Some titles are so well-crafted and expertly polished that you almost feel guilty for not enjoying them. We all want to support superior craftsmanship in gaming, but at the same time, we realize that when the last boss has fallen and the last oppressed citizen has been freed, you will judge the experience more on how much fun you had than how well the water effects or flames were rendered.
My initial reaction playing a match in Raw 2 was negative. As a fan of the genre, I have played many a stinker in hopes of finding that perfect gem: a wrestling game that is deep enough to appreciate as someone who's followed the "sport" and fun enough to play with friends late into the night. Raw's gameplay, presentation, and feeling of authenticity all leave a lot to be desired - I could see that from almost the opening bell. And the more I played, the more flaws revealed themselves.
The odd thing, though, is that by the time I hit the off button, I was having quite a bit of fun. This was the opposite of a well-crafted but flat game. This was a poorly executed, halfhearted project that didn't necessary leave you feeling all that bad about the time you spent with it.
Use your finisher! Use your finisher!
Most of us knew going in that Raw 2 would boast an impressive number of match types and would benefit from the Xbox's processing power and storage capacity. The big question was whether the engine would deliver. You can find flashy failures in any bargain bin, and the WWE/WWF logos grace a good percentage of their covers. Now with three WWE titles coming out for three different consoles in the space of seven weeks, the deciding factor for most would be the gameplay.
The GameCube's Wrestlemania XIX was the safest bet. Its development team had decent credentials and displayed a willingness to learn from its mistakes, and the game's engine was a modified version of maybe the most highly regarded control scheme in the genre: the AKI engine, used in a string of successful Nintendo 64 games. Conversely, the Raw 2 project was far behind schedule, not as hyped as Wrestlemania XIX or the new Smackdown, was made by a developer that had never produced a successful wrestling game, and - most disturbingly - the entire development team was fired shortly before the game shipped!
While the hardcore Xbox crowd may have looked to Raw 2 with some excitement, many wrestling fans burned on the first game and burned on Wrestlemania XVIII in 2002, crossed their arms and waited to be impressed. The gameplay blanks still needed filling in.
The two points you'll want to take away from this review are these: 1) this game feels 85% finished; 2) if this game was made by wrestling fans, then someone went in and messed up their work.
That may seem kind of harsh, but it hit me early on that this game was made by programmers who watched maybe a weekend's worth of professional wrestling, played a weekend's worth of older titles, and set to work. At least that's the impression I got. And with a game that's supposed to capture the flavor of the WWE, that's a pretty big knock.
And this isn't just a matter of some whiny purist complaining because Triple H doesn't spit water the second time or Brock Lesnar doesn't have the right pyros shooting from the corner posts. It's a bit more. You see, it's one thing when programmers protective of disk space or working under tight deadlines choose not to include an animation. It's another thing when the animation is in there and it is not assigned to the wrestler that inspired it. The forward water spit is in there because Triple H does it, so why isn't it assigned to his character? It's there, it's named "Triple H," but you have to go in and give it to him yourself if you want it to display. And that's just one example of several.
Some signature moves, like Goldberg's Jackhammer and the Undertaker's Last Ride, rely on the wrestlers' interaction with the crowd and their almost relaxed execution to heighten their effect. Unfortunately, in Raw 2, these moves and others suffer from tepid animation that lessens the visual (and perhaps visceral) impact and diminishes the game's connection to the real thing. As with the omissions with the entrances, I got the feeling that this was due to rushed/sloppy work and an unfamiliarity with and a lack of appreciation for the product. If you don't know what a Last Ride's supposed to look like, you may not be too affected, but if you happen to play Wrestlemania XIX at a friend's, you may realize that you were ripped off.
Anyone who thinks I'm conjecturing too much and forgiving too little need only wander to Create a Superstar. Browsing through this mode's move lists and other options, fans of wrestling and wrestling games will notice some questionable decisions and general sloppiness. The man who dominates Raw 2's cover is Bill Goldberg, but his name is misspelled in at least one place. Well-known moves are given names that are not even always consistent from list to list. These generic move names would be understandable if Anchor did not have the WWE license. But calling a split-legged moonsault a "Spring Press" just adds to the time it takes to find the move you want, and seeing "Stinky Face" (for Rikishi's Stink Face) and "Steiner Ricliner" on the move lists just makes you shake your head in embarrassment. Even the word "SmackDown" is made into two words.
And just to make sure that the negligence affects the enjoyment of casual fans as well as aficionados, poor programming is sprinkled liberally throughout the entire game and affects far, far more than spelling and labels. Staying with the Create a Superstar, there are plenty of forehead-slapping moments to be found. Some of these are tolerable, like when you try to assign a running counter move and the computer opponent that is supposed to run at you just runs in place out of reach, or when the demonstration of flying moves to the outside is marred by your wrestler repeatedly falling short. Usually, you can exit the menu, come back, and find it all working.
Other glitches, however, will leave you wanting to exit more than the menu. For instance, I spent some time creating Japanese superstar Kenta Kobashi and decided he looked pretty good. One thing was missing, though: I wanted to add a warm-up jacket to his entrance. So I went into the jackets, found one that looked good, colored it orange to match the rest of his outfit, and confirmed the choice. To my astonishment, while the jacket saved fine, selecting it changed other important aspects of his appearance that had nothing to do with his upper-body wear. By adding the jacket, which he wouldn't even wear during matches, I inadvertently replaced his orange trunks with long, gray sweatpants and I totally ditched his boots. Why the man's footwear would vanish every time he put on a jacket is a mystery. Maybe he needed to take off the boots to pull on the sweatpants I didn't ask for? Or maybe it's just poor programming.