Developer: THQ San Diego / Publisher: THQ / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Teen (Alcohol Reference, Mild Language, Violence)
Revisiting childhood monuments is always disappointing. The tubes at Showbiz Pizza (I refuse to recognize the hostile takeover of one Charles E. Cheese) are tiny and short, playground slides are like six inches long, and the Super Mario Bros Super Show is truly awful. Those reared on live pro wrestling have similar experiences when revisiting via modern games. The dedication to realism in modern wrestling games doesn’t echo the larger-than-life personas that imprint any young mind.
Well, in WWE All Stars, you can grab a guy by the throat, lift him with one hand, and throw him across the whole ring, causing a shockwave of energy when he lands on the mat. WWE All Stars is the NBA Jam of wrestling, and it’s about damn time we had one.
Gameplay and Controls
Being a wrestling game, the goal of any match is to run wild on your opponent, weakening them until you can either pin them for a three-count, eliminate them with a crazy finisher, or (in a cage match) stun them so you can escape the ring. You inflict damage with a recognizable template of moves. Every fighter has strong and weak versions of strikes and grapples, with stronger attacks tied with longer windup animations. Some fighters can even combo these moves together, linking strikes to grapples or grapples into other grapples.
Using these moves in combat combines rock-paper-scissors balance and reaction speed. If you expect an opponent will try to grab you, you can start throwing out quick strikes to swat him out of the animation. Of course, those strikes can be blocked or even countered if properly timed, so the game is all about reading and predicting moves. The game also provides opportunities to counter out of extended moves, which means you’re never just watching your wrestler get dominated. Counters can be countered, which results in some crazy animations. I once had two wrestlers flip over and over each other like a human Ferris wheel across the ring, countering each other back and forth.
But don’t think you’ll be countering like an ace from the start. The lack of any tutorial will make your formative moments frustrating. The computer totally wrecked me for a few matches while I constantly checked the in-game control layout. The manual doesn’t offer too much help either, and only experimentation and experience will get you to a happy spot with the controls. Once you’re there, though, the game is a blast. The mechanics are well-crafted and afford the smarter wrestler the advantage.
The game’s roster appears ample at first glance, with a cast equally drawn from the “Legends” of the ’80s and the “Superstars” of today. All the big names are present: Roddy Piper, Hulk Hogan, Mr. Perfect, John Cena, etc. However, these characters all fit into one of four classes: Grappler, Brawler, Big Man, and Acrobat. Characters in a class have similar movesets, which means that Eddie Guerrero plays nearly identically to Rey Mysterio. Each fighter has unique special attacks, but mechanically speaking, the game’s roster is four fighters deep with a variety of skins. Don’t take this to be a complaint, though, as this arrangement gives the best of both worlds to those not looking for an incredibly deep wrestling game. With a familiar control template, you have the freedom to pick your favorite wrestler and still bust out awesome moves.
WWE All Stars offers some diversions for the single player, but make no mistake, this is a party game. Path of Champions is the most substantial, running you through ten pre-set matches to ultimately confront a champion. The callout videos that play between matches in this mode are amusing (Paul Bearer is always hilarious), but with only three Path of Champions available, there’s not a lot of meat on the bone here.
Aside from that, you can run through Fantasy Warfare, which pits old against new to answer bragging rights questions of whether Eddie Gurrero could take down Rey Mysterio. Full real-life video vignettes accompany these matches and serve as mini-documentaries for some of wrestling’s bigger personalities. I particularly enjoyed the “Perfectly Awesome” match which set Mr. Perfect’s ego against The Miz’s awesomeness. Fans will appreciate their inclusion, because let’s face it, it’s never a bad time to see video of The Ultimate Warrior screaming his head off.
And that’s pretty much it for single-player, aside from pounding the AI in custom matches. While this is obviously a multiplayer-focused arcade experience (yet more hearkening to NBA Jam), an over-the-top single-player story mode would’ve matched the game’s sensibilities perfectly. You know what I mean; one of those cheesy ’80s-style tales of betrayal, surprise allegiances, and hell, maybe a superpower here or there. Alas, stomping on your friend’s nuts over and over again will have to suffice.
Getting to the nut stomping is a breeze, regardless if you’re doing it online of off. A series of menus allows you to customize your match and the conditions for victory. The offerings here aren’t absurd in quantity, but they work well enough with the game’s solid mechanics to offer a few hours of arcade style fun at a time. Latency can be an issue with Internet play, especially given the narrow counter timings, but I was able to counter moves I saw coming after a bit of adjustment.
Graphics and Sound
With near-grotesquely muscled fighters, WWE All Stars has a fantastic style that sets it apart from any wrestler to date. The game is all about the pomp and caricature of wrestling, and the animation and character design echo that perfectly. Seriously, these guys are so huge you can’t imagine some of them being able to tie their own shoes or scratch their backs.
That makes it all the more hilarious to see these guys tossing each other 40 feet into the air. Animation during fights is impressively smooth. While most wrestling games suffer from that inhuman stutter when one attack animation links to another, such visual hitches are near impossible to find in this game. For instance, if someone’s running at you, and you hit grapple, your character will naturally switch from the normal grab animation to locking up with the running player and toss him overhead. Some hit detection jank emerges when diving into a pile of wrestlers, but seeing muscle-bound fighters explode into the air is so delightful there’s no time to be annoyed.
On the sound front, all wrestlers come with their respective themes. Hilariously, the older wrestlers also come with their legacy themes. If you haven’t heard Hulk Hogan’s “I am a Real American,” you owe yourself a YouTube link. Sound effects do a great job reinforcing the ludicrous moves. Wrestlers produce earth-shattering bangs when they hit the mat, which makes that business sound like it really hurts. The announcer quips are less enjoyable, frequently spouting generic phrases to add white noise behind matches.
If you’ve found yourself underwhelmed by the lack of grandeur in other wrestling games, WWE All Stars is where you belong. Like NBA Jam, the game will not send you into another world for hours at a time or offer a profound single-player experience. It will, however, let you toss your friend twenty feet in the air and then stomp on his balls. While that’s certifiably awesome, bear in mind that you will need a buddy on the couch next to you to experience this game to its fullest.