WWE WrestleMania 21
It's got girls, guys and some of the most homoerotic gaming suggestiveness since, erm, any Kojima game. Is it the ultimate WWE title though?
Wrestling games, along with obscure Japanese RPGs such as Shadow Hearts, have long been the primary platform for unintentional videogame homoeroticism. WrestleMania 21, though, really does take the biscuit. Not only is there a specific button for undressing your opponent, there's one for spanking them too. Sadly for female players, these two functions only work in WrestleMania 21's all-female Bra and Panties mode - but speaking honestly, shirtless sweaty men grappling each other in lycra short-shorts doesn't need a spank button to be homoerotic.
WrestleMania 21 can't possibly be entirely devoid of entertainment, then, can it? Surely nothing with a Bra and Panties mode could be? Think again. This hasn't been a good generation for Xbox-owning wrestling fans, with efforts ranging from the dire to the almost bearable and no further. WrestleMania 21, in the interests of fairness, is closer to the 'almost bearable' side of the scale - but this is not much of an accolade. Celebrity wrestler voices and a new online mode cannot save such a clunky game.
This is Studio Gigante's first try at a WWE title, and they have got some things right. WXXI's graphics are spot-on, with detailed characters and (for the most part) fluid animation. Wrestlers in the game are actually proper likenesses of their real-life counterparts and look as if they have a bit of life in them, in stark contrast to the scary, lifeless character models of the previous Xbox WWE games. We also have encouragingly alive-looking crowds, pretty entrance sequences and a career mode with a proper story which incorporates, and is voiced by, many of the WWE's current stars.
However, the game itself is somewhat less professional. We have two grapple buttons, each of which can be either tapped or held down to perform different sorts of move. Well, theoretically. In reality, though, you'll just end up frantically bashing whichever button comes to hand. Timing attacks is difficult and often random, as is the collision detection, making calculated assaults a near-impossibility. The pace of the game is also ludicrously slow, though not quite as bad as the earlier WWE Raw games, meaning that your wrestler takes about ten seconds to get from one end of the ring to the other.
This slowness is further exacerbated by your wrestler's recovery time. One on the floor, he doesn't get up until he has writhed around on the floor for at least four seconds, often considerably longer. In cage matches, for instance, your opponent can floor you, climb the cage, hang on to the top for a while and escape before you even manage to stagger back to your feet, let alone spend sixteen seconds walking over to the cage wall in order to rattle it. Even on the ridiculously simple difficulty level, the game's pace lets it down.
That the AI can manage to perform the above in cage matches almost every time is somewhat ironic, because in every other instance the AI shows itself to be somewhat intellectually challenged. Each wrestler has a specific style, and they all stick rigidly to their attack patterns. Aerial attack wrestlers, for instance, will run over to the turnbuckle and leap off it with wanton abandon ever when it's completely inappropriate or unnecessary.
Because of these rigid attack patterns, it's also very easy to get stuck in a loop and be left repeatedly poking at the X button with considerable irritation as your opponent knocks you over, jumps on you, does a submission move, jumps on you again, then does the same submission move eight times before getting confused and letting your wrestler get halfway to his feet before kicking him repeatedly in the shins, thus rendering him prone once again and driving you to throw faecal matter at the screen.
Faecal matter or no faecal matter, however, irritation will almost certainly be your predominant feeling whilst playing this game. Any enjoyment will be strictly secondary. It doesn't help that the game's main and most entertaining mode, Career Mode, features the world's least likeable protagonist. Having created your wrestler from the limited but reasonably varied selection of options in Create-a-Wrestler, you can then play him through a WWE career, buying new C-a-W items, stadiums, logos, wrestlers et cetera. The career mode features all the WWE bigwigs in a typically soap-opera style script charting your wrestler's rise to glory. We are treated to locker-room scenes and pre-bout heckling, which develops your character and his rivalries as is now the fashion in wrestling.
This might sound pretty impressive, and in some ways it is, but the career mode just isn't engaging. There are some pieces of hysterically awful scripting, but these can comfortably be overlooked, as the actual WWE season's 'story' is rather pathetic as well. What's odd about the career mode is that your character acts like a total cockwit towards everyone. A certain amount of trash-talking can be expected in wrestling games, but when your character is just thoroughly unpleasant to absolutely everyone, from his boss to his tag-team partner to his much worthier rivals, it's difficult to want him to win. In fact, seeing the arrogant git getting his face rearranged by his rival wrestlers is oddly satisfying.
The Career Mode cutscenes, however, will probably provide the most entertainment that the game has to offer. I don't exactly know when wrestling went all 'bling', but the associated vocabulary makes for some very entertaining oratory fireworks between wrestlers. It's almost as good as watching real WWE wrestlers swagger around each other and talk nonsense - and you can acknowledge it as fake without incurring the wrath of several hundred na´ve twelve-year-olds.
Possibly the most irritating thing about Career Mode, though, is that you need to create and reload a 'player profile' every time you switch on the Xbox or your created wrestler's progress won't be saved. Or rather, his progress is saved, but his earned money and accolades aren't, which is a problem if you want to buy any of the game's extra wrestlers, features and other bits and bobs. Now, this may not sound particularly severe, but there is nothing in the game which reminds you to load or even create a player profile - it's only when you've played through about ten matches and noticed that you still only have $200 in the bank that you begin to suspect something to be amiss. It's very easy to switch on the Xbox, select your character, play a few matches and then remember that you haven't loaded your 'profile', thus rendering the previous torturous half-hour that you've spent on the game even more of a waste of time. Having to reload your profile every time you play - even, sometimes between every single match you play - is inexplicably cumbersome.
It says much about WrestleMania 21 that the cutscenes are the most entertaining thing about it. The play mechanic is clumsy, the AI is disappointing and the Career mode is neither engaging nor fun. Fans of decent wrestling games might have to look to the next generation for something that delivers both style and substance.
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