WWE All Stars Review (Xbox360)

For a while now THQ’s Wrestling titles featuring the WWE license have been all about making wrestling, something that is actually scripted, appear realistic and gritty. While they’ve not shied away from camping up some areas like character creation and storyline creation, the core gameplay has remained largely true to wrestling itself - an elaborate, heavily scripted game masquerading as a sport.

That isn’t the case here in WWE All Stars, though, which takes gleeful pleasure in camping up even the core fighting of the WWE experience with ridiculous over-the-top signature moves and over-embellished versions of wrestlers that one might argue would be more at home in Street Fighter than a licensed WWE game.

Familiar faces look cool – but ridiculous – in the chiselled, square-jawed art style

All Stars strips away a lot of the bells and whistles that have been the key back-of-box bullet points for WWE games for years now including manager modes and custom storylines and ridiculously in-depth character creation, swapping it out in favour of non-stop action featuring WWE stars from a number of different eras.

The stars are split down the middle into two ages – the Legends, who are from the days when the organization was called the WWF, and the Superstars, who are today’s wrestling heroes and champions. That gives the game a roster that reaches from Andre the Giant to The Rock to Big Show to Mr. Perfect, John Cena, Triple-H and Hulk Hogan – it’s a wide line-up.

That said the number of Wrestlers on offer still feels a little limited compared to some of the other Wrestling games on the market – but that’s not a surprise considering they’ve all been remodelled in a way that makes them more caricatures than accurate versions of the wrestlers in real life. It’s an understandable, but still slightly disappointing limitation of the change in style.

The gameplay of All Stars is faster paced and easier to get into than any other wrestling title in recent memory. While others have left me struggling with how sluggish they are, All Stars really moves, a satisfying change.

Part of that is down to the streamlined, more arcade-style controls. Almost all of the buttons in All Stars come in twos - two are dedicated to the different types of grapple, while punches and kicks take up another two. One of the shoulder buttons will make you reverse grapples, while the other does the same to punches.

Hitting two of the grapple or punch buttons at once will initiate one of the special moves, which usually sends a wrestler flying meters into the air in a gravity-defying glow that makes their limbs glow – and it all looks ridiculous but also awesome.

The system catches some of the best ideas behind some of the best arcade-style fighting games out there, which is that it’s very easy to get into the game and start swinging your hands around and throwing some punches, but some of the other stuff - especially the reversals – are a little harder to understand and get used to.

Some of it isn’t entirely ideal, and some aspects of the game are perhaps a little too convoluted for their own good – but it’s all also understandable and manageable after a small amount of time. A decent understanding of the combat system in All Stars can leave you pulling off some impressive looking moves. It’s possible to launch your opponent into the air and then juggle them with subsequent hits, and full-blown combos exist but you’ll have to work them out yourself and they differ slightly in how they come out for each wrestler in the roster.

This move is positively tame compared to some of the super-moves

There’s some really cool HUD elements that have been worked into this game which help make it more intuitive than most of the other recent WWE efforts, too. Wrestlers grow red when badly injured or when vulnerable to a follow-up attack on the floor, while health, special move meter and your finishing meter are all stored on a more traditional but fairly minimalist HUD at the top of the screen.

How awesome some of those special moves and finishers look is ridiculous. There’s lots of physics-breaking going on here, but it works really well for wrestling. While regular wrestling is shackled by the laws of physics, their games need not be – and it seems THQ has finally realized this.

The speed of the combat means some other things you don’t see often in real wrestling happens frequently – Knock Outs. I won a lot of matches in All Stars by literally KOing my opponent, which usually results in a fun little animation as your chosen star weakly pins the knocked-out opponent with a single hand or finger so they can be counted out.

The core fighting is great, and in multiplayer it really is a great experience. I think the added speed and urgency in the gameplay as well as the excitement that those ridiculous special moves inject into the action go a long way to making a better multiplayer experience, and the controls, while not always obvious, are certainly better than the obscure set-ups in other wrestling games. Using Mad Catz’ official WWE All Stars FightPad and BrawlPad, reviewed here, I found the controls improved a ton, too.

For single-player activities there’s a ‘Path of The Champions’ mode which is an arcade-style campaign which is literally three groups of ten fights split by three or four cutscenes. It’s overly simple, and while the cutscenes are surprisingly well produced, and a cute touch there’s none of the depth here of the fully-featured story modes in the Smackdown games.

As well as that there’s Fantasy Warfare, which puts together some ‘dream’ match-ups of Wrestlers who often never got to fight in a single match. Winning these matches can unlock new fighters, and also feature brilliantly cut promo videos from the real WWE which show just why a showdown between those two fighters would’ve been a big deal had it ever happened.

Past that, there’s the traditional Exhibition Mode which allows you to fight your mates or the computer and an online mode which seems to have decent netcode, but some of the faster combos seem to drop more often online thanks to the latency.

The online is competent enough, but the single player is seriously lacking, like a lot of multiplayer focused fighters. There’s a token create-a-fighter mode, but the options included are so insignificant I kind of find myself wishing they’d built more real fighters with the resources that went into that.

The art style can look goofy at times and the fact that this game is being released for almost every platform under the sun including the PSP and PS2 can sometimes show graphically, but I also found myself deeply enthralled by the over-the-top caricatures in everything about the line-up from the way they look to the way they move to be really lovingly created.

In short, WWE All Stars is a back-to-basics wrestling game. It changes the combat in a way that is as significant as when Smackdown debuted in 2000, but that change comes at a cost – a smaller roster, less match-types and less single player options. So much has been stripped out here that it feels like a reboot from another company – little to none of that Smackdown tech was used here.

That might not be exactly what all fans of WWE want, but given how much more I enjoyed this combat than I have in other WWE games of recent years, I’m happy that THQ had the balls to make this change – albeit as a side-entry in the WWE series.

The character creator is there, but it’s so stripped down it may as well not be

It’s far from perfect – held back by how much is missing in far too many places – but WWE All Stars is a very welcome change and if nothing else a very encouraging base for the future, and definitely worth some of your time.

WWE All Stars was reviewed by using both a regular Xbox 360 controller as well as the Officially Licensed Mad Catz BrawlStick and BrawlPad.

Favourite Moment: Performing my first gravity-defying special move. Didn’t expect it to be that ridiculous!