I'm really not a pro wrestling kind of guy, to be honest. My exposure to it was back when I was younger, in the days of the Rock 'n' Sock Connection, when my friend and his brother constantly emulated the Hardy Boyz and practiced their chokeslams out on their backyard trampoline. I played the old Wrestlemania and Smackdown games at friends' houses, and never really enjoyed them too much. How do I do a suplex? Where did he just get the folding chair he just smashed over my head? Dammit, I got pinned and don't understand why.
And yet, I found THQ's WWE All-Stars surprisingly enjoyable. It's the strange sort of game that's targeted both at hardcore fans of pro wrestling - a love letter to the great stars of past and present - and at people who've never played a wrestling game in their life, much like how you don't need to play football or basketball to appreciate NFL Blitz or NBA Jam. (Fittingly enough, senior designer David Friedland had previously worked on Blitz: The League, and creative director Sal Divida was involved with both NBA Jam and NFL Blitz).
WWE All-Stars is a colorful, cartoonish, over-the-top take on the universe and history of the WWE (formerly the WWF before those jerks at the World Wildlife Foundation got all snooty about things), pitting former legends like Randy Savage, Ricky Steamboat, The Rock and Andre the Giant against modern-day stars like Sheamus, Kofi Kingston, John Cena and The Big Show. From the time-warping premise onwards, the game cheerfully tosses all pretense at realism out the window in favor of a more action-game bent. "We've taken some liberties with the rules," explained THQ's Sal Divida at a press event - the desire was to have a fast, twitch-based game that "kept the action rolling," and one that didn't spend a lot of time with characters grappling on the ground.
With All-Stars, the team at THQ San Diego has tried to mash up a pro wrestling game with a traditional fighter. The core of the game's combat revolves around strikes and grabs, with light and strong versions of both mapped to the controller's face buttons. The standard "strikes > grabs > blocks > strikes" rock-paper-scissors of fighting games is in place: Strikes can be chained into each other for branching combos, but can be easily blocked. Grabs are unblockable, but will lose out to strikes - and though the timing is tight, almost every single grab can be reversed (as can the reversals themselves).
Characters have a depleting health bar that makes it easy to tell at a glance which one is ahead, but you can pummel and grapple with your opponent all day and the match won't end - you can only claim victory by getting a pin (which is much easier if your foe's life is critical) or hitting them with a instant-K.O.-inducing finishing move when they're at low health. THQ San Diego has also taken a cue from classic fighters with the presence of what is effectively a "super meter" like you'd see in the likes of Street Fighter or BlazBlue. Players will build energy as they battle - varying one's tactics and techniques will help fill your meter more quickly, as individual moves will generate less energy the more times they're used - and can expend a third of the power meter to unleash one of their character's signature moves.
These signature moves are, appropriately enough, the highlights of a match - and fit well with All-Stars' over-the-top nature. The moves themselves are exaggerated (jumping fifteen feet in the air while carrying a 450lb heavyweight bruiser? No problem!), and executed in Matrix-style bullet time, with every movement accompanied by a trail of color. The colors stand out all the more against the suddenly-grayed-out background, and mat impacts are accompanied by slow-mo ripple effects. Even if it weren't for the fact that they're powerful moves that do a ton of damage, I still found myself trying to use them as much as possible for the sheer entertainment of the spectacle.