Spend a few minutes watching any WWE broadcast, and it becomes clear that over-the-top spectacle is what it's all about. Professional wrestling's relentless quest to be larger than life makes it well suited for the creative freedom of video games, yet it has been years since any wrestling game really took this idea and ran with it. Now WWE All Stars has entered the arena and amplified the high-flying, hard-hitting action to an arcade pitch. Cartoonishly muscular character models and gravity-defying maneuvers help the game pack a great punch, and simple controls make it easy to perform high-impact moves. The fighting system is not without its drawbacks, however. The crucial reversal timing is tough to master, and the exaggerated physics result in some wonky and unpredictable moments. These issues can cause some frustration, but the satisfaction of executing a timely counterattack or a powerful choke slam is undeniable. WWE All Stars captures the excitement and spectacle of the actual WWE better than any game in recent memory.
Stepping into the ring and dealing out punishment is straightforward, thanks to the relatively simple moveset. You can string quick and heavy strikes together to land combos, and enter light or strong grapples to throw your opponent around. Depending on what class your chosen wrestler is, you can perform rope-spring attacks or powerful charged strikes, and every wrestler can run around the ring and climb the turnbuckle to mix things up. As you pummel your opponent, you fill up an energy meter that allows you to perform signature moves and finishers. These electrifying attacks are the standard-bearers for WWE All Stars; they are the embodiment of the exaggerated energy that fuels the game. When you execute one of these moves, your character's movements are highlighted by flowing ribbons of color as the background becomes black and white. Time slows down as your move develops and then speeds up to deliver the punishing impact in real time with a thunderous crash. These audio and visual effects amplify the drama that the WWE pros try to achieve on a regular basis, pumping it up to an immensely gratifying level.
With all these powerful attacks flying around, being able to defend yourself is important. Blocking is effective, but the key element to a strong defense is reversals. Whether you are being struck or grappled, there's almost always a moment when you can tap the appropriate reversal button to turn the tables. Sometimes, your opponent gets a chance to reverse your reversal, but no matter who ends up powerbombing whom, it is crucial to get the hang of countering attacks. The timing is very tricky, however, and tapping the button multiple times all but ensures your attempt will fail, so you have to nail it. This finicky precision is frustrating, and there's no tutorial to help you get the hang of it. Timing is also crucial in determining whose strike or grapple takes priority, but some moves can preempt others. WWE All Stars leaves it up to you to learn the ins and outs of its fighting system, and though the basics are easy to grasp, you have to figure out important elements like timing and move priority for yourself.
Hunter Hearst Helmsley is fixin' to score a knockout.
Yet while you're striving to master these elements, don't be surprised if some weird stuff happens that disrupts your sense of positioning and timing. The exaggerated physics are like a meddling ringside manager--they can make things much more entertaining, but they can also mess things up. You might be grappled from an improbably far distance or be bounced around the ring at strange angles by a powerful strike. And though you can enter and exit the ring at will, the ropes often act as an invisible wall when characters are getting knocked around. Fortunately, these strange happenings don't derail the action; they just add a bit of unwelcome inconsistency.
You can pit up to four wrestlers of your choosing against each other in exhibition matches, but aside from dividing up the teams or adding a steel cage, there isn't much in the way of match customization. WWE All Stars has two different scenario modes that give your matches some context and let you unlock new wrestlers and outfits. Path of Champions sets forth a challenge from a big personality, like The Undertaker, to meet him in the ring at a big event. As you work your way through the matches leading up to the event, you get a few cutscenes of your opponent talking trash, but brash attitudes are largely absent from WWE All Stars. The other scenario mode, Fantasy Warfare, pits two wrestlers against each other based on their personalities or skills, so you'll see Andre the Giant versus The Big Show in a big man match, while Mr. Perfect and The Miz square off to see who has the biggest ego. These matchups are preceded by elaborate intro videos that make great use of dramatic voice-over and actual WWE footage, though the lack of similar video upon the match's conclusion feels like a missed opportunity.
The roster spans decades of professional wrestling, from "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka to The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin to John Cena and CM Punk. You may not think all of the entrants deserve to be called all-stars, but at least they look imposing, with hyperinflated pecs, granite jawbones, and bulging biceps. Some likenesses fare better than others (Randy Orton's chin goes on for days), but all are recognizable and fun to toss around the ring. You can also create your own cartoonish character in the fairly robust creation suite, and the exaggerated proportions make it possible to design both familiar and outlandish faces. You can take your created star or superstar of choice online and compete in both ranked and unranked matches. The competition there can be fierce, so you should be pretty confident with your reversal skills before braving online matches.
The Ultimate Warrior takes one in the face from a user-created horro… err, wrestler.
You should also be prepared to exercise some patience before attempting to play WWE All Stars, because you have to do some serious waiting around during the lengthy and frequent load times. Once you get into the action, the blend of precision and exaggeration means you may be striving to perfect your timing one minute and then bouncing around the ring at right angles the next, and this can give the action a bit of a haphazard feel. Some people may find this off-putting, but wrestling fans are likely to be won over by the sheer glee of performing the over-the-top signature moves and finishers. WWE All Stars obeys the spirit of the WWE, if not the letter, providing some of the liveliest action that sports entertainment video games have seen in a while.