WWE WrestleMania XXI Feature Preview

We take a closer look at the PPV-themed wrestler from THQ.

We last saw WrestleMania XXI in January, when the Studio Gigante-developed grappler was just coming together in playable form. At that point, large chunks weren't ready for prime time, so it was tough to get a complete feel of where the game was heading. THQ recently dropped off a slightly more polished build, so the overall picture of WM 21 is starting to get a bit clearer. The game still has a ways to go in terms of wrestler artificial intelligence, not to mention some spit and polish, but it seems to be heading in the right direction.

Big-name WWE talent can be found throughout WrestleMania XXI's roster.

It looks like the roster has been finalized for WrestleMania XXI (something that wasn't the case in our previous look), and the lineup of superstars features a broad variety of talent from the WWE stable...across all weight divisions. Sure, you'll find the requisite appearances by Triple H, Rey Mysterio, HBK, and the Undertaker, but some of the newer up-and-coming stars in the WWE talent pool are also prominently featured, including Charlie Haas, Garrison Cade, Rene Dupree, and the always lovable Eugene.

You'll meet a good chunk of these superstars both in and out of the ring in the career mode, which has been given a noticeable upgrade from THQ's WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw. The biggest change is in the quantity and quality of voice work found in the career mode. Not only does it seem like the WWE talent is no longer "phoning it in" this time around, but also your created wrestler is the beneficiary of some voice talent as well. We're very pleased with what we saw of the cutscenes in between career mode matches so far. Not only is everything acted reasonably well, but also there seems to be a good amount of care taken in the direction and blocking of the scenes. These aren't just standard two-camera shots of superstars jawing at each other; we've seen some interesting camera movement, well-animated player models, and, best of all, some really funny writing. In fact, when your career-mode wrestler initially meets Kurt Angle, the first thing out of your player's mouth is: "Hey! You're Kurt Angle. Didn't you use to wrestle?" OK, so it works better in the game than in text. But trust us, it's a pretty funny line.

All in all, the career-mode cutscenes are one of the highlights for us so far, as they feature the kind of backstage banter, alliances, and run-ins found in WWE Raw and SmackDown! each week. The biggest downside is that there is only one available voice for your created wrestler, and the tone of that voice doesn't always match up to the wrestler you created from scratch.

And speaking of the create-a-superstar feature, we've seen more in-depth character-creation tools in previous WWE games, but the one in WrestleMania XXI is certainly no slouch. You'll start off assigning a name, nickname, and hometown to your created grappler, and then you'll get to the fun stuff, which consists namely of designing the body, face, and outfit for your imaginary wrestler. Most of the body manipulation is controlled by horizontal and vertical sliders, which are used to adjust the length or width of your wrestler's eyes, nose, forehead, lips, and jawline, among other features. Next up is the costume, and WrestleMania XXI gives you plenty of options for hairstyles, head wear (including masks), and gear for both your upper and lower body. Once you've got your created mat technician squared away with an outfit, you'll be able to design his move set, finisher, and taunts, as well as ring entrances, which can be personalized all the way down to the custom-soundtrack-supported entrance music, background video, pyrotechnics, and fan signs in the audience.

The game's ring entrances show off the excellent-looking player models.

Creating a wrestler will only be half the fun, as WrestleMania XXI will also let you create a championship belt from scratch. You'll give it a name, decide whether it's a single or tag team championship, then go about designing everything from the color of the belt, to the center plate, to all the trimmings. Many of the center plates, for example, are based on pay-per-view events or titles, like the hardcore championship, for example. But with color options and plenty of supplemental designs to choose from, you'll be able to create a belt that's as unique as you'd like it to be.

WrestleMania XXI's WWE shop will include tons of unlockables, including: WWE legends, such as Jimmy Snuka, The Rock, and Andre the Giant; wrestling arenas, such as the WrestleMania PPV environment; WWE superstar intro movies; clothing choices for your created wrestler; and attribute points for characteristics like stamina, speed, strength, and countering.

Reversal of Fortune

In-ring, Studio Gigante continues to develop the game's wrestling engine, which is most notable for its pro-reversal system, a mechanic that lets you reverse nearly every blow or hold, provided you have quick enough reflexes. Here's how it works: During a match, a small icon will illuminate under your wrestler's health and heat bars, indicating a small reversal window for a particular strike or hold. Hold down the right or left trigger on the Xbox controller and you'll successfully pull off a reversal of the move, such as catching a guy's leg during a gut kick or blocking a vicious strike to the face. Hold reversals tend to involve more-complex animations. As a result, you might slide out of a body slam or roll your opponent into a small package pin attempt.

Fatal four-way, tag team, singles, hell in a cell... WrestleMania's match types are as varied as you could hope for. Even better, they're all playable online.

Since our last look at the game, the reversal windows seem to be shorter than before, making effective reversals for quick strikes, such as slaps and punches, pretty tough. Once you get the hang of reversing holds, however, you'll find the action to be a very formidable weapon in your grappling arsenal. The other main controls include the use of the X button for strikes and the A and B buttons for a variety of grapples. To pull off a quick grapple, for example, you tap the A button in combination with the directional pad, while a strong grapple is executed by holding the A button and the D pad in unison. When executing a submission, you'll rapidly tap the face buttons to put the maximum pressure on your opponent while trying to get him to tap out.

Because no wrestler can make it in the WWE without heat, WrestleMania XXI includes a heat meter that will build up as you perform crowd-pleasing maneuvers in the ring. These can include high-risk aerial attacks or taunts designed to rile up the crowd. Fill up your heat meter to its max and you'll be able to pull off one of two finisher moves before moving in for the pin.

The build we had of WrestleMania XXI had some pretty serious AI issues, especially regarding tag team matches and wrestler run-ins, which usually either resulted in extended two- or three-on-one gang-ups on our controlled fighter (with no interference from the ref), or the interfering wrestlers merely walked the perimeter of the ring without even trying to get involved in the match. Provided these glaring problems are addressed--and we have no reason to expect they won't be--the game will probably provide a pretty good challenge, as even the AI-controlled characters commonly make use of the strike and grapple reversals, especially at the higher difficulty levels.

For those times when you're looking for some human competition, WrestleMania XXI will include online play that will surely be a step up from WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw for the PlayStation 2. The most significant upgrade will be in the types of matches available online. Not only will you be able to choose from any of the match types found in the single-player game--single, handicap, triple threat, fatal four-way, and, yes, bra and panty, among others--but also, specific rule sets will be available at your fingertips, such as cage match, hell in a cell, TLC, and ladder match. While we didn't have an opportunity to check out how the online play performs in our preview time with the game, these online options are a big step up from previous THQ wrestling efforts.

Graphically, the player models are some of the best we've seen in this generation's slew of wrestling games. While the models' mouths don't really sync up with the cutscene voice-overs, it's not distracting, because the players' gestures are so natural-looking. In the ring, we noticed a lot of missed punches and kicks (especially when attacking during a hold animation between two other opponents), but this is nothing new for wrestling games.

The between-match cutscenes in the career mode have taken a big step forward, so now there's good direction and entertaining dialogue.

Finally, while the voice-overs in the cutscenes work to great effect, the ringside commentary still has a way to go. The combinations of Michael Cole and Taz (from WWE SmackDown!) and Jerry Lawler and Jim Ross (from WWE Monday Night Raw) create some lively commentary, but neither team is very accurate at this point, and sometimes statements directly contradict one another. We're hoping the level of ringside voice-over meets the high bar of quality that the cutscenes have created when the final version of the game is shipped.

WrestleMania XXI is quickly approaching its April 3 pay-per-view date, and the game of the same name will be arriving even sooner. While there's still some work to go before it arrives in retail stores in fighting shape, we like the features we've seen so far. And we especially like the online play, which looks to be the most sophisticated yet seen in a WWE entry. We'll have more coverage of WrestleMania XXI, including a full review of the game, in the coming weeks.

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