It's been 11 long years since we saw the likes of a true no holds barred arcade-style wrestling game. After a packed decade full of the likes of Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game, Slam Masters (and its Saturday Night home edition) and arguably the most popular wrestling title of all time in WWF Wrestlefest, Sega and THQ's joint effort Royal Rumble opened up the last decade, which flickered out into deserved mediocrity. Since then, there has been no true arcade wrestling worth mentioning. After the borderline embarrassing Rumble Roses series, the genre has been pushed on the backburner while games like the Smackdown vs. Raw series and Fire Pro have been left to carry the torch forward.
Enter Sal DiVita, the mastermind behind Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game, a morbidly fun concoction of Midway's fighting game engines and the family fun of the World Wrestling Federation. While the likes of WWF Raw graced our home consoles, DiVita and the crew of Midway spent 2 years designing Wrestlemania for its 1995 release. The game never took itself seriously: Hams, bats and inflatable mallets were substitutes for blood, and wrestlers like Razor Ramon could shake you down into 20+ hit combos full of physically impossible, yet hilarious wrestling slams. The resulting effect: A fun and memorable game. Though DiVita himself admitted certain elements of the game itself were less than desirable to him as a wrestling fan (such as the comedic elements of the blood substitution with objects,) it was still a favorite project of his (he even confirmed the existing rumor that Adam Bomb is hidden within the annals of the game, though he would not divulge how to obtain him, stating only that the character was incomplete and there was no sense in attempting to procure him.) Midway didn't collaborate with the WWF ever again, and eventually, THQ secured exclusive rights. Sal DiVita's continued vision of the ideal arcade-style wrestling game had long been silenced.
That is -- Until now.
When Midway declared bankruptcy, THQ purchased the San Diego studio that produced the less than memorable TNA Impact game, and put them to work on a new wrestling game. The goal? Come up with a sister product for Smackdown vs. Raw: Something a bit more cartoonish, frantic and hands-on, targeting the market wishing to pick up a larger than life product with larger than life products. The lead designer? Sal DiVita. Welcome to WWE All Stars.
The day this game was revealed for the first time, it was tough to ascertain exactly what it was. The characters all looked like themselves, but twice the size, ridiculously muscular, and pulling off all of their moves with acrobatic ease miles above the ring resulting in a crash so epic the ring would ripple like water when stones were thrown in a pond. Was this for real? Meanwhile, THQ released yet another stellar edition of Smackdown vs. Raw, leaving the door open as to what All Stars was trying to accomplish. Eventually, little details continued to leak into the market, including the rosters, and that this would be an arcade style title with no ties to any previous titles. This was a new concept by the new team in San Diego, and it would be independent and not necessarily based on any other games.
The largest form of intrigue came on January 18th, when Macho Man Randy Savage cut a promo interspliced with scenes of him appearing in-game, signaling the apparent return of Randy Savage to the WWE fray. It was confirmed later, however, that while Savage did not sign a legends contract with the WWE itself, he has a deal worked out with THQ, and has been given WWE's blessing to appear in future titles, starting with this one -- and what a "one" this one starts out to be.
If you have the hard drive space, I would highly recommend installing this game. It is so graphic intensive that it not only has a fairly staggering loading time, but older systems may run into menu lag. The lag, importantly, does not happen in-game at all, so there is no need for worry there. The game gives you the option for a few types of gameplay, including exhibition matches, a Fantasy Warfare mode and the Path of Champions. The game also has a fairly impressive Create a Wrestler mode, of which you could put a few hours into and come out with some fairly impressive character models. There does not, however, appear to be a character share mode, meaning no community creations this time around. Fortunately, all game modes are unlocked to begin with, however, characters are not. Only half the characters are available to start with, however, can be easily unlocked which I will discuss in the course of the review.
The exhibition mode consists of standard match types, Extreme Rules (basically chairs at ringside with a garbage can full of endless weapons) and Steel Cage matches (in the new style cage.) A ladder match was originally shown in videos and assumed to be one of the match types available, however, it did not make the final cut for now. THQ would not comment further on the exclusion outside of the fact that they could not make it work properly with the game's physics.
The Path of Champions mode is your standard career-esque mode, similar to the Road to Wrestlemania, but without much of the side story. You choose an objective pathway: You either take the Path of Legends and compete at the end against the circa 1994 version of the Undertaker (with the purple gloves and trim,) or a more current path which culminates with taking on Randy Orton at the end, or D-Generation-X waiting for you at the end of the Tag Team campaign. You wrestle in a series of matches with vignettes in between culminating with your match at a pre-determined Pay Per View. Long time Undertaker fans will appreciate the Path of Champions most of all, which may be the most entertaining of all. Videos take place in the Funeral Parlor (complete with Paul Bearer) and attempt to take you back to a time when he played one of the most imposing and intimidating forces in wrestling history. Sadly, the Ultimate Warrior is not shoved into a coffin in the course of the videos, nor does Papa Shango make a surprise appearance to make Warrior vomit green all over the screen. Each Path should take approximately an hour to complete, and you will have to complete it a few times in the grand scheme of things if you wish to capture all of the achievements.
The 15-match Fantasy Warfare mode is probably the best feature of the game, far and away. This is also the easiest way to unlock all characters. Once you have popped open the game, play through the Fantasy Warfare mode, as it will take you through a venerable tour of all of the game's match types, as well as sets and character move sets. (You can also finish once as all the Legends, and once again as all of the current Superstars for 2 achievements.)
The mode is the essential embodiment of the game's objective: "What if?" The mode pits a legend against a current superstar in a scenario. For example, the "King of Scotland" mode pits real Scot Drew MacIntyre (whose presence in the game is questionable) against Canada's favorite Scotsman Roddy Piper. You will watch a 3 or 4 minute long video clip of footage leading into the match followed by the match itself. Some of the videos are extremely well done (The "Better Lifestyle" showdown between CM Punk and Steve Austin for example) and some are just a bit off (like the Jimmy Snuka vs. Kane intensity battle,) however, sealing the deal is that THQ managed to get the WWE's video voiceover guy to come in and voice all of the cinematics. If that isn't an attempt to bring you as close as possible to the action, I don't know what is. In fact, the cast of wrestling devotees that worked on this did such a good job that almost no stone is left unturned. Alternate attires and little details paint a picture of lifelong fandom. This is the first wrestling game I can remember featuring Andre the Giant in his pre-1985 attire, afro and all. This game also features both versions of the Rock's most popular theme (for entrance and the lyric-less version for victory.)
The gameplay experience itself once you have gotten into it is very easy to get into, and very simple to pick up. The controls are less intensive than Smackdown vs. Raw (which I will continue to refer to occasionally as SvR from this point on,) and though a bit confusing (like why you cannot run until you have hit or been hit,) can be easily mastered over the course of a couple matches. Calling the game from ringside are Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler, who reunite as an on-screen team after almost 2 years. Announcing your entrance to the ring is none other than the original voice of the squared circle himself Howard Finkel.
There are 4 distinct character classes the game offers you up. You can find out which class your character is by pressing the Y button at the selection screen. They will either be an Acrobat, Big Man, Brawler or Grappler. Depending on your character's class, you will have access to certain skill sets the other wrestlers don't. For example, Acrobats like Randy Savage and Rey Mysterio can bounce off their opponent's chest onto the turnbuckle, or springboard off the ropes with dropkicks. Big Men like Big Show or Andre have the ability to heave their opponents up the air and chain attacks better than weaker characters. They also have the ability to kick their opponents out of the ring with one fell swoop. A big portion of the XBox Live element will be determining the class you are most effective with, and deciding how to take your opponents on. The wrestlers are balanced well enough that nobody has an unfair advantage, and even Rey Mysterio can slam Andre the Giant with ease if called upon. Granted, every class has weaknesses too. Big Men and Brawlers are slower than Grapplers and Acrobats, and have distinct defensive disadvantages as well. However, their raw power means moves they do unleash will be much more effective and lead to quicker victories.
The objective of the game is simple: Beat your opponent and pin him for a 3 count. How you get there, however, is different than other wrestling games. You have your standard strike attacks done with the X button, your stronger strikes with the Y button, the regular grapple with B, and the strong grapple with A. It should be noted strong attacks may have a bit of a lead-in time, so be careful because a standard strike in response could end that chain of momentum.
Movesets appear to be geared more toward character class rather than wrestler, though each wrestler's set of signature moves always correlate to their normal moveset. Bret Hart's signature move, for example, are a few of his 5 move setup into the Sharpshooter. John Cena does his patented "You Can't See Me" Suplex. Given that each wrestler has just the one finishing move, you will see all of Undertaker's finishers over the years rolled into his signature moves, while the Hell's Gate move ends up as a simple ground move. The movesets in a whole are by no means groundbreaking, but since matches will rarely top 5 minutes in this game, there is no need for a diverse library of moves that have not been seen used in wrestling matches outside of Japan since 1976.
Your HUB located in your respective corner tells you a story. You have a 4 tiered lifebar, 3 smaller boxes of which your attacks will charge toward signature moves, and a vertical meter leading to a starred letter F. The smaller boxes when full will overlay a small star, which signifies that you have a signature move to use. Perfectly executing a signature move requires slight lead-in, but when done unleashes an exaggerated, yet staggering version of a wrestler's secondary finisher, or lead-in move to his finisher. Eventually, as you wear down your opponent, the vertical meter fills, and eventually you have the ability to do your finisher, in which again, your wrestler performs a larger-than-life edition of his regular finisher. CM Punk's Go 2 Sleep regularly looks like a painful move, but in All Stars, it is a wonder his opponent's face is not caved in at the end of the match. Roddy Piper's sleeper hold gives new meaning to the term "Ragdoll Physics" and Eddie Guerrero's Frog Splash now comes complete with a front flip. It should be noticed that while you can block a signature move, you cannot block a finisher. In addition, you can miss signature and finisher attempts, which will penalize your wrestler and result in having to charge up the meters again from a decreased point. The game itself looks great. The graphics are very refined and comparable to any wrestling game ever released, if not the best overall. The game, however, does not quite play as well as it looks.
The more intricate controls can be a bit bothersome to get to used to, especially when faced with switching your focus in 3 or 4 player matches and attempting to reverse or block. The attacks overall are tougher to block than SvR, and while the focus is shifted as simple as flicking the right stick, it can be hard to re-focus on an opponent and attack him when he is not necessarily the closest player to you at the time. All controls otherwise, however, are extremely responsive, and never to the point where they are too responsive, nor do they fall into the dreaded button cache which EA games have taken to doing. The game provides a solid mix overall of all the elements it brings into it, and has done well to lift itself out of that enigmatic shadow of doom and gloom it was quickly putting itself into in its early days.
There is one unfortunate thing about this game overall, however, and that is the limitations it brings with it. After being spoiled with 70 or 80 man rosters in the last few wrestling games and more than 30 gameplay modes, you will have to make due with 30 superstars here, and only a small handful of match types. Keep in mind again that this is not meant to embody the day to day stylings of the WWE like the SvR series is, and the ratings below keep that mind. This is the type of game you would have saved your quarters up for to play as a kid, that is the essence of what the THQ San Diego team have tried to capture here, and that is how my ratings below treat this game - It is not compared in any way to the SvR series because the two are apples and oranges.
Graphics: 9.25/10. The game's use of color to paint a picture is unparalleled in this genre of gaming. With the exception of cinematics, the entire game is in vibrantly colored high definition (the exception obviously being the inability to broadcast VHS quality footage in high definition,) with bright textures adorning every corner of this game. In fact, the game pushes the display capabilities of the Xbox so heavily that it causes lag in the menus. Colors transition from one spectrum to another with relative ease, and the character models are appropriate, given the larger-than-life aura this game attempts to give off. The only troubles with the game remain the same clipping issues you see with all wrestling games. As an example (whether it was intentional or not is still debatable,) Andre the Giant's foot disappears into his opponent's chest during his signature move stomp. Some of the odder graphic misfires also include Hulk Hogan's shirt during his entrances, and about half the players' chins, who look like they were modeled after mixed martial artist Antonio "Big Foot" Silva. Still, these are minor details that don't affect the game itself.
Sound: 9.5/10. The game comes armed with more bleeps, bloops, bone crunches and painful screams than humanly necessary, and it never once becomes overbearing. Sound intensity increases with the quality of impact and the type of move. Jack Swagger's ankle lock comes complete with ankle breaking sound effects, and if you listen long enough to Bret Hart's Sharpshooter, you might hear a tendon snapping in the distance. The commentary has been painstakingly crafted to a level of detail even the most critical fan could enjoy (Jim Ross shouting "STONE COLD! STONE COLD! STONE COLD!" during a Stunner is one clever kickback to the old days) and Howard Finkel's return is detail perfect, right down to the point where he drops "The" from Bret Hart's nickname and refers to him simply as "Bret Hitman Hart" as he used to do. Pop on a set of headphones at some point, or pop on your surround sound and indulge in the stereo separation of the crowd and bass blasts contained in the signature moves. Wrestling game sound has come a long way since the days of WWF Warzone and Attitude, that's for sure.
Control: 7.5/10. The gameplay is as close to an out-of-the-box, no instructions required game that you can get. You can pick up controls in less than 10 minutes through simple experimentation, and the on-screen prompts. However, this may also be the weakest part of the game. The basic controls themselves are very easy to get into, and like a good arcade-style game, it reminds you of what they are if it sees you having difficulty with something, or it wants you to try something new. However, much of the controls outside of that tend to be a bit of a crapshoot. You strangely cannot run at the beginning of the match and have to build toward that, and when you can, you may Irish whip your opponent, since that has been mapped into the same button. If you have played Smackdown vs. Raw for years and years, you may also find yourself cursing at the controls early on, which are vastly different here. I can't count how many times I pressed the left bumper thinking I would run, or flicked the right stick trying to grapple. Reverse controls are also bit sketchy at times (but thankfully much tougher to pull off than the SvR series,) and in typical 90s arcade gaming, you may find your button-mashing friends get the upper hand on you more often than you like in multiplayer modes. All attacks, however, are clean and responsive, and once you accustom yourself to what you can and cannot do, you can easily build up toward your specialties again.
Gameplay: 8/10. The gameplay in its purest fun is form. This is the wrestling title to reach for when you want an hour or two of mindless fun. While the gameplay modes are limited compared to Smackdown vs. Raw, and you can't climb ladders and put people through tables, there are plenty of other ways to punish your opponent. Learning the strengths of each wrestler class will prove beneficial, and increase your match quality and efficiency. The graduated signature move system deters players from abusing special moves, and the game appropriately borders that mixture of serious and funny without crossing into one too far.
Given the type of game this is, 10 match career modes are fitting, and the Fantasy Warfare mode contains far and away the best match-defining cinematics in wrestling game history, complete with clever video editing and voiceovers. I am disappointed that the ladder match mode was cut, there is no Royal Rumble (meaning sadly, no return of the infamous Wrestlefest dogpile,) and the Extreme Rules match is fairly unspectacular in a whole, but that aside, the overall gameplay is very sound, not glitched in the least and can result in some very frantic and punishing experiences when you get together with all your friends.
This game is not for everybody. I find that there will be no middle ground in determining enjoyment. If you're a wrestling game fan, you will either really enjoy this game, or will not enjoy it at all. Realistically, if arcades still did good business, this game should have through to coin-ops for a few months because it would have cleaned house there, and then come to home systems carrying that wave of momentum. Unfortunately, this is 2011 and not 1991 and the industry in a whole is so much more different than when I popped my allowance into an arcade machine, and was barely tall enough to see the animated Ted DiBiase I selected blaze across the screen in Million Dollar glory. This game works to recapture some of that magic, and suffice to say, based on my feelings, I believe this is a fantastic game, and if any game would have ever dethroned Wrestlefest as king of the arcade mountain, this would have stomped a Steve Austin-esque mudhole into that title.
This game is a should-play. Whether it becomes a should/must-own will be your decision after putting a few hours into it. THQ has committed to supporting the title as long as the market calls for it, meaning it hopefully will not be a one and done like Legends of Wrestlemania. This is the game that Legends should have been. That game with its only external support (the roster unlock from Smackdown vs. Raw 2009) ended up being a clunky mess of uninspired gaming. This game takes that idea and runs it into the game it should have been.
This game has more than surpassed my expectations after I dismissed it after watching those hokey gameplay trailers. I admit that I had fully written the game off as nonsense, and am now fully willing to receive my serving of crow for it. They toned down the ridiculousness and cranked up the intensity well enough to make a likeable wrestling title. This is one offshoot that will not disappoint, and hopefully with efforts like this and NBA Jam, open the doors to more simple playing arcade-style efforts aimed at capturing what previous generations of gamers were forced to leave behind as the market changed. This is one offshoot that does not disappoint.
It should also be noted that in his typical easter egging fashion, Sal DiVita confirmed to me the presence of a hidden character that was unreleased and unspoken of prior to release. I could not shake him for details, nor was I able to find out who it was. I will say it is NOT Honky Tonk Man, who was recently confirmed as free DLC in April, as he confirmed Honky's appearance and said there were more hidden secrets.
Suggestions: All I can suggest is to clean up the controls to match some of the reaction time to the fast pace of the game, and maybe a few more game play modes. Hell in a Cell, the use of tables and more weapons would all have been great for this game if graphically possible.