There is a certain stigma regarding the world of professional wrestling. Fans are dedicated and loyal, viewing the sport as a form of art. People who are not fans often describe it as barbaric, over the top, and filled with unrealistic, larger-than-life characters. Someone at THQ decided to ask the question what would happen if wrestling fans embraced the views of the outside world? What if wrestling was just as crazy as the non-fans make it sound? A THQ development team led by Sal Divita decided to address that very question and even took things a step further by blurring the lines between the eras of the wrestling product. The resulting answer is WWE All Stars.
THQ’s work with the WWE product needs no introduction. The developer / publisher has owned the licensing rights to WWE games for over a decade. Most of the games that have resulted from the partnership have been aimed toward simulation style gameplay, delivering an experience as close to the real thing as possible. The formula has worked well for both parties but WWE All Stars offers them an opportunity to mix things up. This isn’t a game about simulation a realistic experience; this is about nonstop, insane action and animated, almost cartoon-like characters. Every piece of the All Stars formula has been exaggerated: the characters, the moves, the visuals... everything. THQ San Diego, led by Midway alum Sal Devita, have taken the reigns of the concept and delivered exactly what was proposed. The new title is throwback to the arcade wrestling titles of the past, such as Midway’s WWF Wrestlemania and Techno’s Wrestlefest / Superstars titles. It’s all about the fun and that is exactly how I would describe the game.
The first thing that you will notice about the title is the exaggerated visual presentation. All of the characters are presented as caricatures of their real selves. This exaggeration isn’t apparent in just their appearance, but their actions as well. Their moves take them to the top of the screen and even Andre the Giant and the Big Show can jump around from the top ropes. I really like the style but feel it suits the legends better than it does the current generation superstars. The current stars are enjoyable in this manner, but it is better suited for helping the older characters live up to my childhood memories. I know that this isn’t how he appeared on television in the ‘80’s (realistically), but this representation is how my 8-year old inner self remembers the Ultimate Warrior; the same could be said for every single legend in the game. This works wonders for the nostalgia aspect of the game. Unfortunately, the same magic isn’t felt in the current stars. They are still fun to play, but they just feel “different” and lack that same magic felt by the older stars.
I do find it odd that THQ decided to use such bland environments / arenas for the game considering how much was put into the character design. The arenas are bare and the crowd is a sea of faceless figures, literally. There was very little detail put into creating the set pieces to house the action of the game. Sure, there are a variety of arenas, but the only difference between them is the logo shown on the curtain around the ring and the stage design. I really feel that this is a missed opportunity by the team; there is so much more that could have been done to make the arenas more animated and exciting. The ring itself is very well done as the ropes and mat are animated in great detail; as players hit the mat and bounce around the screen, the ropes wobble and sway with the movement and the sounds are devastating when contact is made with either. Unfortunately, as soon as you make your way outside of those ropes, everything becomes bland and forgettable. You aren’t even allowed to move up the entrance ramp and fight anywhere near the stage; an invisible wall keeps players at ring side and just stifles the outside experience.
When it comes to actual gameplay, WWE All stars feels more like a fighting game than a wrestling one. Combat is all about chaining together a variety of strikes and quick grapples / throws into long combinations. Your opponents won’t be staying down on the mat for long and your only choice is to continuously attack them until you can either pin them or deplete their health entirely. This really changes up the “feel” of the game, making it more of a fighter than a wrestler. Players have four main attack buttons, two are for striking and two are for grabbing; each type has both a light and a strong form. It is up to players to discover which buttons lead into subsequent buttons to form chain combinations. Each of the game’s 30 characters has different strings of combinations to be found and used. These attacks and combos can even take the combat to the air as players are often bounced up to the lights where you can juggle them and inflict even more damage. Depending on the class of character that you choose, the focus will vary on being either strike oriented or grapple oriented, though all characters have access to moves in each category.
I don’t want it to sound like the game is all punches and kicks though, this is a wrestling title after all despite its presentation. You will find a wide variety of bodyslams, suplexes, and submission holds which all fit into this fast paced style. Just as with the character presentations in the game, these moves are all taken to an exaggerated level; characters aren’t just slammed to the mat but are often tossed into the air where they flip a couple of times before crashing to the mat where they bounce up like a basketball. It’s fun and exciting and leads to a wide variety of gameplay options. Of course, the best offense is a good defense and THQ has created an excellent counter / reversal system for the game which allows players to reverse nearly every single action in the game. With a simple press of either the left or right bumper, depending on the incoming attack, players can turn the tides on their opponent and use their momentum against them. Even reversals can be reversed with the right timing which makes the action unpredictable and even more exciting. This not only includes the basic hand to hand confrontations that appear in the game but also the weapon based gameplay introduced when players discover chairs, crutches and bats hidden under the ring.What would a fighting game be with out special / super moves? WWE All Stars brings plenty of them to the table to keep things interesting. Each character has a wide variety of both signature and finishing moves. As players land offensive attacks on their opponent, they will fill up two meters next to their health bar; one compiles up to three stars under their name while the other fills up to a finisher status on the side. Signature moves can be performed at the cost of a completed star and cause your character(s) to perform some of their most iconic attacks in their career. These are the moves that they are known for, such as Cena’s Five Knuckle Shuffle or Rock’s People’s Elbow. Performing these takes a huge chunk of energy off of your opponent and can really tun the tide of battle. Finishers on the other hand are the one move(s) that your superstar is known for... like Punk’s Go to Sleep or the Undertaker’s Tombstone Piledriver. Just as the standard action of the game, all of these moves are animated in an over the top fashion. Characters will be flipping and flying through the air with every one, and in the case of signature and finishing moves, a cinematic presentation is used featuring altered camera angles and slow motion. They are devastating and fun, all at the same time.
So you know how the game works, but what opportunities does the game give you to use all of this excitement? It gives you quite a lot actually. There are a wide variety of gameplay modes available in the game. Basic confrontations can be had both online and off, within a wide variety of match types including singles, tag team, handicapped, caged, and even hardcore matches. You simply pick between 2 to 4 of your favorite superstars and have it out. There are two campaign style modes included in the package too which will certainly keep you busy for quite some time as well. There is a ton to do and unlock across all of these various modes.
The primary mode is called the Path of Champions. Within this “story” mode, players are given the choice of three paths to follow which will conclude in them facing off against a “boss” of sorts. The paths offered are against the Undertaker, Randy Orton, or Degeneration X. Regardless of the opponent that you choose at the beginning, you will be given a gauntlet of 10 matches which will span a wide variety of match styles, including many of those types mentioned above. Every couple of matches will result in a cut scene of sorts, with your chosen enemy taunting you in various manners. These are all fun and really well done; it reminds me a lot of the old Rock N Roll Wrestling cartoons from the eighties as they aren’t meant to be taken seriously. For example, the Undertaker and Paul Bearer will constantly remind you that you don’t stand a chance at the upcoming Summerslam; Bearer will do most of the talking while Undertaker constantly works on the construction of your coffin in the background. It’s cheeky but really, really enjoyable and serves its purpose well. Completing the Path of Champions mode will unlock alternate attire for your characters and different move options within the create a star mode(s).
The other mode, and my personal favorite, is the Fantasy Warfare mode. This mode poses “what if” situations of legends versus current stars. Perhaps it questions who the greatest high flyer of all time is, Eddie Guerrero or Rey Mysterio, or perhaps who has the most innovative offense, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat or Kofi Kingston. Each completed matchup unlocks another and completing them all is the key to unlocking the game’s 10 hidden / locked characters and other various surprises. That isn’t the best part though, the intro movies for each match are well worth the price of admission for true WWE fans by their selves.
Anyone who watches the WWE knows that their video team create some of the best highlight videos and recap packages in all of sports and entertainment. The vignettes shown at monthly PPV’s and special events highlighting the various feuds and story angles are often more entertaining and exciting than the wrestling product itself. Each Fantasy Warfare matchup in the game has had its own vignette / introduction move prepared for it and they aren’t brief. These intro movies last anywhere from 3-5 minutes and are a true treat for wrestling fans both old and new. I would purchase of DVD compiling these videos if it were offered; they are that well done. The movies really get you excited for each and every match and helped to get me interested in the ones that I didn’t initially care about. I don’t really care who the greatest warrior was, but the WWE and THQ made me care about the matchup of Sheamus and the Ultimate Warrior solely by showing me an incredibly edited and produced vignette telling my why it should matter to me. This mode is truly a treat for WWE fans of all ages.
As with any wrestling title, All Stars contains a create a superstar mode which allows players to design and create their own characters for use in the game. Unfortunately, I don’t find the mode in this game to be nearly as detailed or flexible as the ones which appear in the Smackdown vs. Raw series. Dont’ get me wrong, you can still create some excellent characters with All Star’s features, but the limitations imposed such as the lack of an ability to edit character movesets really inhibits the creativity of your designs. Sure, you can make a great looking Ric Flair, but he won’t play or act like the Nature Boy. Instead, you only have the option of giving him the exact moveset of one of the existing characters from the game; he may look like Flair, but he plays and fights EXACTLY like John Cena (in theory). This limitation is sure to upset a lot of wrestling-game fans and rightfully so as their ability to be creative has been severely limited. As much as I love WWE All Stars there are quite a few areas of concern. First off, the load times for the Xbox 360 version of the game are absolutely horrendous. Some matchups during the Path of Champions can take more well over a minute to load. This really breaks up the pacing of the game and brings it to an absolute crawl. I also find the creative limitations put on the creation mode to be very disappointing. I can think of a ton of other legends and characters that I would love to bring into the game but I won’t be able to do so to the fullest extent of my creativity... and with no good reason. I would have also liked to have seen a little more put into the Patch of Champions to bring the legends and other old school concepts into play. Why do all three paths focus on current superstars? It would have been far more entertaining to see a path that included Andre the Giant, perhaps referencing the classic $15,000 body slam challenge... and they could have included Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and made it truly memorable. I am not sure it is really right to criticize the game for those sorts of things because its judging it based on what I would have liked to see versus what was actually included, but it really comes across as missed opportunity. Maybe we can hope for something like that in the sequel.
The audio commentary featured in the game is perhaps the weakest that I have ever seen in a wrestling game. Most of what you hear is choppy and repetitive, sounding like a string of random clips from a sound board. Occasionally, JR will drop some semi-interesting diatribes regarding some historical references but those are drowned out by the other sounds of the game. You can barely hear both JR and the King over the sound effects, crowd chants, and constant music playing in the background. Even when you make adjustments in the options of the various levels, the announcers end up getting drowned out.
All in all, WWE All Stars is a great package despite a couple of technical flaws. There is a ton to do and the gameplay is as fun as it is frantic. The game really has an appeal that will reach beyond the standard Smackdown vs. Raw crowd and bring in fighting game fans and old wrestling fans who haven’t watched in years. Considering that this is a new IP, I am really impressed with the freshman outing and extremely optimistic to what the future holds for this as a potential series. I haven’t had this much fun with a game in a long, long time.