Compared to the PS2, Xbox owners have had slim pickings when it comes to WWE wrestling games. This is especially odd considering that when the system launched Bill Gates was joined by the Brahma Bull himself. While the PS2-exclusive SmackDown!
series has continued to evolve with each yearly installment, Xbox owners have been left with Acclaim's lackluster Legends
series and the older RAW
I had hoped that all this would change with the announcement of WrestleMania 21 by Studio Gigante. With highly detailed player models and motion captured animation, the game started to visually shine early in its development cycle. If it could match the accessibility and gameplay options of SmackDown!, wrestling fans would have themselves a treat. Looks however, can be deceiving. While WrestleMania 21 has the outward appearance of a champion, it plays like a 98-pound weakling.
This is Studio Gigante's first attempt at a wrestling game, so it hasn't had the benefit of missteps and fan reactions like the WWE franchise on PS2. They did, however, have the opportunity to harness the power of the Xbox to wow gamers with a realistic presentation and smooth online play. For some people, these two factors alone will be enough to sell them on the title, but hiding beneath the surface, there are a number of gameplay issues.
The controls in WrestleMania are amazingly easy to get the hang of. The A button enacts a quick grapple and submission grapples are mapped to the B button. Strikes such as punches, kicks, head butts, and crotch shots, are performed by hitting X along with the directional pad or analog stick. Most environmental interactions are handled through the use of the L trigger. This includes climbing turnbuckles, getting on top of tables, and climbing in and out of the ring. There is also the option to run, pick up weapons, initiate an Irish Whip, and call for outside interference when the conditions are right. Like most wrestling games, each character has a stamina meter that determines their ability to stay on their feet. Under this is a heat bar that fills up with each successful attack, broken submissions, or taunts. Maximum heat enables a wrestler to perform their special move by tapping A and B at the same time. The system is about as simple as it gets, and can really be picked up by anyone, wrestling buff or not.
The grappling would be too simplistic if not for the countering system. There are two types of counters, one for grapple moves, and one for strikes and they are assigned to the left and right triggers respectively. With each move, a small blue icon appears next to the wrestler's name that indicates the opportunity to perform a reversal. Depending on a character's stats, they will have more time to pull off one of these moves. Like basic combat, the system is easy to get the hang of and after a few rounds players will be reversing almost every grapple, and many of the strikes. On the harder difficulty settings the indicator for reversals is removed and leaves it up to the gamer to get the timing right. For every counter there is also a unique animation, which really shows off the game's slick motion capture work.
So far I've described the makings of a decent, if rather basic wrestling game. However, as soon as two WWE superstars face off, problems emerge from behind the game's gleaming façade. The first bump in the road has to do with collision detection. In early builds of the game, wrestlers would bump invisible objects, and stagger through each other when more than two people occupied the ring. These problems have been addressed, but not fixed. This is mostly frustrating when going for dives, aerial attacks, or slams to characters on the ground. The game decides that characters are "up" almost as soon as they begin to rise from the mat. This causes a discrepancy between when it looks like players can drop on a downed character, and when it actually connects. Missing with an elbow drop doesn't just result in a bruised ego; it causes your character to writhe in pain for a few seconds leaving him vulnerable to a rebuttal. This adds injury to insult, and makes the collision error endlessly irritating.
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Speaking of mat strikes, many of them can be endlessly linked to quickly drain a wrestler's stamina. On the easier difficulty levels this works in favor of the player. It is possible to land successive elbow drops on an opponent that doesn't have time to get up or roll out of the way. On harder difficulty settings, the problem works against players, especially when taking on a submission artist. It takes so long to rise from the mat, that by the time your wrestler begins to shake off a hit, he's already been placed in another hold. This type of game-breaker used to occur all the time in older wrestling games, but is inexcusable in modern releases.
The motion-captured animation turns out to be a gift and a curse in WrestleMania. Players move realistically, but in many situations the movements feel far too sluggish. The benefit of non-motion-captured animation is that certain moves can be sped up to better jive with the game play. Wrestling games typically move slower than straight up fighters but recent trends have been pushing the genre towards more action oriented pacing. WrestleMania feels like a step backward in this respect.
Another area that falls short of the current benchmark for games in this genre is the opponent A.I. In a simple face-off, the computer acts normally, with an assortment of grapples, strikes, and special moves. However, as soon as another variable is added to the equation, strange things start to happen. This first became apparent in career mode when a third wrestler entered the arena and teamed up with my opponent. While one character continued to fight, the extra wrestler circled the ring aimlessly until the match ended. Another example of poor A.I. can be found in the tag-team TLC matches. Computer controlled team members not only hit each other with objects, they routinely topple the ladder just as their teammate is going for the win. When smashing an opponent through a table, the player doesn't break through the object, instead it simply lowers into the matt and disappears. The list of broken parts continues. Individually, they wouldn't lower the score by much, but taken as a whole the game feels very rough around the edges.
Another complaint likely to come from WWE fans concerning this game is the outdated roster. There are 45 wrestlers in total, including five legends and six divas. But it's disappointing that they include someone like Val Venus while Billy Kidman and La Resistance are nowhere in sight. There are two wrestlers who are no longer with the WWE on the list, but most of the title matches from the real WrestleMania 21 can be re-created within the game.
Create A Wrestler
The create-a-wrestler option is one of the most comprehensive features in the game. It includes an impressive list of customization options for a wrestler's appearance and skill set. The costumes are broken down into 11 separate categories like head, pants, and shoes. Each option has its own set of subcategories. So if you decide to go shirtless, another menu pops up offering accessories like tattoos, jewelry, and pads. Players are able to choose a nickname, their hometown, an area of expertise, weight class, skin tone, and some very specific facial features. Some players may find themselves spending a good day adjusting the width of their character's jaw and the color of their eyes. For a more in-depth look at the create-a-wrestler feature, take a look at our "Building a Legend" features parts one through three.
Having such a large assortment of options is nice, but the menu system is clunky. Instead of previewing each item as it is selected, players have to choose the item and view it separately. Eventually, popping in and out of these menus became so tedious that it wasn't worth the trouble of adding extra details to the character. This holds true for every menu system in the game. While most of them are easier to navigate than the character customization screen, they all have an ugly metallic quality.
Players can also pick their wrestler's move set, taunts, and entrance style from a list that includes every character in the game. The entrance music can be selected from a custom soundtrack, making for some pretty personalized and cool looking presentations before a match. There are also some unlockable entrance options like pyrotechnics, crowd signs, and videos that can be purchased with cash gained in the career mode.
One nice touch is a realistic weight class system that determines a wrestler's style. The larger characters like Big Show can't be tossed around by a smaller contender like Ray Mysterio. If you mistakenly try to lift a heavyweight, the attacking wrestler will strain under the weight and leave themselves open to counter attacks. Like other wrestling games, these rules apply to a limited move set and really only effect a few aerial maneuvers.
The career mode for create-a-wrestler entails a single storyline that remains the same each time you play through. In Smackdown vs. Raw the divergent pathways of career mode were sacrificed for higher production value, and it looks like WrestleMania has received the same treatment. Here Comes the Pain had the option to travel to new venues in between matches which resulted in branching storylines. This resulted in a deeper single player experience and a reason to play through the season multiple times. Instead, after each match there is a short cut scene that moves the story along and if players lose a match, there is simply the option to retry or quit. The career mode has all of the double crosses, back stabbings, and backstage beat downs that one would expect from the plot lines of the WWE, but after one play through it doesn't offer any surprises.
The career begins on common ground. The custom character is fresh out of development and is more than ready for the big time. There are a few "gimme" matches before interesting variables like interference, TLC matches, and tag team bouts are thrown into the mix. Without revealing any spoilers, the story line gets a lot more interesting as it progresses through the 52 matches that make up a year of kicking ass in the WWE.
There are a respectable assortment of match types in the game, including last man standing, TLC, and everyone's favorite: the bra-and-panty match. Four players can battle in multiplayer mode, and the game only seems to be able to handle four characters at any given time. The match types all translate to the Xbox Live experience except for the Royal Rumble which does not fit the four player format. Online play feels just as smooth as multiplayer on the same console. Of course it also suffers from all the same gameplay problems as the single-player experience. The offline tournaments include an option to create a championship, complete with a fully customizable belt. The online mode is based around the more common setup in which players are ranked by how many times they have successfully defended their title.
Like Studio Gigante's other Xbox effort, Tao Feng: Fist of the Lotus, this game has excellent character models. Each superstar is made up of more than 10,000 polygons, which is almost twice the number used on characters in PlayStation 2's Smackdown vs. Raw. Each wrestler looks almost exactly like their real-world counterpart, and the resemblance is only strengthened by the animations. My only complaint concerning the character models is that up-close they sometimes appear too shiny. This leads to a "plastic doll" effect which was also prevalent in Tao Feng.
Wrestling buffs will immediately recognize the music in WrestleMania 21 as the same licensed tracks that appears in SmackDown! vs. Raw. The quality of the chunky, guitar-driven tracks will be enjoyable to fans of that style of pop-metal, but using the same play list makes it feel like a rehash. Luckily, custom soundtracks are supported, so gamers will never have to hear the stale tunes. The career mode features each wrestler doing their own voice over. While it's nice to have the characters voiced by their real life counterparts, many of the deliveries feel forced and plod along with the slow movement of the wrestlers.
The announcers are reminiscent of Smackdown vs. Raw in that they have a few canned phrases that gamers will hear over an over again. When battling in Boston, Tazz remarks to Michael Cole that the city hasn't had a championship since 1918. It may be a slight oversight, but it's hard to ignore when you are forced to hear it so often.
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