Before we get into talking about Lucha Libre AAA: Heroes del Ring, let's step back a minute and talk about the general market for wrestling games. When I reviewed Smackdown vs. Raw 2010 last year, I speculated that we were reaching a tipping point where roughly half as many people who watch WWE programming were buying wrestling games, perhaps more for create-a-wrestler and other fantasy features than the WWE brand.
In retrospect, this assessment seems to have underestimated just how much the market for wrestling games has outgrown the market for actual wrestling. Smackdown vs. Raw 2010 sold around 4 million copies across all major platforms. Meanwhile, WWE's flagship show, Monday Night Raw, recently turned in a historic low 2.47 rating, which means it was watched by about 3 million people. The only way Smackdown vs. Raw's sales make sense is if you assume a lot of people buy that game who do not watch current wrestling and maybe don't actually care about the WWE brand all that much.
A factoid like this is important for explaining how a game like Lucha Libre AAA: Heroes del Ring somehow gets released in English even though AAA's weekly shows and PPVs are only broadcast in Spanish (mostly in Southwestern and West Coast markets). There's no reason to believe wrestling game buyers actually care all that much about the license featured in the game anymore, so why not try launching a game based on a Mexican wrestling license? It can't turn out any worse than TNA Impact.
If anything, a wrestling game seems like a viable way to introduce American players to the AAA brand, which is one of the most internationally recognizable Mexican wrestling associations for all that it was formed in 1992 and by 1995 or so had lost virtually all of its top talent to American promotions like WCW and the then-WWF. If you ever enthusiastically followed the careers of performers like Rey Mysterio Jr., Eddie Guerrero, or Konnan, you were watching guys who rose to stardom in Mexico in the AAA (but who aren't in this game — well, except Konnan).
So how does Lucha Libre AAA: Heroes del Ring actually play? The preview build indicates a very solid wrestling game. The controls are simple and intuitive. There's a standard set of inputs for grappling, kicking, punching and running attacks. Each character has characteristic animations, so Vampiro Canadiense (yes, really) does a spinning roundhouse kick while Gronda does a rushing knee that tends to knock people out of the ring.
Each wrestler also has characteristic air moves, kicks and punches. Some guys are fast, other guys hit hard, but they all control basically the same way. Most of a wrestler's personality is expressed with the moves they do from a grapple. From the light grapple, you can do three moves or try to grapple break, while the strong grapple gives you a different potential move for each face button. Wrestlers also have a characteristic taunt or crowd call designed to help build up their popularity.
Popularity is to Lucha Libre AAA what momentum is to the Smackdown vs. Raw games, only it's perhaps more crucial. The more a wrestler motivates the crowd by performing splashy moves and counters successfully, the more powerful their attacks become. Your strong grapple moves, which tend to be the equivalent of finishers in a WWE game, can only be used at high popularity levels. You start a match at two-star popularity and can build yourself up to four stars, though it's possible to win matches handily at three. If you suck and turn into a punching bag, your popularity plummets and you become weaker. A match between human players in Lucha Libre AAA can have some really good back-and-forth, while CPU matches tend to favor whoever builds up momentum first. This is all as it should be. The pacing of matches in Lucha Libre AAA tends to be exactly like real wrestling matches, with players beginning with punches and kicks and ending with flying moves off the ropes or massive finishing moves.
There are far fewer possible match variations in Lucha Libre AAA than there are in the Smackdown vs. Raw games. You can opt to have matches end in Pinfall or Submission, Pinfall Only, or Submission Only. You can choose to customize disqualification rules, making it possible to do No DQ matches, where the fight can move freely outside of the ring and use international objects like chairs and tables. There's nothing like Smackdown vs. Raw's Hell in a Cell, Ring of Fire, or other super-wacky gimmick matches. Fans of that sort of thing might be disappointed.
Winning matches and understanding where you are in Lucha Libre AAA is extremely simple and intuitive. The HUD shows you how much popularity you have and which areas of your wrestler's body are getting damaged by an opponent. It can affect your moves if an enemy starts working over your arms or legs with targeted attacks. When you're knocked over, on-screen prompts tell you which button to mash to get up more quickly. Getting up is easy when your popularity is high but takes longer as your popularity slides, making you more vulnerable to submission moves and ground attacks. When you're pinned, you'll be asked to mash one of the face buttons (chosen at random with each pin) to try and break the pin. The more often you're pinned, the more presses it takes to break the pin and get up.
You can play Lucha Libre AAA in Pride Battle mode, which is simple head-to-head action for up to four players. Pride Battle match modes include 1-vs.-1, 1-vs.-2, 1-vs.-3, Tag Team, Triple Threat, and "Fatal Facing of 4." You can set up tournaments for up to eight CPU or human players using the King of Kings mode. There's also a Story mode, which is designed to work exclusively with the game's Create-a-Luchador feature, letting you depict your created luchador's rise through the AAA ranks from jobber to world's champion.
The Create-a-Luchador mode is pretty amazing, offering tons of customization features for everything from hair to build to costume. Everything is managed through very intuitive sliders, and there don't appear to be any frustrations like having to unlock customization options. While Smackdown vs. Raw's Create-a-Wrestler mode offers more detailed creation options, they're much harder to figure out and much less fun to use.
In Lucha Libre AAA's Create-A-Luchador mode, you can use simple sliders to determine fine details like the texture of a performer's costume. Of particular note is the customization features for masks, which allow you to create unique looks without having to go through the painful difficulties of the WWE Create-a-Wrestler mask editor. Lucha Libre AAA offers dozens of general mask styles, which can be further customized with motif options and color patterns that are surprising easy to tweak. Once you've set up your wrestler's custom look, you can then set his attack animations and grapples from a library of the game's pre-existing moves, using a very intuitive interface. Some moves have popularity requirements, so you need to plan your luchador's roster of attacks carefully if you don't want him to be stuck with a limited arsenal of moves at low popularity — or nothing really flashy to use at high popularity. You can also create your own custom crowd signs for your luchador in Create-a-Banner mode, which is a nice touch.
Some fans of lucha libre in all its Mexican glory have worried that Lucha Libre AAA might be too Americanized and feel inauthentic. Likewise, fans of the Smackdown vs. Raw series have worried that the game might be too incomprehensibly Mexican, full of weird rules and unapproachable characters. Lucha Libre AAA doesn't seem to suffer from either extreme, instead reaching a nice happy medium between authentic Mexican feel and accessibility to American players. When you first pop in the game, you get a tutorial from AAA founder Konnan in good English that neatly explains the basics of the game. You can opt to set the ring announcers into authentic Spanish or good English. The interface is well-translated for the most part, and the game's feel should be immediately familiar to anyone who's ever played a modern wrestling game. The good guys may be called Tecnicos and the bad guys Rudos, but the character personalities shine through well in their move sets and animations.
The game's roster for the Xbox 360 is supposed to contain 29 wrestlers at launch, with two unlockables and 10 DLC characters planned. Our preview build had about one-third of the basic roster available to test out: Charly Manson (who is no longer with the AAA, proving that roster lag is not a purely American phenomenon), gothy face paint villain Chessman, Dark Cuervo (who also looks like a Spider-Man villain), El Brazo (or "The Arm), Electroshock (who kind of looks like a Spider-Man villain), masked hero El Elegido, an evil wrestling El Zorro, awesome devil-looking guy Gronda, awesome skeleton-costume guy La Parka, a ninja-looking guy inexplicably named Octagon, Psicosis (who may have the most magnificent mask in the game thus far), and the intensely amusing Vampire Canadiense or "Canadian Vampire."
These characters are all absurdly flamboyant by American wrestling standards, but that feels more engaging than off-putting. If you're someone who's never seen AAA wrestling, you never really get the sense of being lost and not knowing who these guys are. Instead, it's easier to chortle at the gloriously ridiculous Vampiro Canadiense or pick guys like La Parka and Gronda just because they have awesome ring costumes and crazy masks. Kids in particular may find Lucha Libre AAA a lot more fun to play than a WWE game, for the colorful characters alone.
For a first game in a new wrestling franchise, Lucha Libre AAA: Heroes del Ring is shaping up to be a very promising title. It gets a lot of the things that the lamentable TNA Impact game screwed up completely. It's easy to play, fun against humans or the CPU, and never confusing or overly complicated. The basic idea that you win by building up popularity is more intuitive than the idea of momentum. The graphics are sharp if not wildly impressive, making the wrestlers look sufficiently cool and impressive. The feel of the title captures the flamboyant spirit of Mexican wrestling quite well. Fans growing dissatisfied with Smackdown vs. Raw and interested in trying something new may find Lucha Libre AAA will scratch their wrestling itch.
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