Reviewed: April 24, 2011
Released: March 29, 2011
For the last twenty-five years I have not been the least bit interested in professional wrestling. To me, Steve Austin has always been the Six Million Dollar Man, not some "Stone Cold" guy, and whenever my cohorts asked me what "The Rock" was cooking, I generally answered with a dumbfounded stare. But I have to admit that there was a brief period in my junior high years of 1985 and 1986 when I - and every other 11 year old boy in the nation - contracted a severe case of Hulkamania, and names like "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Jake "The Snake" Roberts, Jimmy "Supafly" Snucka, and "The Ultimate Warrior" were part of my daily vocabulary.|
So while I may not care one bit about the wrestlers of today, there is a certain part of me that feels a sense of warm nostalgia when it come to the guys like "Andre the Giant", Randy "Macho Man" Savage, and even Jimmy "The Mouth of the South" Hart (no relation).
Regardless of my interest level (or lack thereof) with the sport, over my years of covering video game releases I have been tasked with a handful of professional wrestling titles - and what I have found about most wrestling video games is that they are generally slower-paced, overly methodical, and generally only abut half as exciting as traditional fighting games like Dead or Alive, Soul Calibur, and Tekken.
Wrestling games generally take an almost turn-based approach to fighting, with players grappling the opponent, entering a complicated button combination to set the "move" in motion, and then hoping that the opponent does not counter the move as it plays itself out. This gameplay mechanic must be wildly successful with certain gamers, or the folks like renowned developer Yukes would have modified it years ago. But to other gamers - myself included - this input style results in a feeling of disconnect between the controller and the character compared visceral real-time pugilism of the traditional fighting game.
That all changes with THQ's newest release, WWE All Stars, which successfully addresses both of my major issues with professional wrestling games. All Stars eschews the methodical combo-based input in lieu of a single and double-button real time mechanic in which timing is key. The entire package is wrapped around NBA-Jam style of over-the-top gameplay, with a healthy dose of nostalgia thrown in with an Old School versus New School theme. This is not your average wrestling game, folks.
WWE All Stars is not the game wrestling purists are going to want to search out if they are looking for a real-world experience. All Stars could have easily added the prefix "hyper" to any part of the title and it would have fit - because every part of this game is over the top. WWE (Hyper) All Stars (Hyper) Wrestling has a nice ring to it, eh?
The first oddity that gamers will notice are the wrestlers themselves - which have the faces of the real-world wrestlers ranging from the early 80's fare like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and Roddy Piper to the newer cats like Sheamus, Bret Hart, and Steve Austin - but their bodies have been so hyper-blown out that they make the Gears of War folks look like pipsqueaks. This odd choice in design was off-putting at first, as characters seemed to be almost be hindered by their massive size - but once I started messing around with the smaller, faster characters I realized that the character attribute system was far more balanced than at first glance. Hogan is slow, but technically strong. Jimmy Snucka is fast and acrobatic. Andre the Giant is a huge brick wall.
As odd as these character models look, the actual graphical detail involved is quite fascinating. There is amazing definition to their skin - with every bulging muscle, every vein, and every hair modeled to perfection. The skin reddens with the beatings, and the characters glisten with perspiration. The costumes are modeled to perfection, with even the textures of fabrics like denim being noticeably distinguishable. Once these massively distorted characters enter the ring, the over-the-top hyper-wrestling comes into play with massive arena-shattering body slams, orbit-launching uppercuts, and high-flying turnbuckle acrobatics. It's like taking every kidís wild wrestling fantasy and delivering on it.
No wrestling title would be complete without a reversal system, and All Stars delivers with a single-button timing-based system for reversing attacks. Mapped to the left and right bumpers (for grapples and strikes respectively), reversing a move boils down to clicking the button at just the right time. Some characters reverse easier than others (Hulk) - but gamers with the patience to master the timing with each of the characters will certainly benefit. Speaking of characters, All Stars lets gamers design their own character using a rather limited palette of character faces, body styles, hair, clothing, etc.. As I said, the overall choices are rather limited, but it is possible to make a twisted hairy hillbilly serial killer who wears a gimp mask and overalls and assign one of the dozen or so pre-chosen nicknames like "The Assassin". I know, because that is what my character turned out to be, and he was pretty badass - to say the least.
The modes include the requisite "Exhibition" and "Xbox Live" (which requires a free 180MB Compatibility Pack download), as well as a Path to the Championship story mode, and a series of Fantasy Matchups. The Fantasy matchups pit wrestlers of similar nature from different eras - for instance you will see Sheamus go up against the Ultimate Warrior, or Hulk Hogan against Steve Austin. The only real reason to play through the fantasy matches is to see the excellent opening movies that precede each matchup, giving a smidgeon of background on the characters overlying actual video footage.
The real challenge comes in the Road to the Championship, in which gamers are tasked with 10 successive fights, culminating in a boss battle against the Undertaker. The ten fights range from standard 1 vs. 1 matchups to full-on four-person elimination battles and cage matches. The between-match cutscenes are quite a hoot with an animated version of the Undertaker's manager Paul Bearer trying to creep you out with his ghoulish talk about your impending demise. Depending on the gamers level of skill, beating all ten matches will take up about an hour and a half, and will require a few match restarts - especially against the Undertaker who is nearly invincible.
If there is one negative aspect of WWE All Stars is that the computer-controlled AI is far more skilled at dishing out damage than pretty much any gamer can be. The computer nails reversals constantly, and seems to have access to moves I have never found - even when using the exact same move set. That's not to say that the computer cannot be beat - but seldom is the computer taken down with the finesse and style that it dishes out. I found a pretty solid method is to attack with round and rounds of well-timed strikes, working the opponent's health down to the point where you can grapple without being immediately reversed. Then every chance you get to pin (even if it seems remote), try to pin. Give the AI a chance and it will easily turn the tables with a series of cheap special attacks, suddenly leaving your fighter on the receiving end of a KO.
Still, the game is a load of fun and arguably the best professional wrestling game to come out in many years. I know that wrestling purists would say that the arcade style slam-and-jam nature of All Stars is not an accurate representation of their beloved sport - but put the controller in their hands for ten minutes, and even the hardest of the diehards will be won over.