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WWE All-Stars review: Larger than life

Chris Plante

In the last decade, wrestling video games have done an exceptional job of recreating the dense rules, convoluted dramas and worn bodies that comprise the popular television enterprise that entertains the red meat-eating swath of America.

It is a strange, slightly silly pursuit: creating a realistic replica of a fantasy. And yet, developers and publishers have, without asking why, fed us real-fake wrestling games, where punches whiff and luchadores disappointingly obey the laws of gravity.

WWE All-Stars, the latest wrestling game from THQ, sounds, in name alone, like another addition to this long, dull line of reality-fantasy-simulators. It's not: Its wrestlers are brawny theme park caricatures; its drama is shallow and direct; and its rules are nonexistent.

Gallery: WWE All Stars (1/19/11) | 15 Photos

The roster, split evenly between oldies (Legends) and upstarts (Superstars), is injected with enough anabolic steroids to power the 1985 Russian hockey league. Small men, like Roddy Piper, ripple with stone-sized muscles and big men, like Andre the Giant, blot out entire corners of the screen.

In the ring, these slabs of well-greased flesh perform the impossible. They pop one another eight feet in the air with a flurry of juggling punches and grapples. Nothing stops the largest men from leaping the length of the ring from a dainty turnbuckle or the smallest from tossing 500 pound opponents towards the rafters.

My character, Slow-Lori, is a septuagenarian with horn-rimmed glasses, a white button-up, brown corduroys, black socks and mauve sandals.

Easy as it is for these wrestlers to deliver the moves, so it is for players to launch them. Punches and grapples are assigned to the face buttons, and reverses, runs and environment moves to the shoulder buttons. It takes half a fight to learn all the controls for every character. Because hardcore fans often react in unreasonable ways, the simple controls and bizarre physics might eschew loyalists, but they should catch the attention of those who abandoned the genre after the Nintendo 64's string of releases.

Most fighters have a counterpart on the other side of the roster, best seen in the Fantasy Warfare mode that pits an All-Star versus a similar Superstar, letting you decide – if you win – who is the greatest of all time. These two characters often share moves and abilities. For example, The Big Show and Andre the Giant are almost impossible to knock over and can store powerful punches that launch enemies, while Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio Jr. like to leap into their opponents with devastating aerial blows.

The heels and faces in between the big men and the acrobats feel, unexpectedly, unique. Every man has his own speed, style and special maneuvers, along with a trademark finisher.

Fantasy Warfare mode is also a WWE history lesson of sorts, or a subtle recruitment video. Before each match, a clip reel explains the significance of both fighters to their times. These are earnest, welcomingly so, respectful to the stars and the sport. As someone who grew up on wrestling, but abandoned it for other sports, these mini-documentaries took me back to the old days, and endeared me to new fighters by showing the lineage of classic tropes like the mystic villain, the angry Scot and self-centered heel.

The other campaign-like mode is Path of Champions, in which there are three different gauntlets from which to choose, each telling a unique story and culminating with a title fight.

These are little more than 10 rounds of exhibition fights spliced with short, silly cutscenes that hardly distract from the action. (e.g. The Undertaker's making a coffin with your name on it. Fight a few rounds and he's still making that coffin, but now he's more mutedly angry than before!)

And of course, there's Exhibition mode, which lets you select single bouts for any of the fights you encounter in the other modes. Two-person, three-person, four-person and handicap matches. Tornado Tag Teams and Steel Cage bawls. Extreme Rules and Elimination. All playable alone, with friends on the couch or online.

Online is good, though lacks any sort of in-depth multiplayer league feature. It's a fine place to show off your create-a-character.

My character, Slow-Lori, is a septuagenarian with horn-rimmed glasses, a white button-up, brown corduroys, black socks and mauve sandals. He fights like Hulk Hogan, DanceCCs like Disco Inferno, and performs aerial moves like Rey Mysterio. The creation mode is deep, especially if you take the time to unlock bonus outfits and props by completing Path of Champions with the available wrestlers.

I would like creation to be more nuanced, though, and that's the kernel of my one big gripe with WWE All-Stars. The game has gotten so far away from traditional wrestling games, that it forgets the many basic things I love in the old, flawed games. Create-a-character won't let me assign maneuvers to button commands or select from a deep closet of wacky clothes. There's no long career mode, no managers or Divas. And then there's the stuff that's not expected, but wanted -- where are tag team moves and TLC matches?

In the sequel, that's where they are. And, you know, that's okay, because the fact that such a weird and playful wrestling game was created in the first place has me, the former fan, feeling reborn. This is the overdue anti-wrestling game wrestling game.

WWE All-Star revels in its absurdness. By moving away from what pro-wrestling actually is -- slow, fake, melodramatic -- WWE All-Stars is closer to what we imagine wrestling to be -- fast, violent, an epic battle between two, three or even four men who unleash not one, but dozens of blows and acrobatics that defy mortality and take a folding chair to Isaac Newton's head.

This review is based on the 360 retail version of WWE: All-Stars provided by THQ. Chris Plante is a freelance writer living in New York. Learn more about his life, career and haunted apartment at his website.

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