Never before has a wrestling video game been so anticipated by people who don’t watch wrestling. Now that’s quite a claim to make, but the pre-release hype for WWE All Stars more than backs it up. This is the game touting itself as the anti-Smackdown vs. Raw, as the pro-wrestling version of Street Fighter, and, perhaps most controversially, as a wrestling game for people who don’t like wrestling. It hasn’t taken long for people to take their sides. Some eagerly anticipate it as the return to arcade, coin operated pro-wrestling games, full of exaggerated, over the top, unrealistic silliness, others fearfully await it as the return to arcade, coin operated pro-wrestling games, full of exaggerated, over the top, unrealistic silliness. Either way, opinions are strong, stronger by far than for any Smackdown vs. Raw release as of late. The only question now is, for better or for worse, does it live up to the hype?

The answer? Yeeeeee-sort of.

It’s a frustrating answer, but the most honest one I can give. Will the people who so looked forward to it be disappointed? A little bit. Will the people who wrote it off so quickly be pleasantly surprised? A little bit. Either way, things aren’t as they first seemed.

First thing’s first, what’s the game itself?

It’s actually a confidently stripped back type of game. Modes and match types are very, VERY thin on the ground. Other than one off matches (and a Create A Wrestler which is, you know, a Create A Wrestler, and that’s about as much of a review as I can bring myself to give on it) you have two main types of “story line” style game play. The first, and perhaps most familiar to arcade beat-em-up gamers is the “Path of Champions” mode. This is your traditional arcade game tournament, where you fight foe after foe until you reach the boss at the end. There are three different versions of these, each ending in a title match against a specific “boss”. Aim for the Tag Team Titles, and you’ll be working your way through to a final show down with Degeneration-X, who are more than eager to continuously remind you that they’re the greatest tag team in pro-wrestling history (yeah, I know). Aim for the WWE Title, and your final foe is Randy Orton, whilst, if you aim for the World Heavyweight Title, you’ll end up challenging the Undertaker (which is worth playing if only for the fantastic Paul Bearer cameo in the opening video). You can play through all three with any character you want, and, obviously, with the Tag Title storyline, you make up a tag team. In the WWE and World Heavyweight stories, you face a variety of different match types; hardcore matches, cage matches, triple threat matches, and this feature alone is perhaps enough to set it apart from the tag team mode, which sees you only ever taking part in one type of match; Tornado tag matches (more on that later).

The other main mode of play is the “Fantasy Warfare” mode. Here, you’re presented with a series of superstar vs. legend showdowns, were you pick which wrestler to play as, and then fight your way through, unlocking further fantasy matches, arenas, wrestlers and outfits (including the greatness of 80’s afro Andre the Giant). The matches are all pretty cleverly thought out as matches between past and present equivalents of each other. You’ve got the obvious match ups, like the “Perfectly Awesome” (their joke, not mine) show-down between the Miz and Mr. Perfect, as well as some slightly dubious choices, like the battle of for best high flyer between Rey Mysterio Jr. and Eddie Guerrero (which is made extra weird due to Rey being taller than Eddie, and Rey wearing his EG black armbands) , and some actually pretty imaginative would-be-feuds, like the fight for the “Superior Lifestyle” between CM Punk and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Perhaps the most fun part of this mode comes from WWE’s production team earning themselves yet another shiny gold star by putting together some incredible video packages to the two guys feature, culminating and a very clever “promo”, which is really made up of clips from several promos cut together. Okay, that last part might sound a little bit lame, but it really isn’t, and the CM Punk / Stone Cold fake-promo is especially smile inducing.

Other than those two story modes, you’ve, of course, got your standard exhibition mode. Now, this is a part that’s going to lose some fans. The variety of match types is thin. Really, really thin. You’ve got one on one, of course, cage, hardcore, handicap, tornado tag, elimination triple threat and elimination fatal four way. That’s your lot. Now, that might sound like an insult, but it’s not. It’s actually commendable that THQ have chosen to throw out all the other gimmicky nonsense and try it’s best to perfect a particular style of game, which is, effectively, just a beat-em-up, but, if you’re the type who likes horrible, glitchy, endless ladder matches, or crudely rendered computer generated women stripping each other, then you’ll be disappointed, but, frankly, that’s a good thing. You deserve to be disappointed.

So there are your modes. You have noticed already that a pattern is emerging, and that pattern is the very heavy emphasis on just one thing; the singles match. The choice to make all tag matches tornado tag, and the choice to make all multi-man matches elimination continues that trend. Even when you’re playing a tag match, you feel as though you’re just playing two separate singles matches. And what’s wrong with that? Well, nothing actually. The singles match is what made the world of pro-wrestling great, but, more importantly, it’s what made the world of pro-wrestling GAMES great. Which takes us on to the next point, the matches themselves.

Now, I haven’t played Smackdown vs. Raw game in a good long time, so I’m not too sure what their control set up is like, but the control for WWE All Stars struck me as very, very… No Mercy-y. In case you’ve never played No Mercy, that means you should be smiling right now. The control system is very simple, and very easy to learn. You’ve got you’re four main buttons (ABXY for X-Box, the shapes for PS3, you know the drill); two for striking (strong and weak) and two for grappling (strong and weak). Once in a grapple, you press another button of your choice and, depending on the type of grapple you’re in, you perform a move. It’s that simple, and it really, REALLY works. The reversal system is another example of successful simplicity. For each move, there’s a window of opportunity to press a button and reverse the move, but, the window’s VERY small, and the weaker you are, the smaller it gets (and, of course, the weaker your opponent is, the bigger it gets). Press the button at the right time, and you reverse the move, don’t and you… well… don’t! Finishers are equally simple. When your momentum is at full capacity, knock your opponent down, hold down two trigger buttons, and boom, there’s your finisher (if your momentum bar isn’t full, you can still use the two button system to full of a signature move, although doing so sacrifices a bit of momentum).

Also streamlined are the actually ends of matches. Submissions? What submissions!? Go back to Canada. This is old school WWF (you heard me Vince), and here, we pin people. Actually, there IS a pin button, but, to be honest, you won’t find yourself using it too much. Each wrester has a health bar, and, when yours is empty, you’re “Knocked Out”, which results in you having to suffer the humiliation of a post-match sequence showing you being pinned in a particularly disrespectful way (foot on the chest, Scott Steiner style pinning press ups…). The result of that aspect is that it continues to reinforce the idea that you’re playing a beat-em-up, not a wrestling game, which, in my opinion, is exactly what this game wants you to think.

That’s all by the by though, there’s only one thing you really care about isn’t there? The roster. It’s what made people interested in the first place, and it’s what kept them interested afterwards and ooooooooooooooooooh it’s a grand old roster indeed. The lack of WCW or ECW talent is disappointing, but the perfect mix of Golden Era legends like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and Andre the Giant, Attitude Era icons like the Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Bret Hart, future Hall of Famers, like Triple H, the Undertaker and John Cena, and even a few stars of the future, like Drew McIntyre, John Morrison and the Miz more than makes up for it. There’s something in that roster for, genuinely, every generation of wrestling fan out there.

This being a beat-em-up, that roster isn’t just for show either, and each wrestler plays a little differently. Of course, there’s different move sets, which will please even the geekiest of ~MOVES fans (CM Punk pulling off the Welcome To Chicago Motherf*cker drew an actual, out load “YES!” from me), but there’s also a nod to the beat-em-up world of character types and classes, and, in this game, you get four; Acrobats, like Rey Mysterio and Ricky Steamboat (who are extra fast, extra accurate, and have special springboard moves, but suffer from low health), Big Men like Andre the Giant and the Big Show (who have super hard strikes, and are hard to knock down, but are slow to move around the ring), Grapplers, like Bret Hart and… Edge? Really? Okay, like Bret Hart and Edge (who are harder to reverse and have special pins) and Brawlers, like Hulk Hogan and John Cena (who are hard to block, and have longer, more powerful striking combos than other characters)

Another aspect, apart from the roster, that bought people to the game is the look of it and, yeah, it does look lovely. The collision detection is actually pretty much spot on. There’s no glitch jerking around the ring and magically teleporting into position like in so many other wrestling games, and the exaggerated bumps are, at times, genuinely beautiful to watch, as wrestlers go flipping and flying into the air like acrobats, all the while with ridiculous over emotional expressions on their faces and coloured light streaming out from behind them as lighting, colour and the speed of time itself shifts and warps with them. But then, then you start to look a little bit closer, at the actual graphics.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is no N64 game or anything, the graphics are fine, but there are flaws. The odd blurred line here, the occasional pixelated circle there, you start to notice it, and then you start to notice it EVERYWHERE and it can become a little bit annoying after a while, as you notice all the fuzzy edges and flat surfaces, and stop paying attention to all the lovely flippy moves. But, fickle being that you are, soon enough you’ll forget it, and your attention will be drawn back to floppiness. Ah, the lovely, soothing flippness… but for how long?

Annoyingly, I can’t answer that, and I actually think it’s one of the most important questions about WWE All Stars. You see, I’ve wasted your time really. If thought you’d like the games beat-em-up, over the top silliness, you will, if you thought you’d like the classic roster, you will, if you thought you’d hate the cartoonishness of it, you will. I said that it only sort of lived up to the hype, and I mean that, because, for better or for worse, people’s expectations were right, the roster is excellent, the gameplay is arcade-like, the wrestling is cartoonish, the realism is non-existant, but, for all the hype this game received, it seems that very little of it was actually about the game itself. It’s a game with a very clear vision; the return of the arcade wrestling game (a vision made even clearer by the release of arcade style game sticks with the game that, whilst perhaps a little cumbersome, perfectly captured that coin-op feel and are a must for any arcade enthusiast), but, through that vision, it’s limited itself. Now, limits aren’t bad things. It’s saved itself from the unconfident, erratic attempts to please everyone that the Smackdown vs. Raw games have made for so long, but, at the same time, it’s doomed itself to only ever be one sort of game. I said earlier that it was a clear theme, but it should be said again, WWE All Star IS singles matches, and the second you get bored of singles matches, no matter how strong the roster, no matter how beautiful the art direction, no matter how perfected the controls, you WILL get bored of WWE All Stars. But yet, at the same time, the world of pro-wrestling was built on the singles match, and we haven’t got bored of that yet either.

Points: 8 / 10

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