In the pantomime of the WWE, there's always going to be that one cynic who reminds you how the sport-not-sport of wrestling isn't real. But everybody knows that: the world of heels, faces and kayfabe has had its dirty laundry well and truly publicly aired over the last few decades. But that doesn't apply to the games: the elbow drops, punches and chair swinging antics of the WWE games have always pitched themselves as genuine acts in a virtual world.
The WWE game series also endures as the epitome of the annual franchise, perennially satisfying a niche fanbase who'll always go gaga for each year's update of the gratuitous, gauche and gaudy carnival of shimmering, macho man-mountains. That's not going away, with Smackdown vs. RAW 2011 still serving as the franchise frontrunner, but THQ has decided it might be missing a trick in its line-up.
Enter WWE All-Stars, which stretches and contorts its already unrealistic superstars into a world of rippling 80-inch chests, firm 24-inch waists and body slams so colossal they cause shockwaves to ripple through the ring. This is a wrestling game that has absolutely no interest in sticking close to the true unrealism of the WWE series, and its intention is to attract those players who have little interest in that series to begin with.
All-Stars is the work of THQ (formerly Midway) San Diego, and the brief is clearly to do to WWE what Midway's simplistic, bombastic NBA Jam did to basketball, right down to the wobbly slow-mo camera and pared-back button layout. I don't have the knowledge to accomplish much in SDvR, but give me a simple face button control scheme (with a trigger to modify moves) and I'm ground pounding with the best of them.
Everything is all charmingly silly. Characters have biceps as big as my head (and I have a big head), for instance, and wind up their punches like they're channelling enough kinetic force to punch a hole through a tree. In the corner of the screen lies your wrestler's face, which gets routinely bloodied and beaten up as the game progresses: this is WWE by way of a child fan's loving doodles in the back of his Maths textbook.
Local versus modes are the game's main focus, with THQ arguing how there's a void for games you play on the same sofa as your opponent. Online modes will be available, but the real draw seems to be in a quick few versus battles in-between other things - watching the TV, having dinner, going to the pub etc.
It's easier, basically. There's stuff to master, of course, but it's the kind of game you can adequately play after glancing over the control layout instead of digging deep into a FAQ. Grapples can be turned into flowing combos, finishers are easy to pull off and really, really hurt and the only way to win is to pin your opponent. In full arcade-game style, the recipient needs to batter a button at finger-killing speeds to get out of submissions.
A couple of months after its quiet E3 reveal, the game's roster is still only confirmed to be two strong: John Cena and The Rock. At present, the character select screen has space for ten - the other eight are simply black squares. While newcomers like Shaimus are being dangled over the front cover of SvR 2011, All-Stars is sticking to the, well, all-time superstars. I imagine the Undertaker is a certainty, basically. My attempt to ask a THQ representative at gamescom whether they'll be including Hulk Hogan was met with a blank stare, though - Hogan has recently moved to the TNA wrestling league.
The total ambiguity of core details, such as the scant roster and number of stages, are a little perplexing considering the game is due out in Q1 2011. I like the game's ridiculous aesthetic and simple control layout, but THQ is going to have to show off a little more quantity and depth ahead of the game's release if it expects people to pay a full retail price for the game.
In terms of attracting the lapsed fans, well, that's certainly a possibility - that being said, I don't think All-Stars' features are defined enough to suck in anyone that's stopped playing Smackdown vs. RAW for, say, UFC. But the game's simple, back-to-basics approach should be more than enough to pique the interest of anyone who fondly remembers playing WWF SmackDown! on the original PlayStation.
WWE All-Stars is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PS2 and PSP in Q1 2011.