WWE Legends of Wrestlemania tries very hard to take things back to a simpler time--and I'm not just talking about the roster of classic wrestlers from the 1980s and 1990s. It's also trying to appeal to a larger audience of wrestling fans with a very simple, easy-to-understand style of gameplay. The game creates a great vibe, and many of the control ideas are smartly executed, but that simple gameplay ends up translating into short move lists, which makes the matches a little boring. Also, that simple control style makes the multiplayer feel flat.
Legends of Wrestlemania focuses on including wrestlers who were impactful from the time of the first Wrestlemania event in 1985 to Wrestlemania XV in 1999. This means you see guys like Big John Studd, Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, Mr. Perfect, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant, and Hulk Hogan on a character select screen along with guys who are still in the ring, like Hunter Hearst-Helmsley, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, and The Rock. With over 40 wrestlers to choose from, it serves as a great history lesson, depicting both the big stars of the era, as well as some of the mid-card guys. While there are plenty of wrestlers in the game, there are a few glaring gaps in the roster, such as Mankind and Diesel, both of whom are currently working for WWE's competition over at TNA. Also, "Macho Man" Randy Savage is a tragic omission.
When playing Legends of Wrestlemania, you'll only use the analog stick and the four face buttons. That's it. For someone who finds that the SmackDown! series has gotten ridiculously complicated (because it has), it's refreshing to actually be able to play a wrestling game without feeling like you're trying to simulate an actual sport. The Legends scheme is easy to understand, and it still allows you to strike, grapple, and reverse your opponent's attacks. The downside is that move selection is way down, and the moves you perform are governed by the current status of your three-level momentum meter. If you're at level three and do a strong grapple, you'll do the same move, every single time. Same for a level two normal grapple, or a level one grapple, and so on. This, combined with the game's increased focus on canned animations--which, to be fair, make the game look a lot more like wrestling looks on television--makes the gameplay a little too stripped down for its own good. Even players who prefer the simplified gameplay style will probably get tired of seeing the same headlocks and suplexes again and again.
The single-player modes in Legends let you relive or tweak key matches from Wrestlemania's history. Each of these conflicts are set up with terrific video packages that both detail the story-line circumstances leading up to the pay-per-view match and show you the crucial moments of the match you're going to be re-enacting. How it goes from there depends on which mode you're in. In the "relive" mode, you're going to be attempting to recreate the outcome of the original match by playing as the real-life winner. While you're free to play and win as you see fit, the game gives you a list of objectives to complete along the way that help your in-game match synch up with things that happened in the actual match. This is a really cool idea that makes the matches seem more meaningful than your average wrestling game. Instead of just charging up to do a finisher as quickly as possible, you'll have to drag opponents down to the entryway, trigger animations where one wrestler chokes another with a cable, and then drag them back. Or maybe you'll need to bust someone open with a chair to the face, or attack first, or make sure to finish with a submission hold, and so on. While the lists get sort of ridiculous towards the end of the relive matches, it's great. Unfortunately, there are only seven matches in relive mode, and you can breeze through them in no time.
In addition to reliving a handful of matches, other Wrestlemania matches appear in the "rewrite" and "redefine" modes. Like the relive set, these matches start off with video packages that detail the actual events. But in rewrite mode, you'll change the outcome by winning the match. In some cases, you're playing to get a pinfall win to earn a title, instead of winning by disqualification. There are objectives here, too, but they're all very generic, like "win the match" or "use a strong grapple." It's a shame that key moments from these matches weren't included with a slight twist to set up the altered outcome, because these matches just feel hollow compared to the relive mode. Rewrite takes old match-ups and brings them into new circumstances. What if Andre the Giant and Big John Studd fought in a Hell in a Cell match? In these matches, you can choose either wrestler, but the objectives are just as generic as they are when you're rewriting matches.
There's also a survival mode called "legend killer" where you're given multiple tiers of ten wrestlers each. You'll need to conserve and carefully recover health during the matches to make it to the end. In this mode, you play as a created wrestler, and you earn experience points that are later used to increase your created wrestler's stats. Along with the standard offline multiplayer options, you can also take the game online and get into matches with up to three other players. When playing against other people, the game becomes more challenging, but not in a way that makes things more exciting. The different moves at your disposal don't feel balanced, meaning that some attacks feel like they are right for any situation, while others feel sort of useless. Also, in some of the matches I played, the game felt like it gave the match host a real advantage on the Quick Time Events used for whipping people into the ropes, mat wrestling, and finishers.
Another neat inclusion is the ability to unlock the entire roster from SmackDown! vs. RAW 2009. All this requires is having a saved game from that game on your machine, and it makes the roster huge. It also sets up some interesting matches. Can Big Show beat Andre the Giant? Can John Cena beat Hulk Hogan? It's pretty cool, but for some dumb reason you can't pit a current version of a wrestler against his past self. So even though you'll find "classic" Ric Flair on the Legends roster and "modern" Ric Flair on the SmackDown! import, you can't have them wrestle each other. Also, the player models made for Legends are pumped up and almost cartoonishly huge. Next to these guys, the more-realistic models of SmackDown! look like toothpicks. John Cena and Mr. Kennedy look scrawny when standing alongside guys like Hulk Hogan or Ultimate Warrior. It's not a big deal, but I chose to take it as unintentional commentary on the steroid-fueled lifestyle that some wrestlers of the 1980s chose to live, which made it all sort of comedic. The rest of the graphics are pretty good, but there are plenty of clipping issues and other weird stuff, like the way wrestling belts aren't actually touching some wrestlers when worn around the waist. It looks sloppy and unpolished in spots.
On the audio side, the game uses the standard type of wrestling commentary you've come to expect from SmackDown!, which is to say that it isn't particularly good. However, the matches in the relive mode are better, with plenty of custom phrases, some of which actually came from the original match commentary. However, all of the talking is done by WWE's current announcers, Jim Ross and Jerry "The King" Lawler. While some combinations would be impossible to record (like Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby "The Brain" Heenan), it might have been nice to hear Vince McMahon and Jesse "The Body" Ventura or something like that. Either way, the commentary only barely matches up with the action and often skips out on using names, resulting in "he did this" and "did you see that?" sort of lines.
If nothing else, WWE Legends of Wrestlemania is a good first attempt by THQ at delivering the classics in a way that's accessible to a larger crowd. It's a shame that so many little things hold it back, but if you prefer the WWF to the WWE, you'll find enough nostalgia here to enjoy yourself.