Developer: Studio Gigante
Release Date: April 19, 2005
I can honestly say that I am an O.G. when it comes to wrestling games and can be one the best people around to project a fair and balanced review of any wrestling game. I've owned and fiended on every WWF, WCW, ECW, WWE, and other titles since NES. To say the least, I have had experience. Wrestlemania 21 is an example of why wrestling games are not half as good as they used to be. After seeing all the "making of" videos and glorified screenshots, I was truthfully excited the day I received this preview build. When my first match began three minutes later, the letdown that ensued made me physically ill. WM21 made me think of the glory days, when WWF Wrestlefest was still hot in the arcades, WWF Royal Rumble was about to reach the SNES, and when games had content and graphics that were appreciated in their time. I'm not saying that the Smackdown! or the WWE series on GC haven't been okay, but wrestling games these days are just not as high quality as they used to be. THQ's entire wrestling lineup on the N64 was worth building a monument in its honor. From WCW vs. NWO World Tour to WWF No Mercy, wrestling games seemed as though they couldn't progress any further, but WM21 makes you feel like wrestling games have not only stopped getting better, but actually starting regressing.
First and foremost almost, everything about WM21 feels as though it's a rough sketch of what could have been one of the best wrasslin' games to hit a home system since WCW Revenge. With so little done right (if done at all), I've often pondered whether or not they actually played their own game before it went out on the trucks. With Wrestlemania 21 most likely being the final wrestling release on Xbox, we went 0-for-3 on the most powerful console on the market for an entire generation of gaming.
I would have started off by mentioning the lackluster cast of fighters in the game, but let's face it, the characters today aren't as exciting and different as they used to be. Like most gamers, I start off a wrestling game with career mode, due entirely to the fact that I am a sucker for storyline. To begin WM21's story mode, you must first create a brawler of your own, much to my disappointment, but I'll look the other way on that one, simply because I know how fond all gamers are of the CaW feature. Begrudgingly, I created a character that actually looked mildly entertaining. In this menu is where I got the impression that would remain with me and anyone else who purchased or rented this for the entirety of our quaint experience: clunky and sllooooooooooow.
Everything about WM21 chugs and grinds its way through until the very end of every match, video, menu, sound, and track. When selecting pieces to add to your custom grappler, you are forced to choose it and apply it before you can view it. This creates a two- to three-second spike of annoyance for anyone who likes to try out everything, like myself. The costumes available are actually decent, but as a rookie, you only have a very mild selection to choose from and expectedly so. Like any other game, you earn cash to fund both your repertoire and wardrobe as you progress through your matches in career and exhibition modes. The storyline (and I mean storyline, as in singular) is surprisingly believable and not cheesy, which totally caught me off guard after witnessing the horrendous intro video and menu system as well as having previous knowledge of lame Smackdown! storyline. I'm not going to spoil it for you because there is only one storyline in the game, no matter how you fight or what character you create. The story itself is fairly admirable, but the lack of being able to alter your course in any way is quite frustrating. When you lose a match, you are just forced to retry until you win, and there is no story continuation or change in any way, shape or form. The good fight takes you from the high-school gym days to the biggest show in sports entertainment, Wrestlemania 21. Clocking in at just over 4.5 hours, the amount of playtime was at least respectable. It was the rocky ride from the beginning to the end that makes me want to throw the disk into the fireplace.
The wrestling mechanics feel like a barebones build of an in-progress engine. The controls were simple enough that a monkey could have been trained to play the game diligently. All the basics were there: X throws your striking attacks, Y handles all of the running around, and the A and B buttons take care of all your grappling. Holding or tapping A will differentiate between your weak and strong slam maneuvers, while B doubles as a special/submission move button. WM21 has a reversal system that mirrors that of the THQ games on the N64. The triggers perform all reversals, the left for grapples and the right for strikes. When not under attack, the L button acts as your all around "stuff" button to perform actions such as climbing in and out of the ring or cage as well as up to the top rope. The two orphaned face buttons, white and black, are used for picking up weapons and Irish whipping your opponents to whatever demise you decide, usually that's off the top of the cell for me.
The controls, however, are not the downfall of the game … it's what happens when you push the buttons. The hit detection here looks worse than the punches pulled on television. The chances of you landing a solid strike at point-blank range should be almost certain, but in Wrestlemania 21, you seldom feel comfortable using a strike attack, whether your opponent is down or up, due to the fact that there remains a very good chance that your character will just miss a wide open shot. In either position, you're assured to pay for your supposed mistake. If you miss while your enemy is on the ground, you writhe in pain for a ludicrous amount of time that could be compared to Peter Griffins' famous shin stub.
Aside from all of the mechanical failures, WM21 could have been worth at least half of its price tag if the AI had been at least semi-functional. No matter what difficulty level you have the game set to, the AI seems lethargic at all times and doesn't seem to be above standing in one spot and taking an out-and-out butt kicking.
The tag-team matches are by far the best example of the AI throughout WM21. The only thing that seems to change is the rate of reversals that the AI is able to pull off. I've played numerous matches, and the AI only managed to rescue its partner five times before the count of three. Every single match takes the liberty of reminding you of how third-rate the wrestling mechanics actually are.
To be perfectly honest with you, I wouldn't even have tried to finish my season out if it weren't for the nice visual effects in some areas. The graphical interpretation of a televised wrestling event is one of the few commendable spots in this title. Each grappler is packing at least 4,000 more polygons than those of Smackdown! vs. Raw and you can tell the very second someone starts walking down to the ring, so the motion capture boys truly deserve a pat on the back for a job well done here. The motions of every move look spectacular and give the illusion of true pain once they finish, but sadly, most moves don't finish where they should. Let's take Undertaker or HHH for instance: the Undertaker's secondary finisher is the Tombstone Piledriver, and HHH sports the beloved Pedigree, but here, neither move actually hits the ground. Visually, the characters slam into a wall about 12 inches above the mat, then fall to the mat when the move is done. This also applies to the referee during a three-count. Each count stops just above the mat and never makes contact.
Weapon attacks are the worst graphical tidbit in the game, by far. The weapons themselves look as though they were ripped right out of the WWF Warzone disk and plopped right into this one. The weakness of weapon attacks could have been overlooked had the table been done right, but the tables are the worst. When someone goes through one, the table just appears on the ground: from upstanding to broken with zero frames in between. The detail on certain blood effects actually made me smile; when you make contact with a weapon, there is actual blood on the face, not the little blood cloud that looks like an eight-bit color scheme. WM21 sports a neat little blood system that gets progressively worse and worse as the brutalization of the obtuse AI continues. In general, the graphics range from acceptable to amazing, and are definitely the best part of the game.
The sound is a double-edged sword in that the voice acting in career mode doesn't feel phoned in like the other wrestling series, but on the other side, the slam-by-slam commentary is annoying, breaks up at some points, and has been known to be plain wrong. Less than a minute into one of my matches, good ol' JR yelled, "That's his finishing move, this match is over!" The general in-ring sounds are up to par, except for the few grunts and the bra/panties rip that sounds like feedback out of your speakers.
The only time some of the gameplay ever feels at all entertaining is when you play against another human being or your dog. Either way, your opponent is going to react better than the computer-controlled characters. (I'm only kidding about the dog thing, it would be a close match, but I might have to put my money on the AI … maybe.) Thanks to THQ and Studio Gigante, for realizing that all games are made better by Xbox Live. The functionality seems to all be there when it comes to an online experience, and the create-a-belt feature is a nice addition, giving you incentive to do well. Although some of the designs are boring, the overall idea works out quite nicely. The online experience is actually the only part of the game that will have any replay value at all, unless, of course, you always find yourself matched up with the jerks who have figured out that you can knock someone down and infinitely loop a single submission move to the end of the match.
With a few shining features, WM21 weighs in as one of the most poorly executed wrestling games in recent memory. This game should serve as an example for all developers: no matter how pretty your game is, the goods had better be there or you have yourself a lemon of a game. I suspect that should this title have spent a bit more time in the oven, and possibly even played before its release, we might have had ourselves a nice little Smackdown! killer. In its current state, however, I cannot even recommend this game as a rental to a WWE fan.