THQ's video games are a significant piece of World Wrestling Entertainment today, serving as an important role in the company's overall profitability and a source of precious brand empowering in an age when professional wrestling is losing ground to mixed martial arts. Recently, THQ made nostalgia a primary target, first with the surprisingly strong WWE Legends of Wrestlemania, which emphasized 1980s and 1990s stars, and now with the past-versus-present WWE All Stars. Combining arcade-style play meant to evoke past classics in the wrestling genre, near-complete ignorance of realism, and gratuitous use of WWE's greatest resource — the gigantic library of film footage going back to the original World Wide Wrestling Federation — seems to be an easy recipe for fun.
Unfortunately, the fundamentals of WWE All Stars are all there, but too much has been taken out and too many small mistakes have been made to consider this entry as the cream of the wrestling crop. The developer, THQ San Diego, is basically the staff of Midway San Diego, creators of the first, and infamously poor, TNA Impact! video game.
The basic gameplay is split into three modes, two of which are essentially campaign modes. Single matches, the primary meat of the game, offer a paucity of game types. There's no TLC, Elimination Chamber or Vince-Russo-On-A-Pole. Essentially, if it required special controls, it was omitted. This seems sensible … until you realize that tag-team matches are gone. Instead, you get the less common Tornado Tag match, where all four wrestlers are in the field at once. On top of this, several rules are removed (most disqualifications are gone, and there are no ring-outs), making the Hardcore match type almost the same as the standard modes of play. Actually, the Hardcore match is decidedly softcore in All-Stars; for example, in keeping with modern WWE safety policies, the iconic steel chair is gone.
The campaigns lack plots, simply consisting of four strings of 10 matches, loosely clumped into themes. Path of Champions includes one for facing 10 "legends," one for facing 10 more modern wrestlers, and one for facing 10 tag teams. Fantasy Warfare consists of 10 old-versus-new matches, each seeking to determine who better holds various superlatives like "Greatest Warrior." The holes start to become apparent when you realize that that match pits then-fan favorite Ultimate Warrior against the ho-hum Sheamus. These matches have decently narrated setup videos, but they come across as cheesy because of extremely poor methods for handling standard-definition archive footage in a high-definition game.
Among other modes and modifications completely absent in All Stars: no create-an-anything support. You can't even import custom wrestlers from Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 although it was a prominent feature in Legends of Wrestlemania. You can't import rosters, leaving the entire low-card gone, along with fan favorites like Bryan Danielson. You also don't get wrestlers who are actively in the roster of WWE's "competition." The game only includes three arenas — all modern. You don't get divas, managers or any of the Legends of Wrestlemania epic opening sequence mash/timing minigames. The game is down to the bare bones, and with it, much of the experience of professional wrestling has been removed.
The gameplay is similarly bare-bones, arcade-style play, but it somehow doesn't feel quite as "right" as Legends of Wrestlemania. The core play is centered on the face buttons, which are mapped to strong and weak strikes and holds, but the previous simplicity has been hampered by the addition of the reversal mechanic, a core function from the main series that can turn around most attacks with a precise tap of L1. This mechanic has its advantages in sheer spectacle but turns the gameplay into moments of Dance Dance Revolution, centered on memorizing the frames rather than traditional elements of attack timing. Certain moves become a series of reversal after reversal until someone either gives up or screws up; it's not fun gameplay when the tap rhythm becomes a perfectly predictable beat.
Fortunately, the most important moves for any wrestler — their two signature moves and one finisher — are fairly simple. The momentum gauge from Smackdown vs. RAW is split into a three-segment signatures gauge and one-segment finisher gauge. While most such moves can be evaded, they can never be blocked or reversed, so their judicious use is one of the game's largest sources of tactical variety.
This combination gets the job done but isn't quite as good as Legends of Wrestlemania. The arcade-style simplicity doesn't hide much depth at all, and it's far too easy to resort to repeating moves. It certainly works and is playable, but it may be too shallow for wrestling fans.
The real problem is with the presentation. The sound effects are wonderful, and one advantage of the game's plot-less nature is that there is no voice acting necessary. It sounds like a bad thing but is perfectly true to proper pro-wrestling. The graphics, however, use a caricatured, exaggerated style that produces nice screenshots but has a few major issues in motion. Mouths look completely and utterly ridiculous when opened during matches. Only Shawn Michaels should look this ludicrous some of the time, not the entire cast all of the time. It also makes too many of the wrestlers, both new and old, look far too similar. The game tries to get past this issue by making the style be extremely oversold: Any maneuver that involves jumping will go several feet into the air and land with a visible shockwave that can easily leave the ring. Fortunately, this succeeds. When you land Randy Savage's turnbuckle-jumping acrobatic finisher, it is a moment of spectacle on par with the fighting genre's best.
There are also quite a few issues with particular wrestlers not having things quite as they should. Some degree of giving wrestlers moves they can't or don't use is forgivable, but many of the details are important to hardcore fans. (The game's first patch, at 200+ MB, was devoted to, among other things, fixing several detailed complaints about Steve Austin's behavior.) These nitpicks are sufficient enough in number to possibly turn off people who were hardcore fans in the 1990s and lost interest afterward.
WWE All Stars is on its way, and it's a fair effort for the "first" effort of a new studio. It's not really there compared to the last icons-based game and isn't recommended for hardcore wrestling fans. However, its iconic style makes for a reasonable party game and a good starting point for WWE and THQ to capitalize on the immense nostalgia of former fans. After a few price drops and/or patches, it might be worth a look, even for people who haven't been fans of WWE since it was the World Wrestling Federation. We're hopeful that next year's attempt will be much closer in quality to Legends of Wrestlemania.
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