Retro Respawn – WWF War Zone

WWF War Zone straddles the line between wrestling game and fighting game. Its list of button inputs to pull off simple moves, like DDTs, can sometimes make you think you are playing a game like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat rather than a wrestling simulation. Its woefully outdated roster for the time of its release was pretty jarring, and its single-player campaign is hardly a thrilling ride. Despite all this though, I still hold some considerable nostalgic warmth towards the game, even though I’d probably stop short of calling it a good one.

Released in the summer of 1998, most of the roster in WWF War Zone is out of date, with the likes of Bret Hart, British Bulldog and Ahmed Johnson no longer being part of the company, whilst other wrestlers, like Faarooq, Goldust and Mankind, all either had tweaked or completely changed their gimmicks as of the game’s release. Of course, going back to look at the game through 2020 eyes, the outdated roster is less of an issue, and if you pretend you’re playing it in October 1997, then the grapplers provided do a decent job of representing the top of the card at the time. Overall, there are a decent selection of guys (although having Vader and Legion of Doom on the books as well would have been nice), and there are actual slight tactical differences between them as well.

Undertaker and Kane, for instance, are slower than the likes of Shawn Michaels and Owen Hart, but their attacks will do a lot more damage if you manage to successfully make contact, whereas the smaller lads will need to pepper the bigger lads to wear them down. It’s only a minor tactical difference, but it’s something at least and adds a bit of variety when it comes to choosing which wrestler to select in the single-player campaign. If you want to unlock particular bonus items, then you will need to complete that campaign (called “Challenge Mode”) with specific wrestlers, which at least gives you a reason to try different guys.

For instance, completing the mode with Mankind will see you unlocking the two other Faces of Foley in the form of Cactus Jack and Dude Love, whilst completing the mode with Shawn Michaels will allow you to create female wrestlers in the Create-a-Wrestler Mode, probably because he was being managed by big Amazonian lass Chyna, which would give you the chance to create her and insert her into the game world. The downside is that Challenge Mode is just a series of matches with the occasional cutscene where a rival superstar will cut a promo on you before a Grudge Match. Sadly, the promos are pretty phoned in, with some wrestlers like British Bulldog clearly reading off cue cards, whilst others like Ahmed Johnson yell unintelligibly with the sound mixing being all over the place.

Ultimately, the Challenge Mode just becomes a slog, which leads to you resenting the fact you have to trudge through it multiple times in order to unlock things. You have to complete the Arcade ladder mode multiple times in games like Tekken as well, but that’s at most 10 fights, and you can generally get through it in a reasonable amount of time. Challenge Mode in WWF War Zone just takes too long, and when I played the game back in the day, I slogged through it with Mankind to get the two extra characters I wanted and then left the other unlockable stuff to remain locked.

As for the general gameplay, I’m still not entirely sure about it. One thing I can say is that it never really feels like you are actually playing a wrestling game. Each wrestler has pretty much a manual’s worth of button combinations that are required to be input in order for them to complete their finishing move all the way down to simple things like snapmares and body slams. Whereas games like WCW World Tour on the N64 simulated the ebb and flow of an actual wrestling match by simplifying the control scheme, WWF War Zone basically does away with that and presents itself more as a fighting game that just happens to have pins and submissions.

It’s a weird setup but also kind of playable, especially when you get used to the control scheme. Using the shoulder buttons allows you to side step attacks, and the block button will stop strikes and attempted standing moves. Every wrestler has a health bar that gradually wears down from green to yellow to red, with finishing moves being in play once the health hits the red zone. I’ve sunk quite a bit of time into the Acclaim wrestling games from the fifth gen, and I’m at the stage where I can enjoy the gameplay for what it is whilst still accepting that it’s pretty bad for a wrestling game. Again, so long as you don’t go into these releases expecting them to play like wrestling games, then you can have fun with them.

By far the best aspect of the game is the aforementioned Create-a-Wrestler (or “CAW”) Mode, which allows you to create your own grapplers and send them into battle with one another. Games like Fire Pro Wrestling had flirted with things like Edit Modes before, but for a lot of people, WWF War Zone will have likely been the first time anyone would have really had a proper go at it. It’s, of course, not as detailed a creation suite as you would expect today, but for the time it was pretty ground breaking, and I still have a memory card full of my bizarre creations, including a terrifying one of British television presenter Dave Benson-Phillips in tight white trunks.

WWF War Zone and my relationship with it would probably fall under “it’s complicated” if it was a Facebook status. Obviously, it’s a game that has its problems, but it’s also a game that holds a fair amount of nostalgia for me due to it being one of the earliest games I had for PlayStation. I can’t in good conscience say that it is “good”, but I will say that it has enough good stuff in it that I am mostly willing to overlook the bad and give it a tentative recommendation. Your own personal mileage may vary.

(Based on the PlayStation version of the game. Game also released on the N64)

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