If you ever needed further proof of how quickly the wrestling business was changing in the early two-thousands, just look at THQ’s first WWE game for Xbox. Originally named after the TV show, WWF Raw is War, the game was intended to be a late 2001 launch title before delays bumped its North American release date to early 2002. It sounds like a short window, but consider this: by the time of the EU release later that year, the TV show and its parent company had been renamed, their bulging roster had been transformed in a controversial draft lottery, and their business was undergoing serious creative and financial crises.
All of a sudden, this once incredibly hyped release was looking alarmingly out of date. Using words like “outdated” around wrestling fans is a kiss of death. Fans crave accuracy and currency in these simulators in exactly the same way players do about any sports game, and I can vividly remember UK magazines of the time voicing similar concerns in their previews. So the lacking roster is definitely a problem here, but WWE Raw could have survived this by simply being a fun game.
Now, the graphics are certainly very good for their time. With the infamous exception of Triple H (who looks awful here), wrestlers like Big Show and D-Von Dudley, just to name a couple, are rendered in lifelike fashion and still look impressive nearly twenty years later. WWE Raw certainly took handsome screenshots back in the day, to the point where I myself bought into the hype and the Xbox console after seeing a gameplay teaser alongside Halo. The more appropriate video game to mention in the same breath, however, is Rise of the Robots because it really is that hard to find anything about WWE Raw that isn’t so incredibly disappointing.
Players have the option of launching into a range of basic match types such as singles, triple threat and tag team, but there are very few stipulations to help spice things up. There are no ladder, table or cage matches for instance; a glaring shortcoming when you consider how popular these stips were on TV the previous year. Again, this is a compromise that could have been acceptable if the gameplay itself was satisfying. Sadly, it very much isn’t.
WWE Raw has nice graphics, but the quality is undercut by stiff animation and moves that don’t look very good. Even a simple vertical suplex is animated like a child on a school field is executing the move, and it only goes downhill from there.
The action is governed by a voltage meter that stretches awkwardly across the bottom of the screen. This thing tries to convey a match’s momentum, allowing a player to execute their wrestler’s finishing move if they can boost the voltage high enough. If a player successfully lands a punch or a slam, their wrestler’s name expands to fill more of the meter, with the inverse happening whenever they get struck by their opponent. The voltage meter is a weird setup — it’s confusing on a visual level and it’s frustrating in practice because of the overly specific timing for hitting finishers and because the meter also penalises players who repeat spots.
Encouraging mixed offence is a good idea in theory, but the poor hit detection makes it difficult to execute anything even remotely fancy on a consistent basis. Landing a simple grapple is hard enough; often requiring wrestlers to be right in each other’s face before the the tie up will connect. Another needless restriction is that half of the standing grapples can only be performed on a groggy opponent, thus forcing players to repetitively slug away with punches and kicks first.
Making matters worse are the accompanying stamina meters, which limit how much running and punching wrestlers can do in the first place. This aggressively annoying feature slows everything down, from the wrestlers themselves to the overall pace of the match. Really, there are too many gameplay irritations to mention, though consider how one button is used for three different actions. Players will frequently make accidental moves because of this, which is downright inexcusable when you consider two buttons on the Xbox controller are unassigned by default!
Perhaps the single worst gameplay problem is the reversal system. An opponent’s move can be countered by inputting the same command that they’re trying to use. This system has no synergy with the stamina or voltage meters that I can tell, and it makes grappling a random free-for-all irrespective of which wrestler made the tie-up to begin with. Matches have no flow and aren’t fun to play, and that goes double for when you’re fighting against the unfair AI.
I played a series of 1v1 matches for this retrospective where my final match against Ivory took several retries and over forty minutes to win because she would reverse almost every single move I made. And the thing is, there is very little a player can do about this. You can beat on your opponent with quick strikes and exploit the AI outside the ring all you want, but if the computer wants to reverse your move, it will, regardless of how high your voltage is and how much punishment you’ve dealt.
The designers didn’t bother to include easier difficulty settings for some asinine reason, so players will always have the odds stacked against them. Eventually I grabbed a steel chair with the hopes of smashing my way to an easy pinfall, and even this backfired when after several straight minutes of battering, the steel chair grazed Ivory just as she slid back into the ring and I was disqualified!
Inconsistencies like these suggest the developers were out of touch with the actual product. That’s strange because Anchor Inc. made the first Ultimate Fighting Championship game a few years before this, which was a realistic and well-reviewed game for its time. And yet in WWE Raw the same developer is filling the creation mode with screwball costume pieces like robot arms and pumpkin heads, and recording referee voice clips that sound so comically bad, it makes you wonder if someone on the team was pulling a rib on their co-workers.
Wrestlers can fight on the ramp, which is a feature that some players may like but is ultimately no good either because without the ropes or turnbuckles to work with, the gameplay has even less nuance than it did before. There are large crates outside of the ring that players can break open to collect new weapons and accessories for their item book. If you think that sounds more like a Power Stone mechanic than it does a wrestling one, then you’d be correct. It’s completely unsuitable, and even worse when you consider most of the items are sunglasses or masks; things that other wrestlers will actually sell if struck by!
The collectable accessories are meant to bolster the create-a-wrestler mode with more options for your own characters, but even then the mode feels limited, with its sloppy interface and abrasive music hindering your efforts. Custom wrestlers don’t look good either. Scaling is especially cumbersome, forcing you to individually resize every body part separately to get the type of musculature you want. The create-an-entrance feature is promising, but without any video previews of what you’re tinkering, it’s more effort than it’s worth.
The final nail in the coffin concerns the game’s pitiful longevity. The game already felt outdated in many respects, but the Title Match mode is an absolute joke. These are a bunch of consecutive, not to mention rock-hard battles with no story or connective tissue of any kind. Some title paths are longer and feature remixed opponents, but ultimately they’re all the same boring matches from the Exhibition mode. It takes a mere three wins to complete the Women’s Championship path, which is pathetic.
Success in the Title Mode unlocks a bonus character for your official roster, with one of them actually being Fred Durst. So WWE Raw does have this going for it: it lets you officially wrestle as a Limp Bizkit singer! Priorities, I guess.
It’s very sad that this rushed mess established the Xbox’s long-running reputation for poor wrestling games. I called it a disappointment once before, though in retrospect I should have been harsher. WWE Raw may not be the absolute worst grappler of all time, but it’s at least the video game equivalent of breaking into someone’s house and pissing on their furniture.
Just a total failure on every level.