Review: In the words of good ol' JR, this game is like a "one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest."
It was supposed to be the ?irresistible force versus the immovable object,? but sadly, Wrestlemania 21 is like an inanimate object? that laughs at you? and takes your money? and smells bad? and consumes your soul ? yeah, you get the idea. It's really quite mind-boggling how a game this disappointing was the end result of what seemed to be an impressive list of features, in particular the new reversal system and Xbox Live play. As someone who has played his share of wrestling titles on 8-bit platforms up to the current generation systems, I can assure you that I've seen the good, bad, and ugly of wrestling games, and this one straddles the line between bad and ugly quite nicely. When I recently reviewed Backyard Wrestling 2 for Gaming Target, I expected that game to be poor, but this game is such a letdown from its expectations ? none being too lofty ? that it is almost more infuriating than suffering through BYW2.
As I said in the preview for Wrestlemania 21, Xbox wrestling game fans have had a rough go of it for the whole life span of the platform. Let's review the slew of wrestling titles released for the Xbox: the terrible Backyard Wrestling franchise, the lukewarm Legends of Wrestling stable, and the two lackluster efforts from THQ ? not really high-caliber stuff. The only major player all along has really been THQ, and many hoped that this third attempt at a WWE game would finally deliver a satisfying experience that was ripe with good visuals, tight gameplay mechanics, and Xbox Live support. Unfortunately, most of these features (and many others) are either non-existent or so poorly implemented that one has to question the motives behind releasing something so half-baked. However, the more unfortunate situation is that the wait for a good Xbox wrestling game continues and gamers are left holding the bag (and their lighter wallets) trying to conceive of how such a bad game could be released this late in the Xbox's life cycle.
It should be noted that the game was initially released with several deficiencies, including the complete omission of the heavily advertised Xbox Live support. Even though a patch was released a couple of days later to fix some bugs and enable the Live support, this is totally inexcusable to have happened in the first place. Obviously, errors are going to occasionally happen at the DVD-pressing facility or what have you, but for something as glaring as this to not be caught is quite shocking, to say the least. Additionally, lest anyone think that the patch fixed up the game in any way, don't get ahead of yourselves; all the patch did was to clean up some errors that were so inexcusable in the first place that they were almost mandatory fixes for THQ and developer Studio Gigante.
So, with all of these lovely preliminaries out of the way, let's talk about how bad this game really plays. Wrestlemania 21 features a Career mode (which I'll talk about a bit later), and a slew of exhibition matches including Single, Tag, Triple Threat, Fatal Four-Way, and Royal Rumble. There are also match modifiers like Cage, Hell in a Cell, Tables, Ladders, TLC, and several others. You can also tweak rules such as DQ, rope breaks, ring out counting, and interference. The roster of combatants is 45+ strong, with several unlockable ?legends? and created characters filling out the ranks. Some of the notable stars include HHH, The Undertaker, Booker T and John Cena, but newer faces (and emerging stars) like Batista and Shelton Benjamin are also present. Of course, there are always some omissions on wrestling game rosters, but nothing is too glaring here.
On paper, the match types and modifiers look solid, but once you actually start playing the game, the flaws start to pile up. The game takes places from one of two perspectives, both of which are quite similar; you can select the ?game? view for the standard ?ramp above style? or you can select the ?broadcast? view to have the ramp to your left. During one-on-one matches, the action also cuts closer and tighter into the ring to give you a close-up of powerful moves and submissions. For singles matches, this view system is manageable, but when any other players are involved in a match, the camera is pulled back extremely far and low, which makes it hard to pick up depth in the ring and this can lead to mistimed strikes and grapples. Also, whenever someone interferes in the match, the game actually pulls way back to accommodate the interloping combatants, causing you and your main adversary to be squished to the side of the screen. This is particularly ridiculous when the interference has stopped, as the game will still split the focus between the two main wrestlers in the ring and the two idle cheats on the outside ? utterly flawed and untested gameplay here. In fact, the whole game really shows its flaws when more than two fighters are on the screen at once, as the game's focusing system is very rigid, not even auto-switching to a just-tagged-in adversary, often resulting in you getting jumped when it looks like you're focused on the oncoming attacker. Many other wrestling titles employ an easy-to-reach button which quickly and distinctly shifts your focus, but Wrestlemania 21 opts for the clicking of the thumbstick to change your focus, and while there is an indicator as to who you're looking at, the ?gaze? of your wrestler isn't always distinct, which occasionally leaves you open to attack.
Where the ?more than two-player crappiness? really shows its true colors is in the artificial intelligence and collision detection. With the AI, you'll have such unsightly problems as an interfering wrestler attacking the wrong man, CPUs constantly trying to knock over the ladder ? even when no one is on it ? in a ladder match, opponents resisting any sort of outside combat by barreling back in the ring (this resulted in me and a CPU bumping into each other for a good 45 seconds, with the same bump and react animation for each impact), and opponents going for the same lame moves and submissions over and over again. The AI really needs to be seen in practice for one to truly appreciate its lack of any cogent thought ? utter trash here as well. Next is the collision detection, which is almost as bad as the AI. While all wrestling games will have some problems in this area, it is truly bad when ground strikes don't connect because the downed wrestler is technically ?up,? or when a sure strike ? which is basically connecting from an animation and graphical standpoint ? is randomly countered by a quick strike. I've had this happen several times, especially with dropkicks and leg lariats, and the opponent just magically strikes you when you've initiated your strike and are basically landing the move.