler can encourage another roster member to kickstart an alliance, or drop a crate on their head to accomplish the exact opposite. Performing in a segment requires energy that can be replenished by resting, which itself may prompt a sneak attack from another roster member who hates your guts. It sounds interesting for a wrestling game of this era, but it’s spoiled by the outcomes being almost totally random and very hard to control.
The Season mode is endless and has a very abstract quality to it, and because the various vignettes are played without the use of voice-overs, it all feels more sandbox in nature; giving players the building blocks with which to overlay their own imagined storylines. There is a kernel of a good idea there and sadly it gets lost because how vacant the presentation is. The fiddly segment management system hardly helps, but ultimately the Season mode is just too repetitive and too boring to be worth sticking with.
Up to four people can drop in and out of Season mode though, which makes WWE Raw 2 a comprehensive multiplayer offering. It’s an astonishingly cool feature in some ways, if ultimately being unsustainable because of the lengthy downtime involved in managing that many segments and matches.
The official roster of real life wrestlers marks a huge improvement over the first game (especially with regards to HHH’s face), and there are plenty of entrance themes and videos to unlock if you have the patience. If only the audio wasn’t so crummy. Alongside the lack of segment voice-overs, there is some shoddy ring announcing and yet more comically bad referee voices. When wrestlers punch each other it sounds like two coconuts banging together; just really uninspiring stuff that further spoils the in-ring action.
Developer Anchor Inc. continued to struggle with the little touches. Entrances look good for example, but a huge “PRESS A TO SKIP” message is always flashing over them in annoying fashion. It makes you wonder who thought that was necessary, considering this is a simulation game that has a certain dependancy on player immersion.
On the subject of rough edges, I’ve even heard an insane rumour that claims Anchor deliberately submitted a wonky final build as revenge against its publisher, THQ, who announced plans to hire another developer going forward. Quite how a rumour as crazy as that gets started is anyone’s guess, but for the record, Anchor would indeed be sacked when THQ made plans for their next bad wrestling game, so make of that what you will.
In the end, WWE Raw 2 is yet another disappointing wrestling game in a series of them from around this time. It does show potential in some areas, but to borrow from pro wrestling parlance: potential is just French for “you ain’t worth a shit yet!”