THQ San Diego is no stranger to wrestling games, in fact most of the dev team worked on 2008’s TNA Impact. It may not be a great lineage to hold but between Impact and THQ’s publishing of WWE Smackdown vs. Raw there’s a relatively solid pedigree to work with. The difference between those games and WWE All Stars is that the latter is proper escapist fantasy; an attempt to forego the realities of WWE as a pretend sport and instead bring out the over-the-top qualities of WWE as entertainment. Even stylistically the game leans more toward the WWE's hyperbolic side, the most stand-out feature of the real matches.
Taking on a handful of WWE Superstars, the current slew of successful wrestlers, and WWE Legends, superstars of the past, each fighter now looks like they've been modelled after comic book villains. John Cena will enter the ring, do his trademark salute and you’ll wonder where his neck ends and his face begins. Even the typically caricature figures of WWE's history, such as Andre the Giant, are far more oversized than they ever were in the ring. In person the man was 7ft 4in, now his nickname is being taken literally with Andre a staggering colossus in the ring.
All Stars' aim to make everything larger than life comes from the real WWE's own tendencies. WWE has always been a pantomime of traditional wrestling, treating the creation of good (face) and evil (heel) characters, and even makeshift narratives as important as the fight itself. But as much as it relates to the real WWE, from a combat standpoint All Stars feels like it has much more in common with fighting games than traditional wrestling games. In part you can thank the speed of the game for that. Take a look at Kofi Kingston. As a High Flyer, a wrestler subtype that means he spends more time in the air than on the ground, Kofi will win matches by reacting as quickly and catlike as possible. But the same will go for the slower Powerhouses, the big and excessively tall types. Punches and kicks fly fast in the game, and the recovery time of struck wrestlers is quicker than you would expect. All wrestler types will be faster than we are typically used to.
Moves are based on each wrestler's history of fighting styles, signature moves, and famous play-ups to the crowd. Andre, being classically stocky and grounded to the floor, won't easily get toppled over; relative newcomer Sheamus is a brute and all fists; whereas Rey Mysterio performs some of the more manic moves of the game. Fights are as comically-styled as the design. Championship winner John Cena will pummel the Rock and in turn the Rock will clutch his head and waver in the ring. Fall outside of the ring and you can pick up a chair and get to business, wailing at your opponent and causing visible damage.
But the most important aspect of each match is the combo moves. The timing can be delicate but with practice you can get two or three-hit chains that might include leaping from the air to juggling your opponent with a string of throws and mid-air hits. Every beatdown is reflected directly on your character's body. Their faces bruise, their chests and stomachs get red raw, and even their character icons on the HUD will show a visibly devastated wrestler.
WWE All Stars' disregard of reality is a refreshing route to take. For a game focused on beatdowns it's surprisingly joyful, not only because of how self-aware it is about the nature of WWE but because it understands the basic satisfaction that comes out of the arcade style it's adopted. It's a combination of a modernised arcade look with arcade-like gameplay and an arcade-like philosophy. Who needs simulation when you can have bigger than life fantasy after all?
WWE All Stars is due for release in April for Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, PSP and Wii.