Wrestling games have always been incredibly popular, thanks to the easy to grasp game action and the colorful, over the top characters that populate the rosters. For years, most wrestling fans had to rely on the PlayStation to get their fix, thanks to the number of games released for that console. THQ and Studio Gigante recently tried to remedy this situation for Xbox owners by releasing their own exclusive grappler – a game that tries to capture the thrill of participating on the greatest stage of them all. Welcome to WrestleMania 21.
Like most wrestling titles, WrestleMania tries to capture the power and acrobatic flair of the sport by providing a massive list of moves that apply to just about any situation in and out of the ring. This is substantiated by the fact that there are about 9 or so pages dedicated in the instruction manual to the various blows, throws and stunts your wrestlers can pull off. Don’t let this number of moves throw you off though, because gameplay can literally be boiled down to some basic steps. Players have a basic strike, like a punch or a kick to initially stun an opponent. These moves are initially used in combos to set up one of four grappling moves: a quick grapple, a strong grapple, a submission grapple or a specialty grapple.
Quick grapples are faster moves that cause little damage but are hard to avoid. Strong grapples are exactly the opposite; they’re easier to escape, but they can hurt their targets. Submission grapples are technical moves designed to injure specific parts of the body, such as the head or legs (as shown by the body icon at the top of the screen). Finally, Specialty grapples are one of the wrestler’s trademark moves, which are somewhat flashy and designed to generate heat. Your heat meter lies below the wrestler’s health meter and is filled by doing things like controlling the match, acrobatic displays or taunting your adversary. Once filled, you can pull off your finishing move, a powerful attack that seriously hurts their opponent and can potentially end the match via knockout.
Just about all of these moves can be modified or changed with the inclusion of a direction and the corresponding button, which significantly expands the repertoire of your fighters. This also doesn’t include the varying numbers of aerial moves from the turnbuckle, Irish whips into the ropes or attacks on the outside of the ring. While this might sound like it’d degenerate into an outright brawl, WrestleMania implements a reversal system to balance out the numerous moves. If you time it just right, you can properly counter incoming strikes or grapples, leaving your opponent open for an attack.
All of these moves come in handy when playing through the different match types included in the game, primarily hosted in the Exhibition mode. Players have a chance to play through some of the WWE’s standard events, such as tag teams, handicap matches and cage matches. There are also some of the more popular match types, such as TLC matches and the ever-popular bra and panties match (between two scrapping divas). You’ll be able to take any one of the 45 included wrestlers onto the mat, or you can choose to create a new profile and character. Thanks to the included create a wrestler mode in the game, players will be able to pick and choose different appearances, moves and entrances for their fighters, amongst other features. This newly generated fighter can then be taken into an exhibition match or entered into the career mode, which takes a fledgling wrestler up from the development leagues through starring roles on both Raw and SmackDown, culminating in a match on the WrestleMania stage.
Unfortunately, the career mode is one of the largest flaws within the game itself. First of all, the story is extremely linear and lacking in replayability – storylines don’t change regardless of the kind of character you create or moves you pull off. Once you’ve beaten it once, you really have no need to play it again. Apart from that, the character you portray is, to put it gently, a complete jerk that annoys and mistreats just about everyone he comes into contact with. It’s one thing if you specifically choose to make your wrestler a face (good guy) or a heel (bad guy), but since you never really change from being an arrogant fighter, you don’t feel connected to the guy at all. In fact, while I was playing I half wanted my character to lose because he was so irritating. Finally, while the divas are included in the career mode, they primarily exist solely as a two or three match sub plot (without their tailor made wrestling match anywhere to be found, mind you). This practically makes them, and the bra and panty match so superfluous that it wouldn’t need to be included at all to make a good wrestling title.
Apart from the character and plot issues in the career mode, the game runs into a number of play issues and AI mistakes. Load times are inexcusably long, especially on the Xbox. It can sometimes take up to thirty seconds or longer to load up a match or switch between menu screens and ring action. This is really jarring if you have to restart a bout and have to wait to get the match started again. Next comes the collision detection issues, which seem to work awkwardly at different times. Fighters running into each other can phase through each other, particularly when one of them is lying down on the mat. This deceptively gives the impression that you can attack downed players, only to see your wrestler fall through and hurt themselves about half the time. However, other moments, such as collisions from Irish whips, seem incredibly solid and impenetrable. This just doesn’t make any sense.
Although the reversal system does help to balance some attacks, it does nothing to remedy the deadly occurrence of being able to continually attack a player while they’re down on the mat or the ground. With fast or technically capable fighters, you can inflict seemingly endless attacks and strand your opponents on their back. This is particularly true if you have a weapon such as a ladder or a chair, which you can smash into downed foes ad infinitum. What’s more, logic issues like this seem to also plague enemy A.I. as well. Computer controlled characters will demonstrate some truly odd behavior, including getting stuck on what appears to be imaginary objects or walls, interfering with their own tag partner’s pin attempts on rival wrestlers, and getting involved at a point when they’re completely ineffective.
I didn’t particularly think that the menu system, particularly driven around entering and exiting numerous screens in the create-a-wrestler feature, made any sense at all. Why do I constantly have to shuffle between a main menu screen and a lot of submenus just to see a basic change I’ve made? What’s more, why can’t exhibitions or other unlockables occur minus a profile? There were a number of times that I’d forget to load up my personal profile, only to go through five or more matches and not earn a single cent towards opening up secret movies or other hidden items.
At the very least, WrestleMania 21 has a lot going for it graphically. Studio Gigante’s large, motion captured character models accurately reflect the physical and facial structures of the wrestlers, making this one of the most lifelike fighters around -- albeit unnaturally shiny, like they showered in oil before coming to the ring. Thanks to this, strikes and other aerial movements look extremely natural, and the fluidity of certain blows feels extremely realistic. However, there can be some visual stutters, particularly when changing up attacks midswing. Sound is much better off, with surprisingly well delivered lines by the athletes themselves. While one line here or there might be weak, and the commentators have a habit of repeating themselves, the overall vocal presentation is extremely strong. This supports the more than twenty licensed songs included in the game, not to mention the ability to play your own soundtracks when you get bored.
The only other thing that I haven’t mentioned with WrestleMania 21 is the inclusion of online play, which had somewhat of an inauspicious start due to its reported issues. Well, regardless of whether you downloaded the update or received a duplicate disc, THQ has remedied a lot of the issues that have initially arisen from not being able to connect to Xbox Live, making it somewhat more stable to find and battle an opponent online. You’ll also be able to create and battle for belts, which can be tracked via the number of successful title defenses. Just about every single game mode is available, with the exception of the Royal Rumble, so players can gain some measure of replay value there.
Overall, however, WrestleMania 21 is one of those titles that showed promise, but the large number of gameplay, AI and replay issues reduces the quality of the game overall. It’d be great if the career mode had more storylines or branches to foster a return to the career mode every now and then. As it is, the game is more visually and aurally impressive than engaging playwise. Definitely for the hardcore wrestling fan only.