Two years ago, Legends of WrestleMania hit the scene with a dream roster and unrivaled authenticity with its retro presentation, but didn’t really succeed much as an actual game due to its awkward engine. Now, the idea of past vs. present has been revisited with far better results. Ironically, a reworked, and thankfully polished, version of the TNA Impact game engine is what gives this game many of its bright spots. Its producer Sal Divita has seemingly ensured that just the right amount of goofiness was included here, just as it was in the stellar WrestleMania: the Arcade Game 15 years ago.
WWE All-Stars strives to offer a light-hearted take on wrestling to differentiate itself from the more sim-styled SvR games, and succeeds wonderfully. While initial play and especially online video viewing may paint the game as lacking depth, it actually has quite a bit thanks to its inclusion of light and strong strikes and grapples like in the Aki engine games as well as being able to attack at any time during a move ala the Day of Reckoning series. If there was an option to turn off the over-the-top flip 1,000 times during a move animations for signature and finishing attacks, I think that aspect would become more apparent. However, even as-is, WWE All-Stars manages to deliver an experience that can, at times, work as both a tremendously satisfying sim (mainly with the technicians) and an over-the-top wacky game, which is a pretty remarkable accomplishment.
The on-disc All-Stars roster is made up of 30 wrestlers from the past and present, broken into three categories - big men like Andre the Giant and the Big Show who can knock you around with ease, brawlers like the Ultimate Warrior who are a bit faster, but less powerful than the big men, technicians like Bret Hart and Jack Swagger who can chain a slew of grapples together, and acrobats like Rey Mysterio and Randy Savage who can fly around the ring and hit and move with great ease. Each class is pretty well-balanced against one another, and the air juggle and chain system helps differentiate this game from every other wrestling game out there. While its balance is solid, the roster has another problem - the on-disc roster is 30, while the DLC roster will be 16, meaning that a little over half of the possible roster must be purchased later. On one hand, it’s nice to see such a massive roster, but on the other, it certainly feels like a bit of a cash grab given how few on-disc wrestlers the game has compared to the annual SvR games.
The CAW mode is also quite limited compared to the SvR games as well. It barely has moveset customization and doesn’t have nearly as much visual customization but does include some nice pre-made outfit templates, including one that works well for either Ric Flair or Sonny Crockett, Mario, and WCW’s mummy called the Yeti. Fans of the “Wrestlecrap” provided by that character will no doubt want to pit him and the Big Show against Hulk Hogan in a handicap match, and maybe try to unlock the Make Them Humble achievement at the same time.
Having played TNA Impact extensively, I can’t believe how much improvement has been made. Back then, I felt that the engine showed potential, but doubted that would actually be realized. Now, thanks to some hard work from the developers, many of its rough edges and been smoothed out. It’s also a very pleasant surprise since the pre-release buildup never mentioned the engine it would be using - it wasn’t until I played the demo that I realized that it was running on a vastly-improved version of it. It retains the slick-looking counters that are the smoothest in the genre except for some of the ones in the DoR games, but expands on that to also make move chains look beautiful as well.
It’s still a blast to have a monster like the Big Show launch a guy high into the air, then if you time things just right, nail him with his finishing blow - the knockout punch. I also love that the signature and finishing move system is a bit like the DoR 2/Aki setup and not the SvR one where you’re limited to only two moves. Here, you can do a couple of them from a variety of positions, and it helps add some major depth to move sets. The chaining of moves together flows beautifully with the animations looking organic and realistic, which is why I wish there was a way to turn off the goofiness with major moves involving a few flips and such because when trying to have a Swagger-Mr. Perfect match, the amazement of chaining a Samoan drop into a back roll into an arm attack and then into a gut wrench suplex is lost when your foe comes back with something involving a few somersaults and then the guy gets up instantly anyway.
The no-selling of moves hurts things a bit, especially when it comes to tag matches because they can drag on quite a bit since there’s almost-always a fast save during a pinfall unless you wear your foes down a lot. If they’re at the point where any knockdown stuns them, then it’s safe to go for a pin - it does add some strategy in the sense that you never know what to expect and will keep you on your toes, but it is a little annoying. I can definitely forgive it more too since this is an arcade-style game and not a sim, but it’s still something that sticks out as needing improvement.
The mode selection is pretty decent, with singles matches tornado-only tag matches ala Saturday Night Slam Masters, extreme rules, and elimination-style tag team, handicap, 3 and 4-way matches. Cage matches are also included and play out a lot like the TNA Impact Ultimate X matches where you have to hit a button in time with a sliding meter a certain number of times to win, although the cage match is less annoying than the UX match because your rival doesn’t have to go for the same goal, and things usually wind up with you climbing one side, your rival climbing another, and you winning after some trial and error. All-Stars lacks a career mode, but the Path of Champions features three ladders of ten matches each with the end bosses being the Undertaker, Randy Orton, and DX respectively with some small story points thrown in and Fantasy Warfare where legends collide with current-day superstars in dream matches built up with phenomenal video packages - the one for Austin vs. CM Punk is easily the best-produced one ever in a wrestling game, while the Paul Bearer-centric ‘Taker storyline in Path of Champions is fantastic largely due to the voice acting of Bearer.
Like Legends of WrestleMania, All-Stars goes for a very exaggerated, action figure-esque look for the wrestlers and unlike the SvRs, truly looks like a next-gen game because of how detailed the character models are. Unlike LoW, which was hampered by stiff-looking animations for anything that wasn’t basically a QTE, everything here looks smooth. The animations for basic moves are realistic, while the signature and finishers are smooth while also being over the top. Even something that is rarely done well, like transitioning from one standing position to another look amazing. You’ll go from a collar-and-elbow tieup to a side headlock (or whatever position you wind up in with the stick movement), and be able to either chain it into another position, a strike, or grapple seamlessly.
All-Stars delivers a pretty satisfying feast for the ears as well, aside from some corny acting in the DX storyline and boring dialogue in Orton’s. The commentary provided by Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler is fantastic and a welcome change from the nearly-robotic fare heard in the SvR games for years now. Having Howard Finkel do the ring announcing is a great help as well since even in video game form, he manages to make everything seem more important.
WWE All-Stars is a highly-polished and tremendously fun game. If they never make another entry, I can already tell that like No Mercy and DoR 2 before it, this will be in my regular gaming rotation for years to come. It’s got a little something for everyone - fans who just want to have a match or two and see dudes fly around for 20 minutes will be thrilled, while fans craving something more realistic will probably be able to look past the goofy animations and see just how deep the chain wrestling is. The only hesitation I have about recommending this as a full-price purchase is its DLC-heavy future, so I’d say pick it up at $60 only if you’re totally happy with its present roster - otherwise, get it for $40.