Ever since professional-wrestling magnate Vince McMahon shattered the industry’s suspension of disbelief, and as many had suspected long before his confession gave the debate closure, the world knows that wrestling (at least in its garish spandex and superfluous pyrotechnics incarnation) isn’t real. It’s strange, then, that every console game bearing the iconic WWE logo has elected to simulate the in-ring action in such a humdrum fashion. Wrestling isn’t real, it’s athletic pantomime, so why not embellish its overblown theater and showmanship?
WWE All Stars attempts to infiltrate the party-game market with a tongue-in-cheek send-up of its athletes and their trade. Contemporary superstars and the legends of yesteryear are all present and accounted for, caricatured by way of bold colour schemes and exaggeratedly beefy physiques. Their signature moves, too, are hyper-stylised and outrageously inflated: The Undertaker’s already gruesome Tombstone Piledriver is enhanced by a 10-foot leap in the air, while Hulk Hogan’s leg-drop is accentuated by a dizzying 360-degree spin. This makes the game all the more accessible for those who don’t religiously follow Monday Night Raw, since WWE All Stars rarely feels like an authentic wrestling game (yes, there’s bronze, sculpted men locking horns in leotards, but they’re not doing much wrestling per se).
The simulation aspect of the Smackdown vs. Raw franchise has been completely purged for THQ San Diego’s offering then, as has the unnecessarily knotty control scheme. WWE All Stars keeps the action refreshingly simple with two strike buttons and two grapple buttons—one weaker option to soften up your foes, and a heavier one to deliver some real damage. Then, as you build a chain of these moves and begin to gather momentum, your character will be able to unleash his signature moves (via two face buttons) and a unique finisher (via two shoulder buttons). All of these moves can be executed with the greatest of ease, making a Hadouken feel like astrophysics in Braille. Forming a solid defence, though, is a little less straightforward: Counter-attacks are very tricky to grasp, even the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it on-screen prompt arrives a hair too late, while blocking feels useless altogether and is a discipline best ignored.
Bizarrely, this rule doesn’t seem to apply to the more arduous AI opponents—or anyone testing their mettle online for that matter, all of whom seem to have counter-attacks down to an art form. In the game’s singe-player “Path of Champions” mode, which is essentially a lame ladder-climb through 10 increasingly difficult opponents, you’ll eventually find your attacks being countered more and more often. And in those rare and special instances where you somehow manage to reverse their moves, rest assured they’ll trump you and your wrestler will still wind up face down on the canvas.
There isn’t much going on in the aforementioned “Path of Champions” campaign except some expertly choreographed cut-scenes, which makes the superbly realised “Fantasy Warfare” mode an especially welcome inclusion. Here, modern greats are pitted against legends of yore in showdowns to determine which superstar was truly the greatest in their field. Andre the Giant takes on The Big Show to establish who was the industry’s greatest-ever big man, Bret Hart faces Edge in a battle of the WWE’s master technicians, and Shawn Michaels squares off against The Undertaker in a battle to crown “Mr. Wrestlemania.” These illusory matches are introduced by a vignette of archive footage to underline their gravity, each of them setting the scene wonderfully and providing a customary measure of nostalgia.
WWE All Stars is a party game first and foremost, though, so the longevity here lies in playing the game with friends. In that capacity, the game is a roaring success: It boasts far more pick-up-and-play value than any of its comparatively formal Smackdown vs. Raw counterparts, and feels reassuringly like a classic arcade game. For wrestling fans, the opportunity to vicariously lace up the boots of your childhood idols will prove irresistible, and there’s no harm in the casual gamer picking up WWE All Stars for some accomplished arcade-style fisticuffs.