Does WWF War Zone manage to capture the spirit of the insanely popular Attitude Era or is this just a jobber to the stars?

1998 was a good year for wrestling.

The arrival of the Attitude Era catapulted WWF to the forefront of cultural relevance. Suddenly the likes of Steve Austin and Undertaker were genuine megastars and WWF was everywhere. Toys, billboards, talk shows, home video, and… TV shows.

The one place you couldn’t experience WWF’s new Attitude Era was on your video game console. Gamers had been left high and dry for well over a year, 1997 coming and going without a WWF game. 

That was about to change.

Acclaim had helmed the WWF video game license since the late 1980s and its offerings had, by and large, failed to keep up with the changing trends within video games; kind of similar to WWF during this time.  

The mixed reactions to 1996’s WWF In Your House, a game that desperately tried to ride the Mortal Kombat hype train but fell ass-backward off the wagon, indicated that changes were needed in the series.

In Your House just wasn’t very good… Sorry In Your House fans.

2D wasn’t going to cut it anymore; Iguana West was tasked with making that change happen.

It’s also worth noting that WCW while destroying WWF in the Monday Night ratings, was also handily beating WWF’s offerings in the gaming space. AKI’s WCW vs NWO World Tour blew everything Vince’s company offered out of the water.  I wonder how that plays out in the future…

Over the course of an 18-month development cycle, War Zone slowly came together.

Originally titled WWF 98, Acclaim’s game underwent a number of changes from its early concept. As WWF undertook its own branding changes throughout 1997, so too did the look and feel of the game.

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Pre-release the hype around WWF War Zone was very much real. Showings at E3, and within gaming publications really caught the attention of WWF fans. Add in the fact that everything WWF touched at this point was turning in Stone Cold piles of money, and it was certain that War Zone was destined for huge success.

The game was released in the summer of 1998 on both the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. There is also a Game Boy version but it’s diabolically awful and I’ll be covering that in the future.

The game would ultimately go on to sell over 2 million units on the PlayStation 1, becoming the 36th best selling game on that console. For comparison sake, Smackdown 1 and 2 both failed to break the 2 million mark on their own.

To call WWF War Zone a financial success would be an understatement.

So why when I mention War Zone on my Twitter and Facebook do I get the kind of middling indifference that would have Rob Conway blushing.

The game itself features an 18 man roster; not big even by 1998 standards. 11 of these were making their WWF video game debut. All the big names are present and correct but if you were a fan of most of the 1998 midcard then it’s tough for you.

The roster was also somewhat outdated even when the game hit store shelves. Bret Hart, Ahmed Johnson, and The British Bulldog had long since left the company, while Shawn Michaels had entered retirement. Add in that 2 more of those characters are alternative Mick Foley characters, and it’s easy to see why the roster for this game isn’t particularly memorable.

Luckily WWF War Zone came with a break out feature; create a wrestler. 

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Yes, for the first time in a WWF video game, fans could create their own Superstar and take them into the ring. 

While basic compared to modern creation suites, the mode offers enough options and depth to allow fans the opportunity to experiment. It was a huge deal at the time and it really adds so much to the game. It affords many the chance to create their favorite wrestler (albeit in a deformed and horrifying way) if they didn’t make the cut or just make themselves and have a blast seeing that fantasy play out.

Thanks to the basic options offered, It was easy to swap creation notes among friends, fostering the kind of creative fun that we take for granted with modern games.

The wrestlers that are in the game are also very well detailed. WWF War Zone makes use of Acclaim’s Soft Skin Technology which allows for more seamless character models. Lead Programmer Justin Towns told PSMOnline that this was a key feature in making War Zone stand out from the competition;

 

“We wanted the wrestlers to seem as much like the real person. You know, we wanted to give them the right personality, make them look like the real wrestler, give them the right moves that the wrestler actually performs. We felt that in other wrestling games, the wrestlers felt very generic. We tried to make them feel more unique.”

 

Where WCW vs NWO World Tour’s wrestlers looked like they’d give you a paper cut if you touched them in the wrong place, War Zone’s models look smoother and are generally more lifelike… by 1998 standards.

Across the board, the presentation aspects of the game are also top-notch. 

Vince and JR provide commentary and it’s well implemented for what it is. There’s over an hour of commentary recordings in the game.

On top of this, wrestlers will smack talk during matches and give winces of pain if they find themselves in certain moves..

The crowd scream out in support of superstars (or derision) depending on the momentum of the match and were all very engrossing back in 1998. These days some of the crowd reactions are somewhat jarring and sound like someone smuggled a megaphone into the arena to ruin the atmosphere.

The game also boasts an impressive selection of match types. From weapons matches to cages, tag team to Royal Rumble (although that last one is an N64 exclusive) as well as the ability to play with up to three friends. Compared to the barebones offerings in WWF In Your House, this was an oasis of choice.

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The game even features a challenge mode that sees you climbing the WWF ranks by challenging Superstars to matches. 

Superstars will rise and fall through the rankings; some will even come out to challenge you for grudge matches. If you’re playing on the N64 then you get these in-game sequences but if you’re blessed enough to be on the PlayStation; you get these golden FMVs which range from hilarious to “did they record that in a toilet cubicle”. These things are amazing and almost worth the price of entry alone.

Sadly Challenge mode doesn’t truly stack up as a full-on career mode. It’s really just a Mortal Kombat tower and, while it’s fun to see where other Superstars are in the rankings, it’s all random and ultimately means nothing.

The grudge matches vary between cage and weapons matches, neither of which are all that interesting after you’ve completed these several times.

Besides unlocking Cactus Jack and Mick Foley, there’s very little to shoot for in this mode and it’s hard not to feel a touch underwhelmed by it all. 

It’s not just here where WWF ar Zone starts falling apart; it all begins tumbling over when the bell rings. 

Movement in War Zone resembles a scramble for mash dinner at the old folks home. There’s a weird stiffness to character movements; like everyone’s joints are filled with cement. It makes performing certain actions like bouncing against the ropes seem oddly jarring, something that Justin commented on when interviewed in 1998;

 

“Yeah, and it didn’t work as well as we had hoped. And that’s something we really want to work a lot on in the next game [the sequel]. They feel a little bit sluggish coming off the ropes. It turned out OK, but not great.”

 

That sluggishness isn’t just when you’re coming off the ropes, it’s prevalent in all actions. It’s something that the game fails to overcome and it’s arguably the biggest critique many people throw at the game all these years later.

A big part of this might be because War Zone tries to marry the wrestling and fighting genres, mixing aspects of both. It doesn’t go as seamlessly as you’d hope.

You can see this in every facet of the gameplay; it’s very much like a Tekken or a Street Fighter. You have to use moves from a move list to weaken your opponent, slowly draining their health bar through the course of the game until they’re weak enough to submit or stay down for the pin. 

That health bar is central to everything. If that drops into the red, you’re on a one-way street to defeat.

Punching, kicking, blocking, and grappling are assigned to their own buttons while moves are performed with the input of correct button prompts, much like a fighting game. In theory, this should be a show winning idea but in execution, there’s a lot of problems with how this plays out.

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The reliance on unique movesets for each wrestler is both a blessing and a curse for the game. 

It grants each character a diverse move pool; something that WCW vs NWO World Tour severely lacked. Where that game had general moves that led to all wrestlers performing the same scoop slam 20 times in a match, War Zone allows each character to feel more unique. Here you can take the time to master a character, learn the more impressive moves and give yourself an edge.

The downside to this is that characters take longer to master. It severely hampers the games pick up and playability, forcing newcomers to rely on button mashing or stopping the match every time they stun an opponent so they can figure out which move they want to perform.

Not that the game is super reliable in converting button presses; a lot of the time it’s easier to button mash and hope for the best.

The button combinations also awkwardly change between wrestlers, meaning you have to learn each wrestlers move set to hit similar moves. For example, when you want to throw someone out of the ring in the Royal Rumble, not every character has the same prompt to throw someone out. You could end up with a character that has a 4 button combo to perform a move that others can do simply by pressing A. What the balls?

This might go some way to explaining why WWF War Zone splits opinion so heavily among gamers; It’s clear that the game isn’t trying to emulate the 1998 WWF product beat for beat, instead offering a unique approach.

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WWF War Zone’s legacy is one of divided opinions. Fondly remembered by some and detested by others. 

It’s the first tentative step by WWE video games into the 3D world and it does so with its own unique take.

I remember spending plenty of hours with War Zone back in the day, enjoying its multiplayer, and loving its create-a-character mode. I’d be lying if I said I was rushing back to experience this game once the likes of Wrestlemania 2000 and Smackdown touched down.

War Zone represents an important moment for wrestling games and it should be remembered. But it’s aged like Goldberg and moves just as awkwardly, offering a slow and clunky reminder that things were very much a work in progress here

The controls are too stiff. The gameplay isn’t fluid enough. The crowd noises get repetitive fast and even the create a wrestler runs out of charm before too long. There were better days to come for WWF games and, while this game isn’t a complete and utter disaster, It’s very much a hard sell and doesn’t make itself easy to recommend.

Iguana West would get one more stab at the WWF video game with WWF Attitude… that’s a different story entirely.

Also who the hell was this woman who followed you round in Challenge mode? Someone call the police on her because I’m pretty sure she was stealing things from the locker room….

 

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