For the last decade, THQ has had as firm a grip on the wrestling game market as the WWE has had on the source material. Of course, there's some competition for both these giants, but when you look at the books, the winners are clear. As acclaimed as the perennial SmackDown vs. Raw titles are, however, THQ is doing the smart thing and not taking its success for granted. Professional wrestling has a lot of stories to tell and a variety of audiences to entertain, so WWE All Stars has burst through the curtain to claim its shot.
The game addresses two issues right off the bat. Those unable to get into SvR because of its pacing or roster will find a lot to dazzle them in WWE All Stars.
If the first thing you do in a wrestling game is go about unlocking Legends like Hulk Hogan and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, you will be delighted with the line-up here. Not only are there fifteen Legends on the card (ten available initially and five to unlock), both "Macho Man" Randy Savage and the Ultimate Warrior are here to streamroll the opposition. Considering the working relationships both these icons have, just seeing them in a WWE game again is refreshing and a coup.
WWE All Stars is one wrestling game you can whip out at a party and get everyone to play.
In fact a lot of classic entertainers from past games are in. You can have a WWF Superstars/Wrestlefest arcade reunion with Hogan, Savage, the Warrior, Sgt. Slaughter, Mr. Perfect, Andre the Giant, Jake "The Snake" Roberts - and names like "The Million Dollar" Man and the Road Warriors as downloadable content. Similar to the Showdown: Legends of Wrestling series from years back, the athletes are portrayed in an exaggerated style befitting what they're known for. Hulk Hogan's "24-inch pythons" never looked bigger and Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka never soared higher. Add in the fifteen current-generation superstars and you have a roster that has never been matched for sheer star power.
But I hope only your taste in wrestlers, not your reflexes, skews old, because you need to bring your A-game. Just as exaggerated as the wrestlers' looks are their power and speed. The action takes place at a breakneck pace, particularly in tag matches, triple threats, and four way dances. As Gorilla Monsoon used to say, "There are no time-outs in professional wrestling," and nowhere is that more evident than in a typical WWE All Stars match. Your competition will stay on you like The Rock on a jabroni, so don't even think of letting down your guard. You aren't even allowed to pause the game in online bouts, so there's an adrenaline high like being thrown to the lions with a steak around your neck.
As in the real deal, though, you can come back from the brink of defeat if you play it right. In only my second game ever, I was playing as the Hulkster in a triple threat against Andre the Giant and the Undertaker. They decided to double-team me, but I activated my finisher at just the right time, flew into the air with a leg drop, and took them both out with one shot! It was exhilirating, and I was awarded with an Achievement for winning with zero health left in reserve.
WWE All Stars is built on moments like these. It's the digital equivalent of what wrestling fans call a "spotfest": one arena-shaking move after the other is unleashed until only one of the parties is left standing. There is strategy involved, but it's the type you use in a fighting game. Most of the time, you are either going in for the kill or laying back and picking your spots while everyone else goes at it. There are two strike buttons and two grapple buttons that can be used in conjunction with a press of a direction, a special charge strike, a charge grapple (the same for everyone), and one finisher and up to four signature moves per wrestler. These special moves are what's going to get most of the attention. They are highly exaggerated and flashy, and they really give the game its flavor.
Wrestlers are divided into four categories: big men, brawlers, acrobats, and grapplers - kind of like how Street Fighter has Shoto and charge characters. (Maybe a stretch, but I do want to get accross that this feels a lot more like a fighting game than you might expect.) Brawlers and big men are able to store up the charge punch if it misses, acrobats can use the ropes in unique ways, and grapplers can string together moves with whirlwind precision, so there is some variety in how to best approach a match. Of course, giants like The Big Show and Kane can absorb a lot more punishment than the highfliers, but they can't make some of the crazy jumps in the ring and to the outside. Speaking of the outside, falls count anywhere, adding to the fighting game feel.
Exhibition modes include options for up to four players, with elimination bouts, handicap matches, tornado tag team action, and the dreaded steel cage - though it's not the classic blue grid cage of old. There are no announce tables for whatever reason, but there are some chairs laying around under the ring and there is a garbage can filled with baseball bats and crutches for extreme rules matches. Of course, there is no blood.
There is also no career mode, but there are two alternatives. The Path of Champions presents three mini story modes of ten matches apiece. One features a Legends gauntlet for the right to face the Undertaker for the belt, one has you fighting Superstars (current wrestlers) for the right to face Randy Orton, and one is a tag team affair culminating in a match with D-Generation X over the mantle of best tag team of all time. These Path modes each include multiple cut scenes that feel very authentic. The Undertaker and Paul Bearer appear in Funeral Parlor style segments, Orton cuts promos about how great he is, and DX breaks out its typical schtick. These segments are all voiced by the original entertainers and were obviously put together with great care by talented 3D animators.
Fantasy Warfare, on the other hand, features actual footage from WWE, WCW, and the AWA. You fight through a series of matches, Legend versus Superstar, to decide the best in fifteen categories. To start, you can play as either The Ultimate Warrior or Sheamus for the title of "Greatest Warrior" against either the computer or a human opponent. Part of the fun is looking at the locked categories and trying to guess who the competitors will be before you actually unlock the match. Before each contest a short WWE-style cinema plays, complete with the authentic voice-over talent. ("At Wrestlemania, only one man . . .," etc. You know the guy.) The video setting up Steve Austin against C.M. Punk in a "Superior Lifestyle" match was a standout for me, building up a contest that will never take place but would make a lot of sense (and money) if it did. At one point, Punk and Austin looked like they were addressing one another directly, but because it was done sparingly, it never got cheesy.
Create-a-wrestler is included, and it turns out to be about as deep as I expected. There are a good number of faces, hairstyles, and accessories to choose from, and you have the requisite sliders to adjust the finer aspects like nostril width, eye angle, chin depth, etc. I was able to make an A+ version of the wrestler I always create in these titles, but since he wears kind of a garish get-up, I don't know how well you'll be able to make a realistic version of your favorite real-life stars. The worst part of create-a-wrestler is the fact that in a game that is so otherwise ready to play, you have to go through a ridiculous ordeal to unlock all the finishing moves. (You have to pick a moveset and a finisher from among those in the game. Besides picking a finisher separately, there is no way to edit your wrestler's move list.) And did I mention that to unlock alternate outfits for a pre-made wrestler, you have to beat a Path of Champions with him? That means to unlock the second costume for each of the thirty wrestlers, you will have to win 300 matches!
But overall, WWE All Stars is slick, from the gut-crushing specials to the way regular moves flow together in unexpected ways. It's fun and fluid, awesome and authentic, from the video clips to the entrance music. It's one wrestling game you can whip out at a party and get everyone to play.
See also our review of the WWE All Stars controllers from Mad Catz.