We assume there are two types of people reading this review: those who haven’t kept up with wrestling but are curious if this new game is worth it and those who are big fans of the SmackDown series and are wondering how the controls stack up. Since you’ve skipped ahead and read the score already, we’ll say the answer to both questions is a resounding “Kinda”. Because while WWE Legends of WrestleMania is an interesting companion piece to the SmackDown series, the game only slightly feels like a welcome deviation.
Above: Where are they now? One’s a homophobic nut and the other’s dead
On the surface, Legends is stuffed with all kinds of game features making the overall package very attractive. You’ve got 40 or so old timers to step in the ring with, WrestleMania tour mode (the meat of the game), the Legend Killer mode and uh… 11 exhibition match types. If we sound disappointed it’s because SmackDown raised the bar in terms of depth and features in a 3D wrestling game. We just can’t help but feel Legends is a little lacking.
Above: How it used to be
By design, Legends’ control scheme is simpler than SmackDown’s right-stick grapple-heavy action. The intentional shift towards using all face buttons – seriously, no right-stick or triggers used – was done to entice older players originally put off by SmackDown, and to be honest, the control layout works within the context. Hogan, Piper, Warrior Yokozuna… none of these guys had many moves in their repertoire. Go back and watch some of those “classic” matches and you’ll witness 13 minutes of two guys performing punches and rest holds. And this was all before WWE wrestlers were required to be agile. There was very little imagination in a match that ended with a Hulkster legdrop, just jingoistic ideals.
Above: Never forget!
And with this simplified-by-design control scheme comes repetition, the foundation for most of our qualms with Legends. Yes, your move set is separated into a three-tier structure. Deal enough damage in a match and you move from Tier 1 to Tier 2, enabling more grapple attacks. Going from Tier 2 to Tier 3 enables signature attacks including your finisher. But your move set never feels robust and only slightly different from your opponent’s.
The clumsiest portions of the matches are the chain battles that stem from these grapples. Chain battle is a fancy term for quick-time events, which occur often. Random strong grapples and Irish whips lead into a period where you and your opponent race to hit a face button that appears. If you’ve initiated the attack, the move continues, leading to the next button indicator. However, if your opponent hits the button before you, the move is reversed in his favor. Yeah, that seems kind of cool until you realize just how many times control of the match is taken out of your hands and placed in a quick-time event. Matches become bits of action split up by playable cutscenes. It’s irritating and it’ll happen all the live-long day.
Above: Sadly, not a playable character
The flip side – and the time we get all positive – about the simplified controls are how they work within the two major gameplay modes, WrestleMania Tour and Legend Killer. In WM Tour, you choose between three sub-modes: Relive, Rewrite and Redefine. These modes enable you to fight through a series of matches that reenact classic WrestleMania matches with pre-defined stipulations. In Relive, play as the winner of the WM bout and attempt to recreate history. In Rewrite, play as the loser of the bout and… well, you should get it. And Redefine adds a crazy-ass stipulation to the proceedings: Andre the Giant vs Big John Studd from WM1 inside a Hell in the Cell? Sure!
Anyway, each match gives you a number of optional stipulations to perform and earn points. Earn enough and you win a medal for the match, which usually unlocks something else in the game like a hidden costume. See, instead of breezing through the matches, you’ll want to fulfill every stip. And they get increasingly difficult as you progress in each mode. They’ll go from “Perform a Strong Grapple” to “Reverse Two finishers” – a really tough task, because you knowingly have to let your opponent attempt two finishers on you. Screw up and you can lose the match. This medal collecting adds incredible replayability to Legends and had us repeatedly retrying matches we had already won in order to unlock everything.
And Legend Killer mode is a little different. Your objective is to take a created superstar through multiple tiers of grapplers. Each tier can be seen as a gauntlet fight – battle and defeat 10 wrestlers in a row. Lose and you have to start all over. If that sounds incredibly tedious, here’s the catch: you earn experience points depending on what types of moves you pull off in the match. Complete a match with variety and you earn more points.
Once you lose, you can build up the stats of your created wrestler and start over again all hulked up. Think of Dead Rising’s leveling system. Once you died, you were able to start over with a much stronger character. Same thing here. It’s actually a pretty cool way to force us to level up our characters and forces you to strategize. Do you go for the quick win with marginal health? Or do you extend the match longer to pull off additional moves and risk losing the whole damn thing?
Above: It feels pretty good to change history
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Legends’ excellent presentation. Everything has this 80s/90s nostalgia feel, from on-screen fonts to the recreated arenas from past WrestleManias. Probably the coolest thing is the expertly crafted video packages that set up each feud before every match in the Tour mode. And of course, they’re saved once you unlock them. Another cool touch is the ability to import all of the wrestlers from SmackDown 2009 into Legends, retaining their moves and entrances, yet customized for the arcade-y controls. Have to be honest here: picking Edge versus Bam Bam Bigelow was all kinds of strange and awesome.
Showdown: Legends of Wrestling? Yup! Don’t be fooled by the extremely similar title, because these are separate franchises. While Activision’s terrible title included wrestlers you won’t see here like Macho Man and Andy Kaufman, WrestleMania isn’t a broken game. That older title had all sorts of terrible collision detection and is completely forgettable.
SmackDown 09? No way. In terms of sheer depth, strategy and robust feature design, SmackDown 09 is the best 3D wrestling game in years. Legends’ control scheme falters in comparison.
So here we are. Truth be told, we were put off by Legends’ quick-time event-heavy controls. Yet at the same time, we felt driven to replay matches and earn unlockables. Yes, we had fun but we griped a bunch too. Maybe the next Legends game can return to the right-analog stick action we’re so used to. Or maybe it’s we who are blinded by nostalgia.
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