Who knew that all it would take to get me excited about wrestling was air juggling?
I'm not your typical wrestling fan. I didn't grow up watching it on TV, I avoided most of the video games and if it wasn't for an all-expense paid trip to WrestleMania 25 (See: The Ten Things I Learned at the WWE Superstar Challenge) I wouldn't be able to name a single professional wrestler working today. But none of this stopped me from attending the recent preview event for WWE All-Stars.
As I walked into THQ's San Diego studio, I wasn't sure what to expect. Actually, that's not true. I fully expected to be bored to tears by another wrestling simulator, something in line with the Smackdown vs. Raw franchise. While this style of wrestling game has its fans (many of which are no doubt rolling their eyes at my lack of WWE knowledge), the slow pace and eye for theatrics have always rubbed me the wrong way. I was pleasantly surprised that WWE All-Stars was not another simulator. In fact, I dare say that this upcoming game may be the first wrestling game I'm genuinely excited about.
Right from the get-go we were told that the developers (who largely came over from the now defunct Midway Games) were striving to make an original product. Their inspiration was games like Street Fighter and Soul Calibur. They are looking for a fast-paced experience that anybody can quickly pick up and play. And then they showed us the game, officially turning me into a believer.
In their attempt to create a more arcade-style WWE game, THQ ended up developing a worthy (though completely unrelated) successor to Saturday Night Slam Masters. Oh sure, real wrestling all-stars have replaced the cartoony line-up (don't expect Haggar in this game), but there's no question in my mind that the people working on this game have Capcom's 1993 arcade game in the back of their mind.
The game offers players 30 different wrestlers to choose from, split down the middle between old and new school. With a name like WWE All-Stars, THQ had to deliver the biggest and best names in professional wrestling. They did not disappoint. I got to toy around with huge superstars, including Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, Randy Savage, The Rock, Triple H, Steve Austin, Sgt. Slaughter, Jimmy Snuka, The Undertaker, Kane, Edge and many more. It's an impressive line-up of fighters, each with their own signature moves. Even though I don't know much about wrestling, I never once felt clueless about who was who and why they were included.
The core gameplay has been reduced to only a couple of buttons, but what you can do with them is outstanding. The inspiration may have been Street Fighter, but don't expect to throw fireballs. Instead you can expect to work a bunch of two-button combos and throw your opponents all around the ring. Every character has a few different charge moves, which means you'll have to hold the button down until just the right moment. These moves can be devastating, but they're easy to counter if you don't time everything perfectly.
Speaking of countering was impressed by how easy it was to reverse moves and gain the upper hand in tight situations. Whenever the player gets caught up in a long animation, the prompt will pop up telling them to quickly hit a shoulder button. Timing is important. I learned the hard way that a split second can be the difference between successfully reversing an attack and watching my wrestler's face merge with the mat below.
Beyond the core mechanics (which we'll no doubt dig deeper into when the review build is shipped), WWE All-Stars has an impressive collection of things to do. As you can imagine, the game features the basic selection of exhibition modes, which allow you to play in a number of familiar WWE locales. These venues are inspired by Raw, Smackdown, Summerslam, and even WrestleMania itself.
On top of the standard match, WWE All-Stars has a few intriguing modes perfect for both single- and multiplayer matches. The game features a ten-level arcade mode, called Path of Champions. In this mode you choose a wrestler to take on a number of increasingly difficult challenges. It starts out simple enough (a one-on-one battle, for example), but before long you'll have to fight two and three people at once. It mixes in steel cage matches, tornado matches and more. Best of all, the game comes with several different paths to follow, so it won't feel like you're playing the same arcade mode over and over again.
Another interesting mode is called Fantasy Warfare. Here you'll be able to fight dream matches, including events wrestling fans have been arguing about their entire life. Who would win in a battle between Andrew the Giant and The Big Show? Now you can find out when you take these two beasts and pit them against each other. Find out who the most American wrestler is with the Sgt. Slaughter vs. Jack Swagger match-up. Think Hulk Hogan is the biggest WWE superstar? John Cena may have something to say about that.
Obviously you can pit these fighters against each other in a normal exhibition match, but Fantasy Warfare adds a lot of ambience and context to the fight. Before each bout players are treated to a lengthy introduction created by the WWE. These vignettes include old footage mixed together to show off the best of both wrestlers, ultimately adding the atmosphere you need for such a legendary fight. Even I, a non-wrestling fan, couldn't help but get excited about these match-ups. There's a level of polish to this mode that will surely impress both wrestling fans and novices alike.
Not impressed by the characters already in the roster? Fear not, because WWE All-Stars allows players to create their own wrestling superstar. While I had no problem creating a generic wrestler, I was impressed by what some of the THQ staff had come up with. Not only were people able to create famous people throughout history (such as Gandhi), but I also saw impressive recreations of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and one of those Orcs from World of WarCraft. There's also room for downloadable characters, though nobody was talking about this plans at the event.
WWE All-Stars may feel different from the past games, but it still retains the presentation you expect from the license. The game still has wrestler introductions (though they have been shortened, so as not to affect the game's quick pacing), voice acting from the wrestlers and the real signature moves you see from week to week. Everything is over-the-top, but not in a way that makes it look ridiculous. This is the type of game my non-wrestling friends would take notice of, which is just about the biggest compliment I can give.
Interestingly enough, the only version of WWE All-Stars playable at the time was for the Xbox 360. Even after asking a few different developers, nobody seemed ready to confirm the existence of a non-Xbox version. Thankfully I don't have to guess about this, because THQ has already confirmed installments on the PlayStation 3, Wii, PSP and even the PlayStation 2. Will these versions ship with the Xbox 360 game I played? I guess we'll find out when the game drops on March 29th. In the meantime, take a look at these new screens and feel free to ask me questions in the comments below. If you're a fan of fast-paced fighting games and have an affinity for sweaty wrestlers, then this is one game to keep your eye on.