Who knew that all it would take to get me excited about wrestling was air juggling?
I'm not your typical wrestling fan. I didn't grow up watching it on TV, I avoided most of the video games and if it wasn't for an all-expense paid trip to WrestleMania 25 (See: The Ten Things I Learned at the WWE Superstar Challenge) I wouldn't be able to name a single professional wrestler working today. But none of this stopped me from attending the recent preview event for WWE All-Stars.
As I walked into THQ's San Diego studio, I wasn't sure what to expect. Actually, that's not true. I fully expected to be bored to tears by another wrestling simulator, something in line with the Smackdown vs. Raw franchise. While this style of wrestling game has its fans (many of which are no doubt rolling their eyes at my lack of WWE knowledge), the slow pace and eye for theatrics have always rubbed me the wrong way. I was pleasantly surprised that WWE All-Stars was not another simulator. In fact, I dare say that this upcoming game may be the first wrestling game I'm genuinely excited about.
Right from the get-go we were told that the developers (who largely came over from the now defunct Midway Games) were striving to make an original product. Their inspiration was games like Street Fighter and Soul Calibur. They are looking for a fast-paced experience that anybody can quickly pick up and play. And then they showed us the game, officially turning me into a believer.
In their attempt to create a more arcade-style WWE game, THQ ended up developing a worthy (though completely unrelated) successor to Saturday Night Slam Masters. Oh sure, real wrestling all-stars have replaced the cartoony line-up (don't expect Haggar in this game), but there's no question in my mind that the people working on this game have Capcom's 1993 arcade game in the back of their mind.
The game offers players 30 different wrestlers to choose from, split down the middle between old and new school. With a name like WWE All-Stars, THQ had to deliver the biggest and best names in professional wrestling. They did not disappoint. I got to toy around with huge superstars, including Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, Randy Savage, The Rock, Triple H, Steve Austin, Sgt. Slaughter, Jimmy Snuka, The Undertaker, Kane, Edge and many more. It's an impressive line-up of fighters, each with their own signature moves. Even though I don't know much about wrestling, I never once felt clueless about who was who and why they were included.
The core gameplay has been reduced to only a couple of buttons, but what you can do with them is outstanding. The inspiration may have been Street Fighter, but don't expect to throw fireballs. Instead you can expect to work a bunch of two-button combos and throw your opponents all around the ring. Every character has a few different charge moves, which means you'll have to hold the button down until just the right moment. These moves can be devastating, but they're easy to counter if you don't time everything perfectly.
Speaking of countering was impressed by how easy it was to reverse moves and gain the upper hand in tight situations. Whenever the player gets caught up in a long animation, the prompt will pop up telling them to quickly hit a shoulder button. Timing is important. I learned the hard way that a split second can be the difference between successfully reversing an attack and watching my wrestler's face merge with the mat below.
Beyond the core mechanics (which we'll no doubt dig deeper into when the review build is shipped), WWE All-Stars has an impressive collection of things to do. As you can imagine, the game features the basic selection of exhibition modes, which allow you to play in a number of familiar WWE locales. These venues are inspired by Raw, Smackdown, Summerslam, and even WrestleMania itself.
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