The big question surrounding "WWE All Stars" is "Why does this exist?" Considering how artificial professional wrestling already is, does it really need to be pushed into a more arcade-like, cartoonish universe? But the twist is that even though "WWE All Stars" has almost no anchorage in reality, it's a far more faithful gaming experience than THQ's sometimes-stuffy "Smackdown Vs. Raw" series.
"All Stars" brings together a roster of 15 current WWE grapplers and 15 "Legends" for a fantastically over-the-top arcade experience that tests the boundaries of the squared circle. The characters are all action figure versions of their real selves, capable of high flying and absurd power. It's meant to be a colorful, pick-up-and-play style arcade experience, and it's remarkably solid (if lacking a bit of depth).
Finally, The Macho Man Has Come Back
While most of the characters available in "WWE All Stars" have shown up in past iterations of "Smackdown Vs. Raw" or the underwhelming "Legends of Wrestlemania," the roster included here is extremely well balanced and features a handful of characters not often seen or heard from in video games. "Macho Man" Randy Savage is at the top of that list, and his return — as well as his flying elbow drop — is extremely welcome. Other nostalgia junkies will be on board with the mix of obvious greats (Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior, Andre the Giant, the Rock, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin) and lesser-known but still awesome guys like Eddie Guerrero and Jake "The Snake" Roberts. It will be especially rewarding for '80s wrestling fans to dive back into the game, as everybody looks and moves exactly like how you remember things happening when you were a kid.
Welcome Back, Sal
The game is designed by Sal Divita, the architect behind "NFL Blitz" and the arcade classic "WWF Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game" (he's also an unlockable character in old school versions of "NBA Jam"). Though that wrestling game appeared way back in 1995, it's a favorite among arcade grapplers because of its combination of wrestling and fighting (there was a lot of "Mortal Kombat" in "Wrestlemania"). "WWE All Stars" is no different, as it borrows a lot of elements from fighting games (including a pretty sweet combo system) to move it along. Finishers are staged a lot like Fatalities in the sense that they're extremely over-the-top (John Cena's patented Attitude Adjustment finds him leaping 20 feet in the air). It's a delicate balance that ends up balancing on the fence perfectly.
Feed The Fantasy
"WWE All Stars" is light on game modes, but one that is included is extremely satisfying and fun. It's called "Fantasy Warfare," and while the premise is simple, the execution makes it excellent. There are 15 pre-programmed Legend vs. current star match-ups that are each centered around a specific title or theme (like Andre the Giant against the Big Show for the title of "Greatest Big Man" or Macho Man versus John Morrison for the name of "Biggest Superstar"). While they're essentially just exhibition matches, they're all presented with pretty cool-looking video packages that build up the match and provide some instant context. It's a creative way to present the matches, and it makes them all pretty satisfying and adds a bit of depth.
What's Kofi Kingston Doing There?
While it's more of a criticism of the current roster of WWE stars than of the game, the list of current wrestlers is a little weak. John Cena, Kane, Triple H, the Undertaker and the Miz all make sense, but guys like Jack Swagger, Drew McIntyre and Kofi Kingston feel out of place. Their characters aren't nearly oversized enough to make sense, and they come across as jobbers next to the likes of Jimmy Snuka or Sgt. Slaughter. Still, the upside is that there are more Legends available for download, including the Road Warriors, Dusty Rhodes, Jerry "The King" Lawler and Honky Tonk Man.
The one thing really lacking in "WWE All Stars" single player experience is the fact that there's no real narrative single-player mode. There's an option called "Path of Champions," but despite the fact that there are three paths, none of them actually offer up much of a narrative. You simply run through 10 opponents on your way to a championship, and though it's an arcade-friendly setup, it'd be better if there was a little more story there.
The "Smackdown Vs. Raw" often relies too much on simulation that takes the cartoonish fun out of professional wrestling (because while it isn't truly "fake," it's also not really "real"). "WWE All Stars" restores that fun in a context that takes advantage of some great living super heroes, and the easy game play and nods to hardcore fans should keep you satisfied. Plus, you can jump off the top rope with Andre the Giant, which is good enough for me.