WWE All Stars doesn't concern itself with reality--not even the fictionalized "reality" that drives professional wrestling. Instead, it feels like the developers set out to make a wrestling game that was, above all, exciting to play. Common rules of wrestling, like the count-out, are thrown aside. Boring tag team matches are tossed out in favor of rulesets that put all four men in the ring at the same time. And the physics of striking and grappling have been exaggerated to the point where the game has mid-air juggle combos, made possible by wrestlers that bounce off of the mat like they were wrestling on a trampoline. It's an exciting game that's entertaining in a way that no wrestling game has been for a generation or more. And it's all backed up by a great roster of current and past WWE performers, letting you relive a few classic moments while also letting you put together matches that wouldn't be possible today.
All Stars is not a particularly complicated game, and the key to doing well is learning the range and timing of your various moves. There are quick and strong versions of your strikes and grapple attempts, so knowing when to wind up for a strong grapple and when to quickly insert some strikes to prevent your opponent's grapple attempts from connecting is the key to victory. Unlike many other wrestling games, this one doesn't mess around with stamina. Instead, your focus should be on damaging your opponent while avoiding damage yourself, sort of like a fighting game. As you wrestle, you'll build up multiple meters, one that lets you execute signature maneuvers that drop the game into a glorious slow-motion sequence as you dish out substantial damage and a second meter that's used for your even-more-devastating finishing moves. They aren't especially tough to execute, so the strategy comes in knowing when to pull out these moves, which take even more time to wind up than your standard attacks. The fighting system lets you combo moves together in some interesting ways, allowing for mid-air juggles, but you can also grab guys out of mid-air, setting up some chain grapples that look really awesome.
That's probably the thing that makes WWE All Stars work so well. It's easy to make your wrestlers do cool stuff, and the game is great at making your moves look insane and painful. Simple atomic drops shake the entire ring. Finishers, like the Rock Bottom, almost look like they're going to destroy it. And a lot of the basic animations for signature moves have been pumped up. CM Punk tosses opponents up into the air before raising his knee and catching them with the Go To Sleep. Hulk Hogan's leg drop can hit standing opponents, crumpling them to the ground in a heap. Randy Savage backflips from wherever he's standing to the closest turnbuckle when you activate his elbow drop finisher. The whole thing just looks crazy, and this makes the few cases where wrestlers clip through each other or don't quite line up right for some animations easier to swallow.
The game defaults to a standard exhibition match, which is actually closer to a "falls count anywhere" match. You won't get counted out, there's no rope break, and the only way to lose by disqualification is to pull a chair out from under the ring and give your opponent four or five good shots. If you want to be able to dole out more chair shots, the extreme rules variant removes even this stipulation. The tag matches are all "tornado" tag team matches, eliminating the notion of tagging in and out completely by letting all four men be in the ring at once. You can also get into elimination or handicap matches, and many of the multiplayer modes allow up to four players in the ring at once. There's also a cage match, which lets you dive off of the cage for attacks and presents a timing-based minigame that must be completed before a wrestler can climb out of the cage and win. Also, many matches can be won by knockout, which is handled really well.
The idea is simple: if you hit a guy with your finisher while he's out of health, he's knocked out and you win the match. The knock out is usually followed by a stylish, lazy pin, with one wrestler standing on the other, or pinning him with one finger. It's a simple idea that makes the finishing moves feel more dangerous and damaging than they do in most traditional wrestling games. The catch is that it also ends tag matches, even though the unconscious guy's partner should, in theory, be able to break up that lazy pin and carry on the fight. Instead the standing partner just slinks out of the ring while the pin takes place.
You can also take the game online, which mirrors the mode selection found in the offline game, but Internet latency can really change the pace of the action. In games where lag is noticeable, quick strikes become far more effective, because timing your button presses to counter them is even more difficult when you have to deal with a less-than-idea Internet connection. Since all players seem to be handicapped in the same way when the connection isn't great, it doesn't seem to break the game, but it certainly makes some strategies more viable than others.
Though you can set up any of the game's matches as exhibition bouts, WWE All Stars does a great job with its story-style mode. The Path of Champions is a set of three ten-fight ladders that let you take anyone on the roster (or any two characters, in the case of the tag team path) on a road to a championship fight. One of these is against The Undertaker, another puts you up against Randy Orton, and the last has you going against both members of D-Generation X. From a gameplay perspective, this mode is just a selection of preset matches. But the game sprinkles in a few really nice pre-rendered cutscenes to give the journey a little flavor. Paul Bearer appears in The Undertaker path, moaning into a microphone and animating perfectly while the Dead Man silently planes a wooden coffin in the background. Randy Orton's isn't quite as entertaining, but the pre-rendered Randy gets a lot of Orton's real-life looks and turns to the camera down really well. You can tell that someone sat down and studied a lot of footage for these. The D-Generation X cutscenes are silly in the way you'd expect: at one point Triple H and Shawn Michaels simply start shilling for the game you're currently playing. This is all real voicework, and most of it's pretty good.
The other mode is called Fantasy Warfare, and it tries to match up the two sides of the game's roster in interesting ways. Some of them work better than others. For example, it makes sense to have CM Punk and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin face off in a "Superior Lifestyle" showdown to see if straight edge is better than drinking a lot of beer. "Coldest Snake" for a match between Jake "The Snake" Roberts and "The Viper" Randy Orton? Again, perfect. But pitting Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka against Kane to determine who has the most "Ruthless Aggression" is kind of forced. Even if the core idea of the match isn't always great, each of these 15 pairings is set up with a terrific video package that really reminds you that the best thing about the WWE these days is its team of video editors. Lots of great footage from the past and the present is included and cut together really well.
In addition to a great roster of 30 wrestlers (15 current, 15 "legends,"), you can also create your own wrestler. While there are some decent visual options for dressing your guys up, the move options are limited to the movesets of the existing characters. So you can make some crazy idiot in a Bruce Lee Game of Death suit and make him wear Cobra Commander's cowl, but he'll still play exactly like one of the existing characters. That said, you can separately assign movesets and finishers, so if there's a character you like to use but wish he had a different finisher, that's an option. Created wrestlers can, of course, be taken online. That said, with guys like Mr. Perfect and Andre the Giant on the roster, you might not find a good reason to create a character of your own.
Visually, the bulked-up wrestlers look like ridiculous action figure versions of themselves, but that doesn't mean that they're slow. The game moves really quickly, and strings its animations together pretty well. Perhaps the only downfall with the way the game looks lies in the wrestlers' dead-eyed faces, which don't animate very much over the course of a fight. So Edge will perpetually have a weird, Joker-like smirk on his face at all times, and Randy Savage will always have a zombie-like look whenever he stares back at his opponent after his signature move hits. The commentary is pretty disappointing, with Jerry Lawler and Jim Ross providing some of the flattest, most generic sports dialogue around. It's also really repetitive. It's probably the one aspect of WWE All Stars that is straight-up bad. If those guys get back into a booth to record commentary again, someone needs to get them a cup of coffee or set their faces on fire or find some other way to make them sound genuinely excited about the proceedings.
Probably the biggest complaint with WWE All Stars is that there isn't more of it. More characters, to set up more Fantasy Warfare match-ups and more story mode hijinks would make for a longer-lasting experience. But if you were dedicated to seeing all of the major solo stuff and unlock all of the characters, you could blast through all of that in a day. With that in mind, the action can get a little thin, especially once you've figured out the timing for most of the reversals and strikes. But even with that in mind, WWE All Stars is still a great wrestling game that takes things in a much-needed new direction, and hopefully THQ applies at least some of what its San Diego team has done to some of its other, stuffier WWE releases.