WWE All Stars is exactly what the Wrestling genre needs - a title for wrestling fans who love their 'sports entertainment' but don't want to take it as seriously as others. It's not a fighting game, it's not a Wrestling 'sim' - it's pure arcade action, and when it works it's nothing short of brilliant.
All Stars doesn't pretend to be anything other than exactly what it is - a light-hearted, over the top brawler. It's a party game, and thanks to the inclusion of legendary wrestlers like Andre The Giant, Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper, The Ultimate Warrior and Macho Man Randy Savage it's suited to old school wrestling fans as much as it is new.
New players will get the likes of John Cena, The Miz and Randy Orton to stay entertained - altogether there's a roster of 30 superstars - 15 legends and 15 current stars. It provides an excellent mix - not to mention some interesting reflection on the state of wrestling, as the game's Fantasy Warfare mode pits a legend against a new superstar to see who plays their role the best.
Fantasy Warfare is probably the best single player mode in the game, as it's packaged perfectly. Each matchup begins with an excellently edited introductory video, touting the strengths of each wrestler and setting up a reason for why they're fighting. Randy Orton fights Jake Roberts because the former is 'The Viper' while the latter is 'The Snake'. The Miz takes on Mr. Perfect because they're both known for their arrogance and their mic skills.
A lot of love is evident in these videos - hours of footage likely poured over to find the perfect image of Stone Cold Steve Austin standing on the middle ropes drinking beer while the Straight Edge CM Punk challenges him - and the audience - to follow in his abstinent footsteps. The beauty here is that neither have shared the ring - but you wouldn't know it to see these intro videos.
The fights themselves are a little easy to finish, which is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is in the fact that you have to win these matches to unlock the bulk of the game's characters, so the ability to knock them out in a couple of minutes is a god send. The issue is that beating them quickly gives you scant opportunity to learn how to play the game better - which is probably the real purpose of having you play as at least 15 characters on the roster.
The game doesn't have much of a tutorial mode, which is a little odd. Each character conforms to one of four body types - Big Man, Brawler, Grappler and Acrobat - and each body type plays differently. It would have been nice to have a mode which explicitly told you the strengths and weaknesses of each type. For example, Brawlers can charge their strikes, Grapplers can charge their grabs, Acrobats can leap off the ring ropes and Big Men can set up epic juggling combos with a stomp (amongst other things). Instead you're left to find out on the fly, and those elements don't even touch on the differences per wrestler.
That said, savvy gamers will work out the basics - and probably the not-so-basics - of All Stars pretty quickly, so you and and your friends can find yourself on an even playing ground very quickly. You have two buttons for striking, two for grappling, two for blocking/reversing, a run button and an action button. The right thumbstick can be used to transition your grapples into different stances - I feel this nod to THQ's other sports titles is an unnecessary complication, probably there simply to make use of the otherwise idle stick.
Path of Champions is another mode I could probably do without, though it does provide some laughs with its tongue-in-cheek cut scenes. In Path of Champions you have to fight 10 matches on your way to taking down one of four legends - Undertaker, Randy Orton or D-Generation X (HBK and Triple H).
The path doesn't really take advantage of the numerous game mode options available though, so it once again plays out more like a training mode of a fighting game which simply isn't complex enough to warrant it.
Speaking of game modes - All Stars has quite a few, but the way they're set out is a little odd. You can do normal matches, Extreme Rules matches (with weapons and stuff), Steel Cage matches (1v1 only) and Elimination matches. Each set has a number of player combinations possible - Handicap (2 vs 1), Triple Threat, (1v1v1) and Tornado Tag (2v2) - but in all but Elimination matches the game is over as soon as one person has won.
Elimination matches allow the fight to continue until the last person is pinned, and they definitely deliver the most fun when playing with three mates because it encourages a sense of vindictive teamplay - which is not available when you're desperately trying to make sure the other players don't sneak in a win. Sadly you can't do Extreme Rules Elimination matches, so you're stuck with boring old 5 metre high chokeslams.
Did I mention this game was over-the-top? The special moves and finishers in All Stars are all completely ludicrous. John Cena's FU/Attitude Adjustment actually looks like it might hurt when Cena leaps his own body height in the air to finish it. Eddie Guerrero's Frog Splash and Rey Mysterio's 619 both have extra acrobat touches to them making them a little extra epic - every single super move in the game is fantastic actually, and nothing sells it better than the 6 Million Dollar Man style 'shun-nun-nun-nun-nun-na' sound effect accompanying the bigger ones.
My biggest criticism of WWE All Stars is it seems restrained. There's definitely a sense that the team working on the game felt that All Stars needed to be more than what it is, and this indecisiveness hurts the game a little. The push towards making All Stars a 'fighting game' to rival the likes of Marvel vs Capcom 3 or Super Street Fighter IV simply isn't necessary - All Stars is enough as an arcade style sports game ala NBA Jam.
That said, THQ could not release a Smackdown vs Raw game this year and I'd be happy with what we've got. All Stars is a great first title in what has the promise to be a great series - it won't work as a yearly cash cow, but alternating annual releases and a refined focus would definitely deliver a suitable alternative to the yearly seriousness of SvR. Any fan of wrestling - old or new - with friends should pick up All Stars (and a case of Stone Cold's favourite beverage) - though it doesn't have the same strength for those playing alone.