To say that I am a die hard pro wrestling fan would be an understatement. Ever since I was five (that was twenty-two years ago) I\'ve watched pro wrestling in one form or another. No, I don\'t have a John Cena poster or a Batista T-Shirt (although I do have some ECW merchandise and a nWo WCW hat), I\'m either glued in front of the television or using Tivo to make sure I don\'t miss an episode of Raw, Smackdown or any Pay Per View (including NWA TNA shows). So every time a new wrestling game hits the stores, I\'m usually the first in line to pick it up. My current console favorites are the Playstation 2\'s Raw vs. Smackdown and Gamecube\'s Day of Reckoning, both of which I play religiously, but when it comes to Xbox, the WWE has yet to produce a decent wrestling game. Both Raw and Raw 2 were sub par at best, so when I heard that THQ was developing the newest installment in the Wrestlemania series exclusively for Xbox with Live play, I was extremely excited. The Wrestlemania series on the Cube was a very good series that could be molded into something mind blowing for the Xbox and after hearing how long the game was in development and the work done to capture all the details of the WWE world, this was all too good to be true. Normally I\'d be skeptical about titles like this, but my blind devotion to wrestling made all my doubts fly away. THQ wouldn\'t release another Raw like title on us. They want to win over the Xbox audience with the best possible wrestling game they could design, right? Did it live up to the hype, or will Wrestlemania XXI be as disappointing as the John Cena vs. JBL championship match from the Wrestlemania XXI Pay Per View? Much like the Cena vs. JBL match, some things were great, but there were also some major disappointments. In order to review this title properly I have to break my normal review style, so please sit back and bare with a hardcore fanboy who is feeling a bit jaded and disappointed right now (a tear rolls down my cheek).
Graphically speaking, Wrestlemania XXI is arguably the best looking wrestling game ever made. The amazing detail of the wrestlers is almost jaw dropping. THQ went to great length to not only make the wrestlers look as realistic as possible, they also studied the wrestlers in the ring so they could even detail how each wrestler moves and performs in the ring. WWE fans know that when Chris Benoit chops an opponent or when Batista hits that sitting powerbomb (or Batista Bomb) it is distinctive from when another wrestler performs a similar move. THQ took those distinctions into account and incorporated them into the game play. You can see this when you create-a-wrestler and you go through the available moves. Options such as the standard chokeslam, Kane\'s chokeslam and Big Show\'s chokeslam may all be the same basic chokeslam, but each one is different because each wrestler hits that move differently. In addition to the amazing in ring details, the cut scenes during career mode are incredible. Here you get a truly up close and personal look at the wrestlers and how they interact on either Raw or Smackdown each week. Even little movement details are captured and seen during these scenes. For instance, Eugene bounces about while other wrestlers would normally stand still. Finally, the arena stage setups are top notch. WWE puts much time and effort into each PPV\'s arena entrance area and these entrance areas are duplicated for Wrestlemania XXI. While the crowd still suffers from the normal ten character molds repeated throughout the entire arena (there are more sign differences then fan differences), the arenas themselves remain pretty impressive. Again, this is probably the best looking wrestling game ever made for Xbox or any other game console.
In addition to being a success in the graphics department, the sound of Wrestlemania XXI is also a major plus for THQ\'s latest title. Like PS2\'s Smackdown vs. Raw game, Wrestlemania XXI features the voices of the wrestlers themselves, as well as commentary provided by Michael Cole and Tazz from Smackdown and Jerry \"The King\" Lawler and Jim Ross from Raw. What is really cool is that not only does the commentary flow well with the match, but while in career mode, you will hear references to previous matches you\'ve been involved in. \"He may have run right through Charlie Haas in his last match, but Spike Dudley won\'t be such an easy opponent this week,\" is an example of the running reference commentary. Music wise, almost all the entrance theme music is the same used with each respected wrestler (some are a bit out of date) and the background music is the staple music used with all of THQ\'s recent wrestling games. But of all these cool sound features, my absolute favorite was also featured in the previous Raw games...custom entrance theme music. Most fans of wrestling have probably thought about what song they\'d want as their entrance music if they were a wrestler, and now you have the opportunity to see and hear what that would be like (AC/DC\'s \"If You Want Blood, You Got it\" is my wrestling theme music). You also have the option to change it at any time you wish. So you can be like Shawn Michaels and never change the music, or be more like John Cena and go through four different entrance songs within a two year time frame.
Getting back to the create feature, players have the option to create not just a wrestler, but they can create a new championship belt (the return of the hardcore championship is coming) and create a Pay Per View using all the different match types. The created belts will not carry over to the career mode, but you can defend the belt against other players via multiplayer match ups or over Xbox Live. While the belt and PPV options are interesting extras, the main point of the create mode is the create-a-wrestler mode which is essential to playing career mode. The plus sides to create-a-wrestler mode is that Wrestlemania XXI manages to pack on more wrestling moves per each wrestler then any other WWE game by using two grapple buttons instead of the usual one grapple button, so you shouldn\'t find yourself repeating moves too much during the match. Also great is the option for the custom entrance music to give your wrestler your dream theme. With that being said, the rest of the create-a-wrestler mode leaves much to be desired. The first thing that just drove me insane was the fact that your wrestler\'s name is restricted to being only ten characters long. I\'ve played just about every wrestling game ever made (since the old times of NES and the Sega Master System) and every time they\'ve had a create-a-wrestler feature, I\'ve been able to use Rich Bergin as my wrestler\'s name. Not this time though. There are plenty of wrestlers that have longer then ten character names all over this game (Randy Orton, Charlie Haas, Shawn Michaels, Torrie Wilson, etc.) so why can\'t players use more then ten characters? Next, when you edit your wrestler\'s appearance, there is much limitation to the ring attire (a create-a-logo like in Day of Reckoning would have been nice), overall physical appearance details and just navigating through the menus and options can be really tricky. Finally, the entrance edit features are really basic when compared to Day of Reckoning\'s options. In Wrestlemania XXI, players have a handful of options to work with (fireworks, walk, music, in ring) while in Day of Reckoning, players could switch camera angles, mess with the lighting, do scene by scene editing; all kinds of different stuff to give the fans the ultimate creation experience. With all the power of the Xbox, THQ could have done some really amazing editing options, but it seems like they just took the easy way out.
While graphics, sound and extras like create-a-wrestler are all well and good, what makes or breaks a wrestling game is always going to be the controls and the gameplay. While I\'ve already mentioned that Wrestlemania XXI provides more moves then any other wrestling title by adding a second grapple button, it doesn\'t mean it was a good decision. If you tap the A button, you perform a weak grapple move (move depends on the direction you are pushing at the time of hitting the grapple buttons), such as a body slam, while pressing and holding the A button executes a strong grapple move, like a powerbomb. Tapping B performs a specialty grapple, such as a chokeslam, while pressing and holding B executes a submission move, like the sharp shooter. It\'s nice having all these move options, but the problem is that the gameplay voids out the coolness of your moves arsenal. The controls and gameplay try to combine the speed of combo (aka button meshing) wrestling, like the PS2 Smackdown series, with the slower and steadier paced grapple style wrestling, like Gamecube\'s Day of Reckoning. Ideally players should find a fast grapple game that moves like a match between Paul London and Rey Mysterio. Unfortunately, the result is a game the feels too loose and choppy. Executing a move that requires press and hold controls is often stopped by a fast strike punch or kick. In order to execute such stronger moves, you have to either wait until your opponent is stunned (almost never happens), they are a good distance away from you and are walking into the move (usually will be interrupted by a running attack), or they are standing up after being knocked down (best option). Another problem is that the A.I. in Wrestlemania XXI is a complete joke. While this may appeal to players wanting to get through career mode without much of a challenge, the nightmare A.I. will make itself known when you are forced to tag with a computer partner. Aside from the fact that the computer seems to have no idea play this game, the computer also has a tendency to get counted out or disqualified. While this doesn\'t happen every time, the fact that it happens at all is enough to make players through their controllers out the window. When it comes to tag matches, treat it like a handicapped match and pray your partner just stays in the corner and doesn\'t try to get involved in any way. Tag matches are about the only match in career mode that players will have trouble winning in under five minutes. The fact that when my wrestler fought for the World Championship against Triple H, the match lasted less then three minutes and that was with the game on its most difficult setting. Nothing should be this easy.
Let\'s talk about Live gameplay. First, I\'m still unclear as to how THQ let this game get on store shelves with such a major flaw that would not let players get on Live with the game. This boarders on somewhere between sad and inexcusable for a company with THQ\'s reputation. Thankfully, THQ was able to get a patch out there so players could finally grapple over Xbox Live. One thing that should be noted is that if you have gone through the create-a-wrestler mode and started a career, be sure to save them to a memory card (not your hard drive) because if don\'t and you download the patch, your wrestler and the career associated with him or her will be erased from the hard drive. I lost about thirty matches from that little surprise. Nonetheless, I was excited to finally take Prototype (because Rich Bergin was too long for a name) to Live for some competition. Unlike most games over Live, you have to scroll through all the different games going on to find the kind you want to play. Once you do, you select which wrestler you want to use and you\'d think you\'d be ready to fight. Unfortunately, most of the available matches are not in fact available. For some reason, the match will remain an option even when the match is in progress. So if you want a match quickly, best bet is to create your own and wait for someone to accept the challenge. Once started, the match will play like a match in the game...just with major lag and framerate issues. The lag problems will make you tear your hair out when the game will freeze and jump about ten seconds ahead, usually right around the time your opponent has taken advantage of you just standing around and doing nothing. Naturally, you want to apply some smack talk. Thankfully, you can smack talk via the communicator. Unfortunately, the communicator also has major lag issues and usually comes out jumbled on the other side (did he just say \"your duck is full of butter wax?\"). After many frustrating attempts at Live play, I came to the decision that nothing is worth this much trouble and went back to my career mode. Good news Halo 2, Wrestlemania XXI won\'t be taking away your audience.
Maybe it\'s just me, but it seems as though THQ is under the impression that each game console has to have its own kind of wrestling game. PS2 has the Smackdown games with their combo/button-meshing controls and Gamecube has Day of Reckoning (formally the Wrestlemania series) with slower grapple based controls. Now we have Wrestlemania XXI and THQ has created a twisted hybrid control system that tries to utilize the good points of the Cube and PS2 controls. Big mistake. This game could have been improved if THQ would have just utilized either the Smackdown or Day of Reckoning...not both. I\'m also a bit unclear how the A.I. got as bad as it did with Wrestlemania XXI. I\'m not sure if THQ was under the impression that Xbox players needed that much help with wrestling games, but that is the only explanation I can come up with. I\'ve played almost every THQ wrestling game available and none of them have had this bad of A.I. For a game that was in development for as long as Wrestlemania XXI, I really can\'t understand how such shaky A.I. got past testers and on the shelves. You\'d think they could have at least made sure you could go Live with the game before it shipped, but that didn\'t happen either. Bravo to THQ for getting a patch out as fast as they did (even if it did erase games), too bad it only opened up the fact that the online play is full of lag and communicator issues. While graphically appealing with great sound and a variety of match styles, Wrestlemania XXI ultimately falls in the same pit as Raw and Raw 2...another sub par wrestling game. It seems that us Xbox players will still be looking to the PS2 and Gamecube games with great envy as it seems Xbox will never have a decent wrestling game. Let\'s just hope THQ can redeem themselves on the Revolution, that is if the players haven\'t lost all faith in THQ by that time.