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.