Preview by Nick Vlamakis (Email) February 14th 2011
Professional wrestling has traditionally had a split personality. At first glance, it presents itself as a competition among athletes, but it eventually grows apparent that its real business is spectacle. In fact, the grappling has become an increasingly marginalized part of the flashy, trashy whole. Pro wrestling is about drama, pyrotechnics, and - at times, superheroes that walk among us.
No one has done more to move wrestling from an extended exchange of hammerlocks and full nelsons to a rapid-fire sideshow of thuggish fantasy more than has the WWE. While it found its initial mainstream success as the World Wrestling Federation, it is now World Wrestling Entertainment - a reflection both of a trademark lawsuit and of the preference of its driving force, Vince McMahon, Jr., to downplay the wrestling part and just call the whole thing "sports entertainment."
WWE All Stars is the wrestling game equivalent of an Impressionist masterpiece.
So if the goal is to draw you in and amuse you with the antics of giants, con men, "babyfaces," and "heels," how does it play as a game? Right now, the dominant brand is THQ's SmackDown vs. Raw series, which tries to balance a deep system of holds and counterholds with soap-opera plots, death-defying lunges off tall ladders, and sick impacts from sledgehammers and flaming tables.
But even with how polished SvR is, there is still a story not being told. SvR sees wrestling as a teen or adult might: you make decisions about stats, feuds, how to best position your opponent, etc. It's all very rewarding, sure, but I'll bet most of us were initially drawn to wrestling because of its wow factor. Where else outside comic books could you see these costumed freaks, oversized in both physical stature and force of personality, repeatedly clash until only one side remained standing?
WWE All Stars is the wrestling game equivalent of an Impressionist masterpiece, the result of THQ deciding to emphasize the "entertainment" in sports entertainment. WWE heroes from Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior to The Rock and Triple H are portrayed not only as they look to the eye, but also how feel to a dazzled young mind. Rippling muscles, spectacular entrances, forceful personalities, and bone-rattling moves combine to create something much more than the sum of its parts. To a kid, it feels like John Cena can lift anything, throw anyone, overcome any odds. Well, the WWE All Stars version definitely looks like he can. As the game's creative director, Sal Divita, puts it, it's "exaggerated reality."
Now, the nerdier among you might have paused for a second when I mentioned Divita. Some might be familiar with him in connection with Mortal Kombat, but a few of you might also recognize him as the head producer of Midway's 1995 WrestleMania: The Arcade Game. That was another attempt to tweak the standard wrestling title, but don't worry if it left a bad taste in your mouth, because we're in a whole different arena now.
WWE All Stars is built on a system of quick grapples, strong grapples, strikes, and combos. It features a timing-based counter and reversal system, just like the SmackDown series and others before it. So while it boasts intuitive, arcade-style controls, juggles, and screen-filling finishing moves, you aren't going to have the Undertaker shooting out bats and no one's going to cry out "Finish him!" (or "Pin him!", "Pin him!", "PIN HIM!", as in the WrestleMania game). Remember, this is all about the spectacle of the WWE. If you're a fan, you'll like the wrestlers in All Stars for the same reason you like their real-life counterparts, just . . . more.
Andre the Giant was huge. In WWE All Stars, he's positively humongous. The Rock was known for his explosive punches. In this game, he can knock his opponent clear across the ring, into the ropes, and back into his next punch. Rey Misterio is a high-flier, but he soars as lightly as a feather and as precisely as a laser here. You get the idea. No one's really inventing powers for the wrestlers, they're just amping what's there way the heck up.
We don't know everything about the game yet, but it's promising. Each wrestler will be based in one of four distinct classes: acrobat, big man, brawler, and grappler. These provide the core characteristics that the developers built on to make each unique personality come to life. That doesn't mean that all the acrobats will play the same or that once you've seen one brawler you've seen them all. What the classes do is lay some common groundwork and base attributes, and they also spark some interesting what-ifs. Who's the greatest giant, the best technician, etc.?
It appears that the career mode will also be built around such a question, as you can choose the Legends side or the Superstars side and play through a succession of battles to determine who the best really are. The proceedings are helped along by the kind of video packages the WWE truly excels at creating. The developers are counting on the combination of amazing action, slick presentation, emotional investment, and the unparalleled roster ("Macho Man" is quite a coup for a modern WWE game) to push WWE All Stars to the main event.