Up until this point in time, it seemed like WWE games on the Xbox simply couldn't get any worse. After the aggressively unremarkable WWF Raw and WWE Raw 2 came and went, THQ eventually decided to ditch former developer Anchor and start anew. Enter Studio Gigante, and its first foray into the world of professional wrestling, Wrestlemania XXI. Unfortunately, change was not for the better in this case--not even close. Wrestlemania XXI is about as half-baked a wrestling game as you're going to find on any platform. Despite the fact that it boasts a nice-looking graphics engine, a career mode featuring voice work from all the WWE superstars, and online play for every major match type, none of these things can salvage what is ultimately a shallow, clunky, near-broken mess of a game. Not to mention that one of these features (namely, the online play) doesn't even work.
First and foremost, Wrestlemania XXI's gameplay engine is an out-and-out failure. The basic concepts are certainly sound. You've got one strike button and a pair of grappling buttons. Each grappling button performs two different types of grapples, depending on whether or not you simply tap the button or hold it down. For counters, a little icon will appear at the top of the screen near your health bar, indicating whether you should hit the right trigger to counter a strike, or the left trigger to counter a grapple. The timing on these counters is tricky, but after a little practice it actually becomes pretty much a total breeze to counter most any attack that comes your way, unless of course you up the difficulty level from the ridiculously easy default level. If you do this, the icons disappear and counters become an exercise in random frustration. Of course, the game is still pretty easy, even if you don't bother with counters.
This is mostly because the artificial intelligence in the game is just flat-out broken. Once you get away from the pathetic default difficulty, your opponents eventually become competent and occasionally challenging, but there are some behaviors that are just mind-boggling. In a tag match, your odds of winning are very high, mainly because even on the off chance that your opponent's partner decides to run in and break up the tag (which actually is not a guarantee), he'll usually get there too late or just miss the pin breakup altogether. If you're playing any variation of a ladder match, all you have to do is just get up the ladder to the belt, and the match is yours. Sure, it does the age-old thing where you dangle from the belt for a while as you try to yank it down. But rather than actually climb up the ladder and try to stop you from grabbing it, your opponent will just intentionally knock over the ladder and stand there like a dolt while you grab the prize. There are even issues with some of the specific wrestler classes, like high flyers for instance, who will constantly go up top for a high-risk move at the most inopportune times, to the point where you might think they're stuck in some kind of AI loop. There are barely any high-flying moves in the game to begin with, so you'll see a lot of easy-to-dodge double axe handles in this case. We could go on and on with examples like these, but to sum it up quickly, the computer opponents in this game are morons.
In fact, the only thing that makes the game challenging in the slightest is how the grappling engine just sometimes doesn't quite work right. Basically, the hit detection is not good at all (even for a wrestling game). Standing strikes and grapples usually lock up alright (though you'll see some really strange misses from time to time), but ground moves are all but broken for the most part. Trying to actually get your guy to lock in a ground submission is extremely frustrating, as you have to take the time to position him exactly in the right spot and then press a direction on the D pad or control stick, and a grapple button. Of course, this will frequently move your guy out of the way of where he needs to be, thus letting your opponent jump up very quickly.
And therein lies another problem: The game has an altogether peculiar stance on when someone is up and when someone is down. This means that you'll have to be very, very quick about your ground strikes early in a match, because even though you might think your opponent is on the ground, he'll actually be considered up, simply because he's in a sitting up position. So if you try a strike, you'll miss badly, causing your guy to writhe around on the ground for perhaps longer than he needs to. What's even worse is that after a while it will start taking your wrestler or your opponent (depending on who is losing) forever to stand up. This means that you can just lock in submission after submission after submission to your heart's content. The CPU actually is smart enough (or broken enough) to realize this, so you may find yourself in a lot of annoying submission loops where the only chance of escape lies in the hope that your opponent will actually pick you up, at which point you'll recover the moment he strikes you.
What is perhaps most unfortunate about Wrestlemania XXI's gameplay is that it really did have the potential to be something worthwhile. The grappling engine itself, while generally simplistic, could have worked pretty well, but it would have needed a lot more fine-tuning to add some actual depth to the whole experience. As it turned out, it's just way, way too easy to just punch and grapple an opponent to death without any competition whatsoever. There is also a fine roster of match types, ranging from the typical bouts to cage matches, hell in the cell, last man standing, and so on (although many of these gimmicks can only be played in a one-on-one match). But you'll never really want to bother playing any of them, because one AI problem or another will cause the match to be over quickly, or it will drag on endlessly (like the last-man standing match, in which your opponent will refuse to stay down unless you focus all your attacks on his head). Playing against another player alleviates the AI problems, but with so many exploitable holes in the engine, multiplayer isn't any fun, either. There's a framework here for a fun wrestling engine, but that's all it is: a shallow husk with nothing built around it.
In terms of play modes, pretty much all the usual suspects are here, including a career mode, create-a-wrestler mode, a WWE shop to purchase unlockables, a create-a-belt mode, and new to WWE games on the Xbox, full Xbox Live support. However, for varying reasons, each and every one of these modes fails to reach the level of any other WWE game from this console generation.
The online play in Wrestlemania XXI is easily the most attractive feature in the game. Too bad you can't play it. Somehow, some way, the retail game that you can buy in stores right now will not connect to Xbox Live at all. It doesn't even try; it just spits out a fat connection error the second you try to sign in. How the game could have shipped with such a significant oversight is unthinkable, though for what it's worth, with gameplay like this, online play wouldn't have helped much. And in case you were wondering, the possibility of an online patch doesn't seem like it's going to be an option, what with the whole inability to even connect to Xbox Live thing.
The career mode is perhaps the best mode in Wrestlemania XXI, though the term "best" is relative here. Similar to WWE Day of Reckoning on the GameCube, you'll first have to create a new superstar. The create-a-wrestler mode has a decent, if somewhat limited, list of available customizations for your wrestler. Granted, you'll need to play a fair amount of matches to earn cash to buy a lot of the good stuff for the CAW mode. But even so, the good stuff isn't that spectacular, and you'll find an awful lot of omissions here, including a much shorter list of moves, costumes, facial adjustments, and entrance customizations than even Raw 2 had. The CAW interface is also super clunky, as you can't even view any potential customizations until you've actually selected it from the menu, which means you'll have to go back and forth constantly to try to find the right pieces.
Anyhow, back to the career mode itself. Once you have your wrestler created, you find yourself in SmackDown! general manager Theodore Long's office. Teddy Long gives your wrestler a chance to earn a roster spot on SmackDown! by working a few matches on Velocity. From here, it's 52 matches from Velocity to Wrestlemania, and then your career is over. Much like in the PS2's SmackDown! vs. Raw, any possibility of branching paths in your career has been done away with for the sake of making a more scripted and produced storyline. The mode features dialogue from all the wrestlers in the game; however, unlike in SmackDown! vs. Raw, that's not an altogether bad thing. Save for a few really bad dialogue spots, the voice acting is a whole lot better than that of SmackDown! vs. Raw, and the story itself isn't half bad, either. Your character is even assigned a voice, though in somewhat of a strange choice, the developers decided to make your character initially very unlikable. Essentially, you're a total jackass and you bad-mouth everyone backstage, regardless of their affiliation. After a while, everybody starts trying to screw you over, so eventually your attitude becomes somewhat justifiable. But to begin with, having your character play a total heel doesn't seem like quite the right way to go. Certainly, having him be a total Boy Scout would have been a bit much too, but a more delicate balance would have been preferable.
Once you've finished the career mode (which shouldn't take more than four to five hours), there's not a whole lot of reason to go back to it again, as the storyline never, ever changes. With the online play pretty much broken and the create-a-wrestler mode lacking in depth and a decent interface, you are left with just the create-a-belt mode to play around with. Unfortunately, this mode isn't that great, either. Basically, you can use all the old WWF-style championship belts, as well as logos from all the pay-per-views. Throw in a few unattractive-looking extra plates, and voila, you've got a belt. You can use the belts in exhibition matches (though you can't actually assign the belt to a specific superstar; rather, the game will just give the belt to whoever you're playing as), but the main draw of the mode is that you're supposed to be able to win and lose your created belts online. So much for that idea, eh?
Even outside of the broken online mode, shallow gameplay, and utter lack of other engaging features, Wrestlemania XXI features a lengthy laundry list of obnoxious bugs, rough edges, and interface problems. For starters, the menus and related features of this game transcend clunky to the point of being unusable. Take, for example, the profile system. If you're going to make a game where you have to use a profile to save all your earned cash and other assorted goodies, you'd make that profile automatically load upon start-up, right? Well, apparently Studio Gigante disagrees with this notion. You can start a career, or you can wrestle 100 exhibition matches and never earn a dime because you didn't think to go create a profile, or because you forgot to load your current one. You have to load it yourself every single time. Another big problem with the game is the loading times. They are overly long and they make the game chug badly--to the point where the loading menus become choppy. In fact, whenever the game has to try to load an end-of-match replay, it practically looks like it's going to have a heart attack, as the screen gets crazy choppy and the audio breaks up horribly.
If there is one bright, shining light to be found in Wrestlemania XXI, it's the graphics engine, which can be quite stunning at times. The wrestler models are extremely impressive and highly detailed, and they look especially nice because of the game's lighting system (though they can look a little too shiny at times, as well). The wrestling arenas are similarly well made, and the crowd graphics are easily the best in any wrestling game. Now, with all of that said, there are some problems, too...specifically, animation problems. The basic move animations, when performed properly, look very nice, thanks to the use of motion capturing. However, the motion capturing also makes the movements of the wrestlers seem sluggish at times, too. The biggest animation issue is that sometimes animations will glitch very badly. You'll hit the grapple button when you're like six feet away from your opponent, and then you or he will teleport into the grapple. Executing a finisher will cause your wrestler to skip ahead to the move setup from a completely inopportune stance, which looks awful, and breaking a table causes it to instantly disappear the second you hit the mat. Things like this ultimately drag the visuals down. Then again, considering the level of quality throughout the rest of the game, it's not surprising that the visuals have their blemishes also.
Apart from the solid voice acting, there's really not much to the rest of the audio. Commentary is about on par with SmackDown! vs. Raw, though during the career mode here the commentators will actually talk about specific points of interest regarding the main storyline. Aside from this, the audio is just a bland play-by-play that sometimes is flat-out wrong. Wrestlemania XXI features roughly the same soundtrack found in both WWE Day of Reckoning and WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw, though with a few more tracks of the same basic hard rock genre thrown in for good measure. You can, thankfully, use the Xbox's custom soundtrack feature for entrance themes for your created wrestlers. The sound effects are OK for the most part, but there are at least a few that are pretty off. A lot of the weapon hits aren't really very good, and some of the strike moves just sound odd. There's also the problem with the audio skipping during the loading screens and menu transitions. Granted, that's a side effect of bigger problems, but it still hinders the overall audio experience.
As far as wrestling games are concerned, Wrestlemania is the kind of bad that hasn't existed since THQ was releasing games like WCW/NWO Thunder. This game clearly wasn't ready for prime time for a whole slew of different reasons, not the least of which is the promised online play that doesn't even function. Xbox wrestling fans haven't had it easy this console generation, but even so, there's no reason they should settle for a sloppy mess like Wrestlemania XXI.