|Image Source: Game|
Publisher: Acclaim Sports
Developer: Iguana West and Probe Entertainment (GB)
Released: August 11 1998 (US) and August 21 1998 (UK)
Certificate: 15+ (Nowadays 16)
Consoles: N64, PS1 and GB
The modern era of wrestling videogames truly began with WWF War Zone.
From the late 1980s onwards, the WWF, as well as WCW, had aimed to provide a videogame product for its fans. They were very limited and not exactly advanced when it came to top-level graphics or large-scale rosters; prior to 1998, WWF WrestleFest is arguably the only game that is still remembered fondly by fans. More to the point, WrestleMania: The Arcade Game, released in 1995, and In Your House from the following year only slightly resembled the WWF product at the time, and serious gamers must have wondered at the time if there would ever be a respectable WWF game. WCW/nWo World Tour in 1997 brought the genre to life, and WCW/nWo Revenge took things even further upon its late 1998 release. Still, despite the ratings perhaps suggesting otherwise, the WWF remained the most recognisable wrestling organisation in the world, and so it would take a landmark WWF game to truly kick the genre into high gear.
That finally came in 1998 with War Zone. Given the WWF's renewed popularity due to its recently-introduced Attitude, it was inevitable that there would be a videogame to accompany the new-look WWF, and since a new generation of gaming consoles had yet to receive a WWF title worthy of the platforms, the stars all aligned to give us War Zone, which would finally allow gamers to truly relive WWF action with better graphics and more options than ever before.
The roster consisted of sixteen wrestlers, but what a line-up it was. Clearly chosen in late 1997 (and by the way, how bizarre is it that there wasn't one WWF game released in 1997?), the crew included Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Kane, Mankind, The Rock, Triple H, Goldust, Ken Shamrock, Faarooq, The Headbangers, Owen Hart, Bret Hart, British Bulldog and Ahmed Johnson (the last three had departed the WWF by the time of its release). Also noteworthy were the first ever hidden characters in a WWF game, those being Dude Love and Cactus Jack, along with a few fictional characters. Each wrestler had two attires (Austin and Goldust had four), and just as exciting as the plethora of debuting performers (this was Austin's first WWF game, although he had previously appeared on a WCW game when he was Stunning Steve) were the fact that all wrestlers had full move sets, theme songs (which were midi versions on Nintendo 64) and even voices, occasionally blurting out their catch phrases or selling moves through grunts and groans. Considering what WWF fans had been receiving in previous games (Diesel wasn't on WrestleMania: The Arcade Game, and he had reigned as WWF Champion for most of the previous year), this was huge, and a big part of its appeal at the time. Revenge may have had more grapplers, but they didn't have Austin, Rock, Michaels, Undertaker etc.
The gameplay was hit-and-miss. The thought process was logical, as the intention was to make players earn the bigger moves through increasingly tough button combinations. But it only made matches harder than they needed to be; the button combo system was fun at the time, but it was only when future games opted for one button per move that people realised how awkward this could be. Still, it remained miles better than what the likes of In Your House had offered in the ring; and they certainly didn't offer moves such as the Stone Cold Stunner, the Mandible Claw or the weapon-based attacks using the likes of chairs and televisions.
Speaking of which: a Weapons match was amongst the options on offer. As well as standard bouts, we had a Steel Cage match, a Royal Rumble and a Gauntlet. This may all sound very simple, but this was 1998, when previous games had been based around one match type, so to have a small-scale version of WWF stipulation matches all in one place was pretty cool. The Acclaim team had planned to also provide a Ladder match, but they were unable to work the mechanics of the match into the game without compromising one's entertainment, so the decision was made to not include it. The only big downside was the inability to pick your opponents, meaning that you could only put on the match that you really wanted if you were playing against a friend.
The game's biggest draw was probably the Create A Wrestler feature. This wasn't the first game to boast the option, but it was definitely the game that popularised it, especially with 30 save slots for created characters and costume items relating to wrestlers not on the game, such as Taka Michinoku and Marc Mero. Again, it may sound very simple, but if you were a wrestling fan in 1998, this feature was the coolest thing ever. Every single wrestling game of value has included the Create A Wrestler feature since, which should demonstrate how influential this was.
There was a single-player mode named Challenge whereby you worked your way up the WWF ranks, defeating the top ten names with a wrestler of your choice until you won the Intercontinental Championship and finally the WWF Championship. Title wins were greeted with magazine front covers, and you would have to navigate through the occasional grudge match with a previously-defeated adversary, usually with a big stipulation attached. It was a basic premise, but it was effective, and each wrestler had a different unlockable item if you completed Challenge with him, so for instance, winning Challenge with Mankind unlocked Cactus and Dude, whilst winning with Shawn or HHH would provide items with which to create female wrestlers. The downside was that, due to save data issues, you had to immediately save the game after finishing the mode, otherwise your hard work was all for naught. That's 1998 gaming for you.
Elsewhere, a Training facility allowed you to practice moves in a gym environment, allowing you to improve your skills without having to take unnecessary chances in the likes of Challenge. Vince McMahon and Jim Ross provided commentary. The graphics were based on actual filming of the performers executing their moves in a specific setting, meaning that the graphics looked very realistic, for the performers at least (the arena, modelled on Raw Is War, was good but nothing to shout about; a WrestleMania ring would be unlocked as well, if you had the patience of a saint to win Challenge and then beat everyone on the roster again). Entrances consisted of quick poses at the top of the aisle, which was slightly disappointing. A Rankings system kept a note of wins and losses, and which wrestlers could boast the best records. The WWF Attitude logo watermark was present on the screen during singles matches. There were crowd chants and occasional hecklers, as well as widespread booing for those who kept repeating moves. Finally, the PlayStation version opened with a full video promoting the Attitude product, even if the content of the game then seemed outdated by comparison (the WWF of mid-1998 was very different to even the WWF of late 1997).
By 1998 standards, War Zone was fantastic fun. It must be said that Revenge, released the same year, totally outclassed it from a grappling standpoint, and also boasted a much larger roster. However, War Zone was a WWF product and, for that reason, it had the biggest impact in officially making wrestling videogames cool. Everything was fresh, from the line-up to the graphics to the Create A Wrestler option, and whilst it all seems very simple and limited in 2017, back in 1998 this was one fantastic package which completely blew away any WWF game which had come before it. Attitude would move things along even further, before THQ got the WWF licence in 1999 and things began to develop tenfold, eventually reaching unimaginable levels in terms of replicating the actual product. Nevertheless, it all had to start somewhere, and although wrestling games had been around for some time, War Zone was the first to take things seriously and treat the wrestling fan/videogamer crossover with respect, delivering a product that also happened to be very entertaining. The rating below is by the standards of the time, rather than by modern benchmarks, but if you can appreciate it for what it is, nearly 20 years later, War Zone remains one of the most fun wrestling games ever, and a vital chapter in the history of wrestling - and especially WWF/WWE - videogames.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10 - Excellent