Tuesday, 16 October 2012

WCW/NWO Thunder

System(s): Playstation

Genre: Wrestling

Developer:  Inland Productions
Publisher: THQ

Release Dates:
North America - December 1998
Europe - January 1999

It's an unfortunate truth that some games publishers simply try to take advantage of licenses at the height of their popularity to sell copies. A famous example of this is E.T, which, as urban legend tells us, resulted in a million Atari tapes being buried in a desert because the quality was so poor. Often, when a game is based on popular films, toys etc. it’s unlikely be made with any other thought in mind but to cynically exploit that popularity. No game is more guilty of this heinous crime than WCW/NWO Thunder.

Thunder was released in 1999 as the sequel to WCW Nitro, quite late in the life of the Playstation, and developed by Inland Productions. As with many other wrestling titles of the time, it was also, unsurprisingly, published by none other than THQ. Despite theoretically being a new game, Thunder does very little to distinguish itself from its predecessor. In a move that foreshadows their later franchise SmackDown vs. Raw, the biggest, most noticeable changes were the roster, which was updated from Nitro, and the presentation.

Thunder is by no means a carbon copy, despite the apparent lack of improvements. There are aspects that could be considered a reasonable improvement, namely it does on occasion take advantage of the WCW license in order to give enhanced presentation. In an era when wrestler entrances looked nothing like their real-life counterparts, WCW/NWO Thunder features recorded entrances taken straight from the show itself. These look fantastic and take full advantage of the Playstation’s hardware. Ever wanted to see an entrance of the colourful parody gimmick La Parka playing electric guitar with a steel chair? Or WCW Heavyweight Champion Goldberg snarling and shaking on the way to the ring? Well it’s here in all it’s glory. Presentation is one area where Thunder significantly improves on Nitro. The downside is that there is a limited number of entrance songs, with many superstars (especially the lesser known ones) having their themes replaced by generic WCW or NWO themes.

The crowd also plays a part in the presentation, attempting to successfully re-create the atmosphere of a wrestling event. Crowds will shout abuse or cheer, and on occasion, depending on the character’s affiliation, will throw garbage into the ring. There is limited commentary in the game too, but this is so limited it becomes tedious. The commentary is restricted to shouting the names of moves or announcing the winner, which, when you are only able to pull off a handful of attacks, results in repeated cries of “Powerbomb!” that will prompt you to just turn it off. The rest of the game’s sound fares much better, with pulsating music charging the action, Unfortunately, like the commentary, there are too few tracks to keep this interesting throughout.

Perhaps the most interesting alteration made to Thunder was the ability to change a wrestler’s stable. Let’s say you were a fan of the Four Horsemen, but you always thought it should be made up of classic WWF wrestlers. Well Thunder would allow you to change their affiliation to say, NWO or Raven’s Flock; and instead put Bret Hart, Macho Man, Hogan and Kevin Nash in the Horseman. This is a common feature in modern wrestling games, and the only other game of the era that did this was WWF No Mercy. In fact, this was the first game to have such a feature, although it was still quite limited. It seems like quite a minor gameplay mechanic, but the ability to customise the roster itself was a godsend for die-hard fans that had their own ideas about who should be feuding with who. A nice cosmetic addition is the change of outfit that occurs when you alter a wrestler’s stable. Which is commendable considering the size of the roster.

The roster has been greatly expanded since Nitro. You begin with 32 wrestlers and unlock more, up to a total of 64, after winning a title with each character (including announcers and one of the Nitro girls, admittedly). This is a very good size of roster for it’s time. After your triumph, you also have the option to alter the strength or weakness of specific body parts of every wrestler you have won belts with. As with Nitro, Thunder also contains skits in the wrestler select screen. The downside is that none of the unlockable wrestlers feature introductions like the original 32. This is quite a shame, as these skits can be amusing, and it seems like a missed opportunity to explore some of the lesser known wrestlers. Kevin Nash telling the player they haven’t the skill to use him, suggesting they pick a fan favourite like Hogan or Sting, is a particular highlight of these skits. Rowdy Roddy Piper references this in his own rant and begs you to pick him. This brings an authentic WCW feel to the game, which is just as well, as the action is anything but authentic.

Have you ever thought that it would be amusing to see The Giant attempt a Hurracanrana? Well in this game, you can. In Thunder, sadly, the stables and ability of wrestlers is as far as the customisation goes, and all movesets are exactly the same, bar special finishers. This leads to some odd situations as gigantic wrestlers perform moves worthy of the most athletic high-flyer, and others such as Rey Mysterio Jr. attempt gorilla presses. Oddly, the wrestlers are all the same size too, so although The Giant and Rey Mysterio are vastly different in real life, they share the same eye level in this game. Much like older wrestling games from the 16 bit era, the game does not give you a move list for either regular moves or finishers (although regular moves are listed in the instruction manual). This has the effect of making Thunder feel a bit out of date with many other wrestling games even of its time. To make things worse, the controls can be very unintuitive and unresponsive and pulling off moves is a hit or a miss. The AI will counter your grapple by flinging you over their shoulder after just a few seconds. However, there also appears to be no method of countering an AI grapple, making the game seem very one sided.

This makes Thunder sound quite difficult; on the contrary, the game is surprisingly easy in single player. Most matches boil down to mashing buttons to spam moves through sheer luck. There is also a move called Test of Strength, in which both wrestlers do some kind of double arm wrestle. This is a ridiculously easy way to drain an opponents health by button mashing. The Test of Strength is also easy to pull off by mistake, especially when you are trying to put your opponent on the mat for a pin, resulting in a tedious battle with the controls. Furthermore, there is no create a wrestler mode, no special PPV modes and only a handful of match modes. Of these, new ones include a Cage match and Battle Royale.

Sadly, the Cage matches do not involve climbing over the cage and exiting to win, but rather you can merely use the side of the cage like the turnbuckle, making the mode seem rather pointless. You get what you might expect from the Battle Royale, but there is very little motivation to play it, as the frame-rate, controls and commentary will test your nerves. At least in that sense it provides a considerable challenge compared with the other single player modes. Considering what other wrestling games of the time were offering (including other games published by THQ) the small number of game modes is disappointing, and leaves Thunder feeling more comparable to a wrestling game from the 16 bit era, or like an arcade title without the simplicity. On the plus side, you do have to unlock the extra wrestlers, but you will most likely get bored or frustrated with the controls long before you can accomplish this. The only other gameplay mode that had potential to increase replay value is multiplayer. But nope. No luck there. Frame-rates take their biggest dip in multiplayer, especially in a two on two Tag Team match. Tagging is also quite finicky, and I had trouble getting it to work properly.

Graphically, the game is not quite on a par with other wrestling games of the time. It was released in 1999, yet looks like a very early Playstation title. There are some very rough edges, and the crowd look like cardboard cut outs (although, admittedly, this was what most crowds looked like in wrestling games at the time). Given the graphics are not spectacular, you would think that at least the frame-rate would keep steady, but unfortunately slowdown is common, and particularly bad with more than two wrestlers in the ring at any one time. Wrestlers at least look somewhat like their counterparts despite the roughness of the character models.

All things considered, WCW/NWO Thunder does get some things right. The presentation is astounding, with amusing character rants, fully recorded entrances from the show, fans who chant abuse and throw stuff, and the ability to change stables. There are a huge number of wrestlers in the roster and the game captures the show it’s based on perfectly. Thunder is in some respects a fan tribute. Unfortunately, a game is there to be played, and no game is capable of holding a player’s attention on flashy presentation and an official license alone. Thunder falls well flat in the gameplay and graphics department, and the poor frame-rate and frustrating controls will put you off what appears to be a throwback to arcade style wrestling, yet without the simplicity or playability of those games. It does add a little to what Nitro offered last time around, but it should be considered as the definitive edition of Nitro rather than a genuine sequel. If you are particularly nostalgic for WCW, perhaps Thunder will entertain you for a few hours, but don’t expect anything more.


+ Excellent presentation captures the spirit of the show perfectly
+ A die-hard fan’s dream - huge roster and stable changing for the first time ever

- Poor graphics and frame-rate problems
- Lack of match options makes it feel outdated compared with other wrestling games
- Dull gameplay
- Frustrating and awkward controls
- Plays a lot like the previous game

Overall Score


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