Wrestling games have always struck me as something quite tricky to pull off. Creating a dynamic and exciting game out of a form of entertainment which is as carefully choreographed as a ballroom dance can’t be easy, and a few previous WWE titles have suffered slightly from trying to keep the action fluid while including a range of holds, throws and other grappling moves. The issue with WWE as a sport is that everything moves so quickly and seamlessly, but only as a direct result of each fight being scripted; make each fight genuine and most of the “special” moves would be too slow and wouldn’t even come close to working successfully.
So here we are, with THQ releasing WWE All Stars and taking a very different direction to recent Smackdown vs Raw titles. Instead of aiming to be a wrestling simulator, All Stars instead takes a much more casual approach and mixes brilliant character styling with accessible gameplay to land itself firmly at the feet of anyone looking for a less realistic and more over-the-top wrestling experience. And it’s this styling that you’ll notice almost immediately. After a lengthy install on the PS3 version, you eventually land at the main menu where the action-figure graphical style is immediately apparent. Go further and select your fighters for a match and you’ll notice that every wrestler has received the same treatment. If you’re not expecting it then it’ll probably take you a bit by surprise, but spend a few minutes and you’ll soon find that it not only looks great but in context it seems right. Using realistic player models wouldn’t work with everything else being so over the top and playable.
So you fire up a match from one of the many game modes available and having spent a bit of time getting to know the main controls the real fun begins. Instead of the myriad of complicated button combinations needed for certain moves or each wrestler having their own required button combos, All Stars brings everything back to basics by assigning 2 strengths of punch and throw to the main controller buttons and allowing the shoulder buttons to deal with the other functions such as running, pins and finishing moves. It’s a very easy set of controls to get the hang of, and with the same controls used for every wrestler you needn’t spend weeks trying to perfect each individual character one by one. There are also more advanced moves available that are slightly trickier to pull off but more effective, so randomly mashing buttons against a more skilled player won’t get you very far and you’ll soon fall foul of various counter attacks and more powerful special moves. Luckily, such skills aren’t too hard to pick up and you’ll be able to counter your fair share of throws to give your opponent a bit of a surprise with a well timed tap of L1, although it’s worth pointing out that timing here is definitely key – just hammering the counter button won’t do anything useful. It’s a very well thought out and developed control scheme which only takes a few minutes to get the hang of but will still give you plenty to learn if you want to stand any chance against the tougher opponents.
As mentioned earlier, the difficulty with wrestling titles is the fluidity. By dropping a chunk of the realism out of the game THQ have managed to make the fighters very responsive, and on the whole you always feel like you’re in control of what’s going on. If you attempt a heavy throw and mess it up, you know you’ll have left yourself open for an attack. If you pile in with punches which get blocked, you can expect a thump back for your troubles. There are odd moments when your wrestler seems to face in slightly the wrong direction and miss a throw while standing right next to your opponent, and some moves still take a loooong time (climbing onto the turnbuckle springs to mind) but generally everything feels nice and responsive and it’s unusual to feel like the game has cheated you out of a win.
Before and during a fight the visual effects used set it apart from it’s “realistic” counterparts more than any other aspect of the game. Special moves are hugely exaggerated and are met with a gorgeous change in colours, with the screen fading into monochrome (or gold if it’s a finishing move) while the two wrestlers fly across the screen in a blur of colours. During these special moves every jump, reaction and after-effect is totally over the top with characters bouncing several metres into the air, or jumping half way up to the arena’s roof before crashing down with, or onto, their opponent. It looks fantastic, and makes those tricky to execute special moves even more satisfying to pull off and all the more painful to suffer from.
The line-up of wrestlers available is impressive in its variety, and includes a decent number of popular wrestlers including the Rock, Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker. Each have their signature music intact which gets played when you win a match and during the pre-match introductions, which seem to take longer to load than the actual entrances themselves. In fact loading times are a bit of an issue all round, and there are times when a quick game or two ends up with you waiting almost as long as you end up playing. It’s not the worst I’ve ever seen, but it’s annoying. It’s probably made worse by the fact that each time you load the game up it seems intent on caching a bucket-load of data from the hard drive which takes a fair while before you even get to the main menu. Odd.
There are a few ways to play the game, but it’s clear to see they’ve been tailored squarely at an arcade-style audience. There’s your usual single match option which gives you the option of several types of fight (cage match, extreme rules, tag team and so on), on top of that is Path of Champions which gives you a series of ten fights leading up to big battles against some of the biggest WWE stars, and Fantasy Warfare which drops you into a classic fight between a legend and a current superstar – win these and you’ll unlock some extra outfits to fight with. There aren’t many of them, only 15 in fact, and considering there seems to be quite a bit of build up to each one it would have been nice to have more of these but they’re good fun while they last.
Finally, there’s the obligatory create-a-star mode. By now most gamers expect to be able to create a digital copy of themselves in sport titles and take themselves to the top of the tree whether it’s a football, boxing, tennis or anything else. Sadly, this is a bit of a let down in All Stars. You create your character from a handful of preset faces, body shapes, clothes and so on which offers variety overall but little in the way of customisation that we’re used to by now. As an example you pick from a face and that’s it, you can’t redefine the features as you can in most other games. Furthermore, you can only choose a set of moves from an existing superstar, you can’t mix and match to create your own combination of moves. So once you’ve set up your fighter and selected the fighting style and finishing move, you’re ready to… well… not do much. You can use your created wrestler in many of the game modes, but there’s no leaderboard or career mode to speak of. You can take it online if you like and fight against other created characters, but it does feel like a missed opportunity to really make the game something special. Instead this just drills home the feeling of WWE All Stars being an arcade title designed to be played in short bursts, but considering it’s very good fun and very playable in long sessions, it’s a shame.
Online play works quite nicely with very minimal lag to the extent that carefully timed counters are still perfectly possible. All of the off-line match types are available in either ranked or unranked flavours, and although it’s easy enough to invite a friend into your game the way you play random opponents isn’t great. It’s easy to find a game to get into, but if you want to replay whoever you’ve just had a fight with you’ll need to find them again in the games list – there’s no rematch option available which is a bit of a shame. But generally there’s quite a bit to keep you busy and unlike Smackdown vs Raw it’s extremely playable and enjoyable online.
WWE All Stars isn’t perfect. The long loading times, occasional directional issue and neglected creation mode put a dent in what is a very enjoyable and well constructed title. It’s quick, fun, great to look at and so over the top you can’t help but want to play more. If you’ve been after a decent wrestling game without the slow and frustrating gameplay found on Smackdown vs Raw, something that will scratch your WWE itch without the controller ending up being hurled across the room, then you might be looking at the answer to your prayers.