Is it me, or is 'Pro Wrestling' perfectly material for a video game? It's one of the few areas of gaming where licensing from a television show should actually be beneficial to the final product from the customer point of view. The formula of a good fighting game (e.g. Tekken 5 or Soul Calibur) is something along the lines of: take a large bunch of outrageous characters, each with their own costumes, make each one have their own style and signature moves, and make them all fight each other for some next to pointless reason. Sounds just like 'Pro Wrestling' to me. Unfortunately, whereas Tekken 5 and Soul Calibur are outstanding games, wrestling games are usually poor, with only a couple managing to crawl their way up to being pretty average, and just the last Smackdown game on the PS2 arguably scaling the heights of being a good if not outstanding game. I guess that the volume of games that have been produced underlines the power of the license over game quality.
WWE Wrestlemania 21 is Studio Gigante's first try at a wrestling game, although the third WWE game on the XBox. The game has 45 of the WWE's 'Superstars' in it, all motion captured, with their trademark entrances and music, loads of different arenas and a pretty comprehensive list of fight types. If that's not enough you can also create your own wrestler and take them into a career in the WWE, wrestling with all the other known characters.
If you're looking at the game from a licensed point of view, it's got everything in there, minus a couple of more recent wrestlers, and the addition of a few 'legends'. It also looks great – the wrestlers are modelled and animated very nicely for the most part, especially for the intros where they've really captured the characters of the wrestlers. Some of the wrestlers look a bit shiny-skinned and the heavier set ones have a funny gait (with Booker T being afflicted with both problems particularly badly), but the presentation and graphics are otherwise pretty high quality - and for once even the crowd looks good. The commentary is also there, and while it can get repetitive, for commentary on a game, it's pretty good. So from an entirely superficial point of view, the game gets off to a very good start…
In the ring you can perform all the expected strikes, grapples, slams and holds that you'd expect, and can even reverse strikes and grapples with a well-timed pull of one of the triggers. Studio Gigante hasn’t left anything out from the game in this area, but the controls are basic enough that I think anyone could learn them within a couple of quick matches. On screen you have a stamina bar, which shows how quickly your wrestler recovers from an attack, and a 'heat' bar, which fills up as you attack your opponent, and allows you to unleash one of your finishing moves when full. The components are definitely all there for a good wrestling game - heck, maybe even a good game, full stop.
Sadly, Wrestlemania 21 suffers from a lot of rough edges. First up, the wrestling mechanic is exceedingly unrefined: if someone manages to put your wrestler on his arse with a couple of decent moves at the beginning, he can then beat down on you almost continuously without any way of you replying – you just can't get up quickly enough. Also, when you are attacking someone on the floor, there isn't a very clear line between when someone is down and when they're up – if you attack a foe with a leg or elbow drop while they're sitting up, your wrestler misses his attack and then writhes around on the floor in pain, leaving them open to attack! Both of these regular annoyances are unacceptable and should have been fixed in my opinion. Secondly, while the game looks great because of the motion capturing, it means that the game is very dependant on you being in a certain position to pull off certain moves, and at other times you will see your wrestler ‘teleport’ to the start position of the animation. Thirdly, a lot of the match types just really don't work that well – for example, in a TLC (Tables, Ladders & Chairs) match you can get up the ladder and grab onto the belt even when your opponent is downed for a short period. Finally, the ‘heat’ meter can take quite a while to build up – by the time you've caused enough of a beat down on your opponent to use it, the match might as well be over anyway. There are problems outside the ring too – the loading times can be a bit long, but they'd be bearable if they were just for matches. Instead, they come up for every main menu item, accompanied by stuttering of the music and graphics. Then there are quite a few odd little bugs – none of them show-stoppers, but they don't help with the overall impression of the game.
That's not to say that the game can't be enjoyed – whilst the unrefined wrestling mechanic precludes much fun in the multiplayer department (Xbox Live play is in the game, and can be pretty smooth, but it isn't really much fun in multiplayer thanks to the game’s flaws), and the career mode can be fun as the AI is dumb enough to not always exploit these flaws. You create a wrestler, and then you have to work your way up from being a space filler to the champ. There are cut scenes between the fights that tell the story, but there's actually no way to influence what goes on – if you win you go to the next fight, if not then you try again, so once you've played the career mode through once there's no real reason to return to it again. Still, the story is pretty good, and fully voiced by the WWE Wrestlers themselves, as long as you don't mind your character being a bit of an arsehole when you first start. I enjoyed the career mode, but I do get the feeling that a lot of fans would have also liked to be able to play the game through as their favourite WWE Superstar.
Really the problems with Wrestlemania 21 are that that have plagued most wrestling games – it's a classic example of style over substance, with the game feeling extremely clunky and unappealing to anyone that's not a WWE wrestling fan. Even the hardcore fans may feel hard pushed to enjoy this one though, although I do hope that Studio Gigante get another shot at a WWE game, as just refining the wrestling mechanism and providing some more story elements (some influence on the story would be nice) could actually make this a pretty good game.