Wrestling just ain't good anymore. Back in the late Eighties and early Nineties, it was eminently watchable. The Four Horseman, Andre the Giant, World Class Championship Wrestling, the AWA - those were the times, by gum! Back when you were pretty sure it was all fixed, but you hoped it was authentic. When the press still pretended that the wrestlers actually hated one another. War Games, the Mulkeys, the real "Rock," scaffold matches, Piper's Pit, on and on and on. Remember when one of the major wrestling shows (WCW Saturday Night) was still broadcast out of a dinky television studio and fans were thisclose to the mayhem?
I think I reached my quota of specialized references (and sentence fragments) quite a while ago, so those of you who are still with me probably want to hear about Legends of Wrestling II. Okay, let me pause the Best of Starrcade tape and we can get started.
Love of the sport or inability to score a licensing deal?
Ooh, I see Scott Steiner! And isn't that Eddie Guerrero? A smattering of current WWE talent can be found here - namely those who weren't under contract with Titan Sports when Acclaim came calling - but the roster heavily leans toward names whose glory days are well in the past.
Just about everyone from the first Legends game is back and more have been added, so in addition to Hulk Hogan and all the von Erichs (why, why, why?), you can now get down and dirty with Baron von Raschke, the Rock & Roll Express, and Andy Kaufman. The nearly seventy real-life wrestlers look great for the most part, rendered in a moderately deformed way that is meant to give the characters a timeless, larger-than-life quality. Long-time fans will be able to identify most competitors at a glance, but some, like Rick Steiner, look a little off.
The action takes place in a variety of settings, from high school gyms to huge arenas. The smaller venues in a particular go a long way towards recreating the "sport"'s underlying grittiness. It's not all limousines and pyrotechnics, you know. Wrestling staples like the ladder match, steel cage, and battle royal are here and are represented well. Those who don't give a care about the old-timers will still find a decent engine to work with, one that is deep enough and different enough from the current WWE crop to deserve extended play.
"He doesn't know the difference between a wristlock and a wristwatch."
As a wrestling game, Legends II is a mild flop. It represents an improvement over the more plodding first installment, but it is not enough. The only major standout is the excellent career mode, which contains so many different scenarios that you would probably have to play 100 hours plus to experience them all. These range from "George 'The Animal' Steele heard that you are unkind to animals and he wants to beat you up" to "Win your matches or your Italian stereotype promoter will rub you out" to "My nephew wants to be a wrestler – take him under your wing," and each hosts several cut scenes and matches building up to the title bout. (Career mode is for one player only.)
Unfortunately, even if you unlock a wrestler by beating the career mode, you still have to buy him from the "Store." This is particularly unfortunate because you can only earn one type of coin to use in purchases and must gamble to earn the other two types. Fifteen wrestlers and managers, a number of costumes and arenas, several abilities and cheats, and all six of the promoters (created specifically for the game) are only available if you purchase them. The gambling mini-game is one of the biggest slaps in the face I have seen in a game in a long time. You place a bet on a checkerboard square, watch the squares turn red in a random pattern, and try to stop the red indicator when it is under a square you bet on. It is an excruciatingly slow and thoroughly unenjoyable way to handle unlockables, and if the programmers thought they were helping to break the monotony with a mini game, they really should pull themselves away from Solitaire and get out more.
Executing basic moves is a simple affair. Strikes and quick attacks require a single button press, with extra moves available with an accompanying up/down or left/right press on the D-pad. The Circle button initiates a grapple. From there you can press one of the face buttons to position your opponent one of four ways from the front or spin him around and put him in one of three intermediary positions from the rear. A subsequent button press performs the move. Sometimes this can set up a chain of timed button presses that maneuvers the opponent into a submission or pinning predicament.
A meter under the wrestler's name displays the window of opportunity to perform a combo or reversal. The timing on such moves varies, as does the button used. Hence, a more experienced player has a definite advantage.
Just like the in-ring contest, the action outside the ropes is passable, but not as good as it could be. There are no backstage areas and there is no fighting on the stage or in the audience. A wrestler can obtain two weapons from each side of the ring to use in bloodying his rival. Each wrestler has an affinity for one particular type of weapon and can use it in a special combo attack. Managers stay at ringside and can also be involved in a match.
The pacing is faster than it was in the original, effectively neutralizing one of the biggest complaints people had about the franchise. No one would honestly characterize the gameplay as silky smooth, but things are definitely looking up.
"Make me a superstar!"
The other major sticking point players had with the first Legends of Wrestling was with its abysmal create-a-wrestler. There was a grand total of one face from which to choose and not much variety in the other elements. Ugh! I wonder how many fans egg-bombed the developer's offices over that one?
There are some improvements in the sequel, but not nearly enough. Most of the features aren't too aesthetically appealing or useful, and again you cannot utilize the components of the wrestlers already in the game. That means if you don't like any of Bret Hart's four costumes, you won't be able to pop into the Create-a-Legend and tweak his look. No, you'll just have to try and piece together a "Hitman"-ish character and comb his hair over his eyes so no one notices he looks more like Don Knotts than Bret Hart. And Heaven forbid you change your mind too much, because after a point you will be forced to start from the beginning. The PS2 and Xbox versions allow you to create custom art work in a simple image-editing environment, which nice for fine-tuning, but no substitute for extra textures.
The move selection is modest, but not sparse. Unfortunately, the developers must not have had the whole list ready when they created the Legends, because everyone in the game and his damn brother seems to have the Stone Cold Stunner and/or the double-underhook piledriver. If I could change one thing outside the Create-a-Legend - which needs an amazing amount of work, it would be adding more realistic move sets for the wrestlers. Watch a few highlight tapes! I understand the need to flesh out move lists, but try to stick to moves a wrestler would realistically conceive of doing. (The sight of a Hulk Hogan reverse hurricanrana is hilarious the first few times, but inappropriate.) And mix it up some more. Again, the situation is not as bad as it was in the first game, so I have high hopes for Legends III. Make no mistake, this series has a lot of potential.
Of course, the WWE owns the majority of the wrestlers' custom entrance music, so don't expect to boogie down to "Real American" or even "Steinerized." Jimmy Hart was brought in to do exactly what he did in WCW: make a slew of sound-alike tracks ("Hey, isn't that Nirvana?" "No, it's not!"), and they are relatively inoffensive. There is some laughably bad modern metal (complete with lyrics) that plays during matches, but talking about it makes my ears ring, so nevermind.
The game is slightly glitchy, and I have had an illegal man go for the pin in a tag match and get stuck there, holding the opponent down stubbornly. Having to reset the game for that magnitude of programming sloppiness is quite frustrating, as you would imagine. I say this not so much to dissuade you from buying the game, but as my way of lodging a complaint. Legends is certainly no glitchier than the floating-chair-heavy Wrestlemania X8.
Another downside worth mentioning is the lack of three- and four-player support for both cage and ladder matches. Maybe drawing that chain link is a lot more processor-heavy than it looks.
Is that a thumbs-up or is he going for the Asian Spike?
So the game mechanics are rough and the create-a-wrestler is weak. Why bother buying it?
Well, if your idea of top-notch wrestling is Triple H ascending to the ring apron and spitting water into his own face (think about it), then you are far better off with SmackDown 4. If the wrestling here were on par with Giant Gram 2000, I'd say go for it, but it's not polished enough yet.
The real treasure here is for the old-school wrestling fan. Not because you can easily recreate some classic feuds, because with SmackDown 4 and one of those game-save devices you could quickly set up any of these feuds – and have them feel more authentic. The move lists in Legends skirt the edges of absurdity. No, the attempt at paying homage to the greats by remaking them as polygons with attitude is much appreciated, but it is not the new technology, but the old personalities that steal the show.
The PS2 and Xbox versions (that is, not the GameCube version) contain a couple of dozen of exclusive five-minute interviews featuring some of the Legends in the game. Almost every one of them speaks out of character and drops interesting anecdotes about the business. Some of the speeches are revealing and all are worth watching if you have an interest in the men behind the caricatures. At the end of each piece, each wrestler gets back in character and speaks to the camera, just to pump you up for the game. The Legend interviews are a five-star addition to a two-and-a-half star game. Can you say "saving grace"?
"Just when you think you got all the answers, I change the questions."
With the money you would spend on a couple of boring pay-per-view events, you can buy Legends of Wrestling II and an nWo T-shirt. With a group of friends over, you can't go wrong, and even when they leave there is enough here to keep you playing awhile. The worst that'll happen is you'll develop an intense aversion to gambling. It could be worse.
· · · Nick