Fans know that when someone gets punched in the head in wrestling (the rock n' roll kind, not the Olympic kind), they aren't really getting punched in the head. Both the puncher and punchee are playing along, providing a hopefully convincing illusion of a punch without having any real substance behind it.
Unfortunately, that's a fitting analogy for Wrestlemania XXI, the latest wrestling game to hit the Xbox. Wrestlemania XXI certainly looks the part, but there's not much behind it that can elevate it above other games in the genre like Smackdown Vs Raw or WWE: Day of Reckoning.
Wrestlemania XXI looks impressive, and is clearly the most visually appealing wrestling game on any console. All of the superstars have been rendered with amazing detail, and for the most part are dead ringers for their real life counterparts. Their various ring moves and entrances have also been motion captured, adding further to the realism of Wrestlemania XXI. And in another nice touch, all of the various superstars lend their voices to the game -- so when Booker T yells 'Can you dig that, sucka?', it feels suitably authentic.
But while Wrestlemania XXI hits it for a six when it comes to visuals, the rest of the package comes up shorter than Hulk Hogan's film career. The game unfortunately misses the mark when it comes to the most important aspect of any wrestling game -- the actual in-ring combat -- providing an experience that can get quickly frustrating due to poor AI, no sense of speed and imprecise controls.
Controlling the wrestlers is fairly straightforward in Wrestlemania XXI. X is for strikes, A for light grapple moves, B is for specialty grapples and Y is for run. The collision detection on these moves can sometimes be quite loose -- you can be right on top of your opponent and not make contact with your strikes or grapple attempts. Wrestlemania XXI also has a reverse system (right trigger to reverse a strike, left trigger to reverse a grapple), which is laughably easy to pull off in the game's lower levels of difficulty, particularly when wrestling superstar against superstar.
Simple one-on-one matches tend to work fine, but when things are mixed up with the addition of more wrestlers or foreign objects, the game takes a dive in quality. Wrestling tag or handicap matches, for example, will test out the durability of your Xbox controllers, as you'll be throwing them against walls in frustration at the dodgy AI. Your opponents will often double team you, leaving you particularly vulnerable as the ability to switch focus from one opponent to another (pushing down on the right joystick) is not instantaneous. Now I'm not calling for realism here -- real world wrestling tag matches have dirty double teams happening all the time, but they usually try to stick to the unwritten rule of keeping wrestling 'realistic' by making sure the referees are distracted at the time. The refs in Wrestlemania XXI do send out illegal opponents, but they only seem to notice them if they're literally standing right in front of their face -- that's not 'realistic' wrestling, that's just poor AI.
Wrestlemania XXI also has the unfortunate distinction of having a particularly non-user friendly interface. While it does sport a comprehensive create-a-wrestler function (which allows you to decide on everything from your new wrestler's entrance music to their entire moves set), navigating through the menus can be so much of a chore that it saps all the fun out of creation. Selecting any feature (such as trunks or masks) takes forever as the game doesn't give you a visual preview of what the item will look like. You have to select it, after which it pops you back into the previous screen. If you don't like it, you have to trawl through the menus again to select something else.
The game's designers also made some strange decisions with Wrestlemania XXI, particularly with its career mode. Firstly, you can't play as a current WWE superstar (a feature that can be found in this year's Smackdown Vs Raw) -- your only option is to play through career with your own created wrestler. Secondly, if you're not connected to Xbox Live at the time you create your character, you won't be able to play that character at all on-line. Finally, unlike many other wrestling games of recent years, there's no branching storyline in Wrestlemania XXI -- there's only one way through the career mode, and unfortunately your character through this storyline is given the personality of an arrogant, unlikeable jerk. Wrestling fans will also find the developer's choice of WWE wrestlers for Wrestlemania XXI strange. Why did low tier names like Val Venis or Garrison Cade make the cut, for example, while top tier names like Carlito or Paul London miss out?
Wrestlemania XXI certainly has gloss and looks on its side, but it's let down by poor in-ring mechanics, sloppy AI and a frustrating menu system.
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