Of the many guilty pleasures I have in life, few are either guiltier or more pleasurable than my interest in professional wrestling (though the thing with the marmalade, the birch sapling and the boxed set of Battlestar Galactica comes close). It’s like a soap opera designed for men, where instead of shocking revelations about which identical twin someone has been sleeping with, a man dressed as a dayglo prostitute punches another, less flamboyant/popular man, in the face. I am a keen devotee of the annual THQ Smackdown vs Raw release, and resent, like all my fellow marks, the fact that the game is worth next to nothing on trade-in the very second it is released, in a simultaneously analogous and yet deeply different way to fans of the Electronic Arts FIFA series of games.
In the same way as EA will, in addition to happily trotting out a new player roster for £40 a year without changing much of the engine (a move the WWE franchise has copied with stalker-like enthusiasm), take every opportunity to trot out an event-themed game as well (such as the bi-annual Euro/World Cup games), WWE tries to milk even more money out of their fan-cattle with similar engine-sharing, not-much-else-changing releases such as the Legends and now new All Stars games. It’s a cynical move, no doubt, and one that has little more justification than simply ‘fuck it, if people are willing to pay, then why the hell not?’, but statistics show it does work. Indeed, without having to bother tying themselves to the pesky realism of one event every two years, WWE/THQ is really managing to maximise their emperors-new-clothes opportunities.
There are two key differentiators that set WWE All Stars aside from the yearly SvR. First, it features 50% people who are either by now sadly dead or at the very least retired (drugs, misfortune, or in the case of Andre the Giant, being too awesome for this world), but, through the rose-tinted spectacles of history are viewed as the pinnacle (read: most likely to sell a game to nostalgic idiots) of the ‘sport’, known as the ‘Legends’: previously (mostly) unavailable in WWE games. Second, all the characters, be they Legends or current ‘Superstars’ (seriously, that’s what they call them) are represented not as the increasingly-realistic sweaty, hairy, steroidy men that they are/were in Smackdown vs Raw, but in an exaggerated style where their already ludicrous physiques (at least to pasty, game-playing nerds like me) are magnified to barrel-chested, biceps-bigger-than-their-heads, special-moves-that-slow-time cartoonish levels, in what might be this game’s master stroke.
Inherent suspension of disbelief has been a huge advantage that wrestling games have had throughout their entire history. Yes, I know you’re not really breaking his neck, and he’s not really unconscious: that doesn’t make it less entertaining. So why not go nuts? Choke slams that involve leaping six feet in the air? Flying kicks that bounce opponents from one corner of the ring to the other? In any other game such antics might cause a realism problem, but in a wrestling game I’ve already given up the right to yell ‘fake!’ once I loaded the disc. These over-the-top visuals lend a huge amount more personality to the 30 characters in this title than the 70+ carbon copies in the yearly SvR release, and make it equally silly and hilarious when I pull off a finishing move, as the two entwined adonises fade to black and white, spinning with gymnastic grace and sledgehammer impact in a slow-motion paean to nigh-balletic brutality. As a multi-player experience I laughed more than I have in all of the SvR games put together.
Along with this, in another move reminiscent of EA’s football titles with it’s two-button control, THQ have taken the opportunity to tweak the control mechanism and try something that better serves the casual gamer. The rules and game modes have been streamlined (reduced) in a move that I found almost universally preferable (no rope breaks, pin anywhere) presumably in the interest of speeding up the action, and the involved grapple system has been reduced to four (over)simplified concepts: little hit, big hit, little throw, big throw. Unfortunately it’s this bit that caused the biggest problem for me, as it manages to retain the worst parts of the existing system whilst adding nothing new: never is it explained how one executes any move more complex than the initial button presses (which end up being very repetitive) except the special/finishing moves (which, I’ll admit, are always entertaining, though they take an age to execute), the block/reversal system remains unintuitive and cumbersome: you’ll clearly see an attack coming, but if you don’t hit the button at the correct millisecond, you will have to watch your character take a realistic but telegraphed hit, something that’s fun to watch on TV but annoying to be on the receiving end of in a game.
It’s also evident that WWE All Stars has been created to a budget, or if I’m being cynical, with a thinly-veiled contempt for the intelligence of their audience. For all the meticulously put-together and nostalgic (and awesome) video intros to the matchups between Legends and current superstars, there is never any in-game voicing of any character except those currently on the WWE payroll, and then only in the infrequent cutscenes on the half-assed career mode. I found myself watching the intros to these match ups, then quitting the game before the ‘main event’, so repetitive and limited was the gameplay itself. The create-a-wrestler mode, commentary and most of the arenas are ripped wholesale and unchanged (aside from the physical dimensions of the character) from SvR, and it also retains that title’s criminally-slow and frequent loading: even selecting your character causes a momentary pause as they are loaded from the disc. Even installing the game does not get you away from this entirely, and I increasingly chose both arenas and players who were nearest the cursor in order to cut down on the interminable loading times.
WWE All Stars knows exactly what it is. If you’re looking for realism, depth or nuance, this is not the game for you. If you don’t like jumping through hoops to unlock new characters with largely similar move sets, this is not the game for you. If you don’t feel that 2 minutes of classic footage with a serious voiceover followed by five minutes of simplistic bodybuilder-battling is a good use of your time, this is not the game for you. If you’re the kind of person who wants to see who would win if Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts took on Randy Orton, or you just want to see Andre the Giant fight Hulk Hogan one more time, it will give you the chance to do that, and it won’t judge you for wanting to.
Yes, The Undertaker is still in it. Yes, it’s the same guy. 46, since you asked. I know, right?