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.