I've a friend who's a complete legend at Def Jam (the original brawler, not the karaoke Rapstar). He hangs on to an old battered copy of that Xbox Original title like its his last drink of water on this earth. It's the sole reason why the warehouse-sized Xbox is propping up his TV cabinet still.
So why does he put up with this now-outdated piece of trash? Because it's the only multiplayer game he knows he'll trump everyone at. No one else but him can understand the game's tempo, grasp the controls and pull moves that'd leave the rest of our fraternity gawking.
He sees sublime beauty where the rest of us see inaccessible, overly-complex and (whisper it) boring gameplay. Fact is, and if he's reading this, I'm sorry man, but we had to take steps. Your 'lost' disc? It became a ten-second frisbee off the nearest railway bridge.
Why this trip down memory lane? It's because the same issues with that game always applied to wrestling titles as well. you either got them, or not. For us latter sorts, wrestling games put too much emphasis on the simulation of the sports and too little on battering the seven hells out of your friends.
So for anyone that wants to enjoy wrestling without any concessions to the sport's supposed tempos, this is your solution.
All-Stars is the wrestling game for non-wrestling fans. Sure, if you've been mimicking the theatrics of your favourite legends along with other panto-philes for the past two decades there's still plenty to get hot and sweaty over. But All Stars does the lovely thing of surgically extracting the swollen man glands that have inhibited newcomers getting into the virtual version of the sport on the past. It's NBA Jam with spandex and a heavier emphasis on the touchy-feely.
Despite the relative closeness of the release - All Stars is smacking seven hells out of retail shelves come April - THQ are keeping a lot hidden under the ring still. Put it down to marketing if anything else; expect info, such as full wrestler roster, locales and game modes to weigh in as we work our way towards Wrestlemania XXVII in April.
A lot is locked in the preview build we grapple with, but it doesn't take a wrestling tactician to work out what's under wraps. Hell, even Andre the Giant could work out it, and the man's been dead some eighteen years, god rest his soul.
So for now we're making do with a typical WWE ring, surrounded by milling crowds and a showcase walkway, and adorned with the All Stars logo. We're getting a hold of the gameplay, and trying out the four different wrestler types, Big, Acrobatic, Brawler and Grappler by flicking through the wrestlers available on the engorged All Stars character select screen (think Mortal Kombat Trilogy or Street Fighter Alpha 3 for a rough estimate on expected cast numbers).
We'd imagine there's going to be a fairly even divide between classic and current rosters. We know Hulk Hogan is in, though he's not present in the selection today. Brett Hart forgoes his current look that's about two taps away from the grave, and instead is given the sheen and muscle of his glory days in his "The Hitman" persona. Ricky Steamboat weighs in for the classic acrobatics, while Andre the Giant lumbers up on behalf of the Big guys.
Linking the yesteryears with the current stock is The Rock, who's taken his acting ability out of the ring and onto the bigger Hollywood circuit - and if he's here expect Stone Cold not to be far behind. Triple H and John Cena tag-team to head the current legends, while John Morrison and Big Show balance out the rest of the roster. Sheamus is there to, if you can put up with the ridiculous hair.
And gameplay...well gameplay is a lot of fun. It's got the same basic premise as a wrestling game; you got your grapples, your stamina bar, your charge bar to build up special moves and finishers, but its neither as simulated (re: boring and slow) as the SmackDown series, nor as complex. You'll still use most of the buttons on your controller, but no longer will it feel like you're trying to control a tank where only arcane multi-button presses will result in anything useful.
LT is your context-sensitive action button, RT handles run. RB is still your reversal, prompted by a on-screen flash which is harder to time than you'd think, but offers one of those "punch the air" moments when successfully pulling off an awesome counter attack.
Your face buttons divide equally between attacks and grapples offering high and low hits, and whether they're mixing between fists and kicks is dependent on your character class. It's the same for the outcome of your grab, with the added incentive of different moves dependent on which position you make the initial lunge from. Pressing pairs of buttons together multiples your moves as well.
It might sound complex, but when taken in context of the faster gameplay that's more rapid Street Fighter than tactical wrestling, you attune to the play style fairly quickly.
The game's got some visual and audio licks to underscore the big iconic moves when they come; tap and hold the shoulder buttons to initiate them, and if successful, the background will fade to grey, slo-mo will kick in and kinetic-charged waves will pound the ring's floor as you land with bone-crunching violence back onto it.
Obviously your opponent can avoid it if they're out of range, or cancel it with a well-timed blow. Each fighter has a three-tiered charge bar under their health. Each will allow one special move apiece, while a separate "F"-emblazoned bar will soak up energy to let you fire off your finisher.
Keeping an eye on both you and your opponent's charged bars is the only concession to SmackDown' momentum-based gameplay. You'll play defence when your opponent's rocking a full-charge, but otherwise its full-on attack.
Health bars have multiple layers that are cut into fairly generously with each successful chained set of moves. Its only when it hits the final red-tinted set you need worry/start going on the offensive. landing Specials now can knock a wrestler out, and trying to escape a pin becomes increasingly difficult, with the on-screen meter needing filled by am even higher number of rigorous button taps.
WWE All Stars holds all the qualities that makes the sport such a joy to watch, but crafts it into a more streamlined, arcade experience that's a lot more user-friendly than other titles on the circuit, including WWE's own.
While judgement is still a long way off due to the limited time and options on offer with this preview build, there's a hope there'll be another addition to the social gaming night favourites. And at least it won't be a title I'd feel like strangling my friend over suggesting.