The Fallacy of Sports Entertainment
The revelation that I’ve had over the past two weeks is that not only is wrestling goofy and ridiculous, but that it should be goofy and ridiculous. You take a look at today’s current WWE product and you have guys like Randy Orton speaking in solemn tones about his family and John Morrison staring awkwardly and uncomfortably at the camera attempting to “act”. This is not entertainment to me, John Cena as an inspirational amateur wrestler in “Legend” is not entertainment, Michael Cole berating women is not entertainment, the Nexus/Corre contingent of green bodies is not entertainment, people uttering the phrase “WWE Universe” in every third sentence is not entertainment. I want guys yelling in the camera about how they’re going to throw 29 other men over the top rope. I want exaggerated personalities that can walk into the room, eat all of the chips and dip, throw a television out the window and get away with it on sheer charisma. I want the guys from back in the day that forget more about wrestling in a single coke-addled binge than today’s guys learn in a lifetime.
THQ’s flagship wrestling series has been considerably stagnant and full of itself for the last 5-10 years. That is a franchise that has found itself getting more lost in systems after systems, making controls needlessly complex and chains of animations needlessly lengthy. If you like repeated arm-wringings and headlocks taken out of context, then perhaps you would dig last year’s game. But I consider myself enough of a wrestling fan that a Sim-style game (whatever consititutes simulating a fixed competition) should appeal to me. And yet those games have become so far removed from anything resembling fixed competition for me that I just can’t be arsed to figure out the nuances of analog stick grappling.
The all new WWE All Stars throws out arm wringers in favour of full-bore madness. Your casual weak attacks include the Canadian Destroyer and other ultraviolent indy wrestling moves that the real Steve Austin would balk at doing. Stronger attacks tend to involve some variation of wrestlers jumping 20 feet into the air, possibly with some flips, and then doing something really bad. The Randy Orton punt, a move that in the real WWE would “injure” a wrestler for weeks, can be casually done as a standard specialty attack, repeatedly, while the opponent gets up immediately for more combat. (Post review note: I used to consider that ridiculous, then I saw what fighters got up from after receiving X-Ray attacks in the new Mortal Kombat.) Wrestler bodies in this game are the ridiculous muscular exaggerations that would make the most barrel-chested comic book heroes a little insecure. These are the rubber action figures we all once owned from the 80s come to life, but more vascular.
And all of this cartoon insanity works thanks to what feels like the best wrestling gameplay system in a decade. Attacks are divided into weak and strong strikes or grapples. All attacks come out in a snappy, responsive manner that sparingly leaves you feeling locked in an animation cycle. Likewise, you pull off counters with the bumpers, and they come off just as quickly…as do the counters to the counters. A basic example; a flying arm drag, countered by the two wrestlers flipping in the air, recountered by another mid-air rotation into the actual arm drag. The health and special attack systems have also been brought down to their most basic; you have a set amount of health, losing it all makes you vulnerable to a pinfall or KO by way of a wacky finishing move. You have two meters that trigger special attacks and finishers. You fill these meters by way of administering the pain.
That I can explain how to play this game in a single paragraph speaks sweaty volumes to its accessibility. I’ve had little difficulty when it comes to introducing people who suck at fighting games on how to play and perform leaping top rope 360 flip strikes of doom. Most of these people are also considerably enthusiastic about half of the game’s roster. A decent cross-section of 80s and 90s stars from WWE’s past litter half the roster. Familiars like Randy Savage, Hogan, Warrior, Bret Hart, HBK, Rock, Austin and such are natural fits for a game about amplified madness, and make for easy conversation starters with people on the topic of “when wrestling was good.” Filling out the other half of the roster are WWE contemporaries like John Cena, Rey Misterio and such. Not to insult today’s “sports entertainers”, but seeing someone like Drew McIntyre in this game kind of highlights the thin star power of today’s wrestling. Still, seeing the mannerisms of either era’s wrestlers on screen is a delight, from Jack Swagger breaking into a set of pushups to signify a finishing move, to Roddy Piper delivering a supercharged airplane spin.
You have a few single player options. “Fantasy Warfare” is where you unlock hidden wrestlers by competing in a series of dream matches between yesterday and today’s stars. Some of them make sense, like a clash of giants between Big Show and Andre the Giant, or an alcohol-morality battle between Steve Austin and CM Punk that makes you really wish that feud does happen soon. Some of them range from forced (Kofi Kingston fighting Ricky Steamboat over who is the bigger innovator?) to outright preposterous (John Morrison has no business being deemed as charismatic as Randy Savage, nuh huh) but all of them are preceeded by sweet video compilations of past events in wrestling history. Likewise, “Path of Champions” has you fighting a series of opponents leading up to a confrontation with either Randy Orton, the Undertaker or D-Generation X. During your rise to the top, cutscenes of your future adversary play as they taunt your rise to the top. If nothing else, a great deal of care went into the creation of these brief interludes, and there may have never been another moment in history where more programmers spent more time and energy rendering a digital Paul Bearer.
Admittedly, the above mentioned boil down to a series of fights against the AI, and can be breezed through relatively quickly. This is better served as a multiplayer experience, both online and off. Up to four people can compete in handicap, tornado tag, free-for-alls or cage matches. It’s a small selection of match types in comparison to the Smackdown series, but all of them are viable and entertaining options. You can play all of them online, and notwithstanding the bizarreness of having ranked handicap matches (and a leaderboard dedicated to handicap matches), the online play is a mostly smooth, only occasionally-laggy experience.
There’s a create-a-wrestler option, and it is barren compared to other wrestling games in regards to customization options. But long gone is my passion to spend many an hour fine-tuning the chin structure of my created Bret Hart. (Plus the game has the real Bret Hart in it.) My only actual issue is that I wish the load times were a tad more brief, though an installation helps some.
I’ve gotten a surprisingly amount of mileage playing All Stars. I got this at launch and that it took so gosh-darned long to get around to reviewing it attests to as much. Your enjoyment will depend on whether or not you dig muscle-busting dudes online or have a posse of buddies to clash with. But the unanimous consensus amongst everyone I’ve played the game with is that All Stars is stupid-crazy fun, the version of wrestling everyone can hop into with little sense of shame.