THQ's new approach brings the best of the old school back to wrestling.

"I don't watch wrestling because I think it's real. I don't watch it because of the quality, subtle storytelling. I don't even pretend to watch it because I'm desperate to see some poor guy bleed all over the mat. I watch wrestling because, when it's done well, it's larger than life. It's as close as I'll ever get to see a comic book jumping off the page. The characters are colorful, dynamic and thrilling. The feuds can rival some of the best in pop culture or sports. That's the feeling that THQ's latest wrestling game, WWE All Stars, captures exquisitely. It's a feeling I haven't felt playing a wrestling game since WWE No Mercy for the Nintendo 64.

Despite their best efforts, the teams responsible for the Smackdown vs. Raw simulation series have failed to capture the excitement of wrestling. Sure, their characters are realistic looking and they have the fireworks and various moves down perfectly, but in trying to recreate the insanity of the WWE, they somehow have missed the fun. All Stars changes all of that. By veering off into exaggerated visuals and by working in a more arcade-style of gameplay, very similar to the old In Your House arcade games, THQ has somehow unlocked the visceral thrill that comes with the best of wrestling's television product. It's seemingly contradictory, but it's impossible to deny.

All Stars operates with the basic idea that less is more. Fundamental control has been pared down to light and heavy melee attacks as well as light and heavy grapples. No doubt that is going to be mighty reassuring to those of you begging for a return to No Mercy's addictive gameplay. This is about as close as you're going to get. As you attack your opponent, you'll be watching three meters. One is your health, which contains multiple layers that progressively deteriorate as you fail to counter or block attacks. The second monitors your ability to execute Signature Moves, devastating and flashy attacks that can quickly turn the tide of a match. The final meter tracks your Finisher Move. As you might imagine, pulling off this maneuver can instantly KO your opponent, though it is also appropriately more challenging to perform.

More important than control is play style. The already exaggerated world of WWE wrestling is amped up far beyond what the superstars could ever hope to achieve. The wrestlers themselves look more like action figures you can buy in stores versus more realistic portrayals. John Cena's relatively simple "Five Knuckle Shuffle" – which is simply a drop to the mat with a fist punch – has become an elaborate, acrobatic feat. A stronger, heavier wrestler can kick a smaller, lighter opponent across the ring – or toss him completely outside of it. Some combatants can jump clear across the ring to attack their opponents. The emphasis isn't on reality but on fast, fun and flashy entertainment. Despite the fact that most might liken the game a bit to No Mercy, in truth it might even be more similar to that game's lesser-known predecessor, WCW/NWO Revenge. It has a more manic, frantic tone, similar to that of a Capcom fighting game. The game is willing to discard a great deal to make sure it never gets lost in details that will slow down the pacing of a match.

Game modes are few but important. There are the typical versus modes as well as modes for online and offline play, but more notable are Path of Champions and Fantasy Warfare. Path of Champions is the game's "Road to Wrestlemania" that allows you to challenge an old school Undertaker (complete with Paul Bearer), Randy Orton or a relatively modern Degeneration-X tag team for championships. Players will have to journey through 10 rounds to get a shot at Wrestlemania to secure their belt. Each storyline opens with a fully-voiced, well-scripted animated introduction by the actual superstars, who challenge you to attempt to take their gold.

There are so many good things in this game, yet it wasn't until THQ fully described and demonstrated Fantasy Warfare to me that I realized the genius of All Stars. Any wrestling fan has wondered what it would be like to see past legends battle current superstars. While a few of those dream match-ups, like The Rock and Hulk Hogan, have happened, many have not. THQ envisioned 15 of those matches for All Stars, and some of them are wilder than even a hardcore fan like myself could imagine. I've certainly wondered how Big Show would fare against the incredible Andre the Giant. But what if the "Stone Cold" Steve Austin stared down the straight-edge master CM Punk? Never in my life had that occurred to me, and the second I saw it displayed on the screen, my mind raced with the awesome potential of that match-up.

The possibilities are endless and certainly enticing, but no doubt you're wondering why I care so much about Fantasy Warfare. Isn't the point of All Stars to see Legends versus Superstars? Couldn't I simply create these matches outside of Fantasy Warfare any time I want? Yes, but THQ thought of that as well, and recruited WWE's own archives team to create PPV-worthy video packages "promoting" the matches. I managed to watch several of these montages and they are truly spectacular. I had never thought of a Punk/Austin feud, but after seeing WWE's promotional efforts, I wish it was possible. Current and former fans of the WWE are going to love this mode and its tribute to what makes wrestling so addicting.

In the end, that's what WWE All Stars is – a tribute to the greatness and spirit of wrestling. What makes it such a surprise though is that it's not slavish attention to detail that makes this game such a thrill. I've never cared if my wrestling game is authentic. I simply want it to be as fun to play as the product can be to watch. Plus it'd be great if all of my friends will enjoy playing it whether they watch the WWE or not. WCW/NWO Revenge and WWE No Mercy did that a decade ago. It looks like we finally have something worthy of that heritage."

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