Release Date: March 24, 2009
It's definitely interesting being a wrestling non-fan who loves wrestling video games. I don't care to watch the broadcasts, and the only federation I view via YouTube once a month is the gag federation CHIKARA, but give me a wrestling game, and I'm a happy clam ... unless the game is just horrific, anyway.
Older broadcasts are often a favorite of mine because they were from a gentler time, before WCW Monday Nitro and ECW brought much rougher styles to the forefront of wrestling. This resulted in more interest than usual when I heard that WWE had two games planned for this year, introducing a distinct game to the mix in WWE Legends of WrestleMania, which would focus solely on classic arcs as they traditionally capstoned at WrestleMania, the biggest event in professional wrestling. Top matches from the company's history and many classic wrestlers from the '80s and '90s would combine with a new engine to capture a new potential for the series. Surely, this wouldn't be as good as THQ was claiming it would be, right? WWE is their cash cow, so they're not going to do things that differently.
It turns out that they were smart about it. An all-new graphics engine, new play mechanics, and they managed to select the greatest matches in the history of WrestleMania to craft something different from — and superior to — most of the games in THQ's history with the franchise. A solid, if imperfect, balance of characters; excellent level of attention to detail; and surprising amount of imagination only bolster the experience.
The core of WWE Legends of WrestleMania is the WrestleMania Tour mode, in turn split into three series of levels. None add up to be nearly as long as a typical WWE game's season, but instead distill multiple-year-long plots into one setup and one match. A short, high-quality video presents the story line summarized in iconic moments, the top spots of the match, and a list of major spots to pull. Surprisingly, the tapes involve little editing, with Fs all over the place (the WWE can't use the old WWF name, even on archive footage, due to a lawsuit with the World Wildlife Fund) and a careful mix that keeps the high energy of each loop.
However, these matches are split into three areas: Relive, Rewrite and Redefine. Each consists of a different set of matches, and each handles classic WrestleMania matches differently. Relive has you playing as the winner and Rewrite as the loser of these historic matches, with the intent to win every time. Redefine usually has you playing as the historic winner of the match but alters the match in critical way, such as changing a Steel Cage match, where the goal is simply to get out, into a Hell in a Cell match, where getting out is simply part of a ludicrously high-flying pin battle.
Just 17 matches aren't really enough to cover the game's 40 wrestlers or the support for created wrestlers. A variety of exhibition matches supports this, along with a special story line for created wrestlers in the Legend Killer mode, which pits you against wrestlers in match after match. Who needs a story line that might not fit the character you imagine them being? Just wrestle and have fun with the matches!
Fortunately, this is one thing that THQ got really right. The controls, simplified to the d-pad or an analog stick, plus the face buttons, offer a faster, arcade-like and much more precise style than previous wrestling games I've played, almost as if the design were streamlined with online play in mind. Unfortunately, my two attempts at online play were plagued with enough lag to make any such designs work rather poorly. Surprisingly, the game's core now emphasizes Quick Time Events as a major element, eliminating memorization of specific combinations and timings from reversals, in favor of he who hits the specified key first. This manages to provide a strong feel for matches, keeping things dramatic even if you're winning. The further simplification of damage to one life bar and the introduction of a three-level momentum gauge mix up things even more.
Unfortunately, aside from the above-mentioned online issue, Legends of WrestleMania suffers from a few other problems. Wrestlers produce their feel solely from move lists and other animations; gameplay-wise, Andre the Giant's 600 pounds is only marginally different from, say, Rey Mysterio, who can be unlocked by having a save game for WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 on your system. You can create a wide array of content, but it's the exact same content as SvR 2009; there's no new stuff to play with, and some of the old stuff isn't usable. It might be an improvement to have a game environment free of women, as sexist as that might sound ... but the game still includes female wardrobe items. It's not as if anyone would want to recreate Droz's cross-dressing arc.
Perhaps most frustrating of all, though, is how the AI seems to behave. As I mentioned, objectives in WrestleMania Tour mode often involve getting your opponent to land a specific move on you. However, the game's momentum mechanics and an AI that is able to out-speed your furious button-tapping make it nearly impossible to land such objectives. If you let them land a signature move that leads into a pin, the match is over, and you have lost. THQ at least marginally recognizes this, though, enough to make sure you never need every objective to attain a gold Trophy.
Fortunately, one thing that is a wrestling games tradition has returned in force for Legends of WrestleMania: the sense of style. Animations are smooth and detailed, albeit with the occasional humorous hiccup when, for example, a bear hug doesn't even touch the other wrestler. It's realistic, perhaps, but not in the way that a wrestling fan might want. The looks, rather than feeling like an attempt at realism that borders on the uncanny, goes to a slightly more "iconic" style, with very strong facial expressions managing to make moves feel much more powerful and solid than they were in the actual matches. This meshes well with the traditionally high-impact sounds and non-specific grunts in the ring. Normally, I would complain about the wrestlers not showing up to add variety to the clips, but in this case, the game rather deftly avoids the issue of having to find sound-alike voice actors, and it is much stronger for it.
Overall, Legends of WrestleMania is the best romp through the WWE I've had the pleasure of playing in years. Between a solid collection of top wrestlers (How many fans would like to beat Vince McMahon into acknowledging the existence of Randy Savage?), a smoother gameplay style that could easily be detailed into a top-notch serious competitive game, and a generally iconic grasp of the world's largest professional wrestling company, Legends of WrestleMania may have potential to capture, but right out the gate, it shows that THQ does still care. Hopefully, we'll see a few sequels to this or the best ideas from here folded back into Smackdown vs. Raw 2010. THQ is sometimes hit-or-miss with their franchises, but this definitely counts as a strong hit.
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