With industry heavyweight WWE effectively monopolising the professional wrestling genre over the past decade, licence holder 2K Games has recently come under heavy fire over its series becoming increasingly stagnant in the eyes of many fans.
The time would seem ripe, therefore, for a franchise to cement its place as a worthy alternative, if not competitor, to the sports entertainment giant. Dundee-based indie developer Serious Parody hopes to position its latest offering as one such main eventer, and initial impressions of the studio’s 5 Star Wrestling are highly positive. With promises of compelling core gameplay – inspired by the ‘glory years’ of pro wrestling games, including the likes of WWF No Mercy on the N64 – combined with new and innovative mechanics, could this be the grappling title hardcore wrestling fans have wanted for many years?
Optimism soon turns to disappointment, however, when you spend a little time with 5 Star Wrestling. For this underdog, despite a number of unique and exciting concepts, its overall execution is unfortunately more worthy of blooper reel compilation Botchamania than Wrestlemania.
With the world’s most prominent superstars all tied up contractually, Serious Parody has gone down a somewhat unusual (though predictable, given its name) route for the title’s roster. As opposed to pursuing small-time and independent wrestlers with limited name value, 5 Star Wrestling’s line-up is instead comprised of some familiar, yet somehow different, faces.
From the likes of Mike Iceberg and Andy Organ to Johnny ‘The Bull’ Miavia and HarVee Dee, each of the game’s eight characters pay homage to their various real-life counterparts in a rather caricatured fashion. With almost, but not quite, true-to-life entrance music, attire and movesets, 5 Star’s roster allows seasoned fans to immediately jump into the action and feel at ease with the moves and personality of the majority of superstars present.
On the flip side, however, I can’t help but look upon the title’s roster as something of a missed opportunity. All of the wrestlers present have already been featured, in authentic form, in WWE games past and present. Here, while amusing for the first few go-arounds, they mostly feel and play like inferior knock-offs of the real thing. Personally, I’d have rather seen some of the more high-profile indie workers from the world’s many smaller promotions given their chance in the spotlight. This is a title aimed at hardcore wrestling fans, after all.
Furthermore, with only eight wrestlers present, you’ll soon grow bored of 5 Star Wrestling’s shallow offering, which pales in comparison to the likes of WWE 2K15 and even niche competitors like Fire Pro Wrestling. Although Serious Parody has repeatedly attempted to justify this lack of depth by boasting that its title contains more moves per superstar than any other wrestling game, it still feels too meagre – especially with no additional grapplers available to unlock in-game.
Many of 5 Star Wrestling’s other inherent problems become glaringly obvious as soon as you jump into a match via its exhibition mode or quick-start option. While the title has been in development for over three years and released exclusively for PlayStation 3, it looks and feels like a PS2-era game at best. Underwhelming textures, blocky character models and faces that lack detail all blight the game, despite some decently designed arenas and lighting effects. Of course, the game’s lack of graphical fidelity wouldn’t be so much of an issue if its gameplay delivered on all of the promise it showed prior to release.
It’s certainly worth noting that 5 Star does, at times, come fleetingly close to living up to its considerable hype. For starters, its core mechanics come as a refreshing change to someone who is accustomed to WWE 2K’s cumbersome chain grappling system and its constant reliance on reversals. The title’s gameplay in many ways harks back to the ever-popular engine AKI engine, used by various late-’90s Nintendo 64 wrestling titles, including WCW/nWo Revenge and the aforementioned WWF No Mercy. Basic strikes are utilised by pressing X, while the right analogue stick is reserved for grapples; a flick in each direction corresponds to a different move. L2 and R2 perform reversals for strikes and grapples, respectively, while all of the shoulder buttons are used as modifiers for a superstar’s standard moves, which is where the 5 Star’s limb damage system can also come into play.
By using a character who specialises in submissions, such as Curtis Angel (ankle lock), Ragnabrök (kimura) or Dynamite Pegasus (crossface), players are able to target certain body parts in anticipation for setting up their finisher. Although WWE’s games include a similar feature, it is much more expanded upon here in 5 Star, with leg damage often rendering grapplers unable to lift their opponent and perform certain moves as the punishment takes its toll. Visible bruising and blood are both present as matches wear on, and serve to complement the game’s graphical health meters.
Finisher-to-finisher reversals and a number of opportunities for situational special moves are both present in the title, whose core gameplay also offers several other features that set it apart from some of its more established rivals. For one, 5 Star’s AI is fully customisable, allowing players to select certain presets such as standard, aggressive, stubborn, efficient, and unpredictable – all of which have a tangible impact on the way the computer plays, and allow you to tailor your experience the way you want.
Not only that, but the game also incorporates a number of different finishing move variations, a staple of any wrestling match. Take Curtis Angel, for example: early in a match, he might apply his patented ankle lock standing up. If he’s really been through a war, however, he might kneel or even grapevine his opponent’s leg – then struggle to regain his feet afterwards due to the amount of stamina exerted. Relatively minor additions like these go a long way to helping players recreate the authentic drama and psychology of a sports entertainment contest.
Another important part of wrestling psychology is drawing a distinction between the good guys (‘faces’) and the bad guys (‘heels’). Sports entertainment fans will be used to witnessing all manner of dirty and illegal tactics from heels, but wrestling games, for the most part, haven’t been very successful in effectively pulling them off. 5 Star Wrestling goes some way to redress this, allowing players to press of R3 when controlling a heel to perform dirty moves such as ‘low-blows’ (groin shots). To prevent players spamming these particularly effective manoeuvres, a referee icon appears on-screen each time to serve as a warning; after three infractions in quick succession, you’ll likely find yourself disqualified.
Dave Meltzer fans will be pleased to learn that each match in 5 Star Wrestling is graded – appropriately – based on a five-star rating system, which takes into account the many facets of a real-life pro wrestling contest. This adds an extra incentive in exhibition mode for players to put on a decent, back-and-forth match, rather than simply move-spamming their way to a finish.
The rating system really comes into its own in 5 Star’s main Challenge Mode, which offers players up to a 40-hour campaign where they can earn coins in order to unlock alternate attires, new arenas (although there are only three in total), and different match types. This involves playing through a number of matches and scenarios, where you must complete a number of set objectives – as well as earn a five-star rating – in order to receive the most money. Although Challenge Mode certainly adds a decent level of replayability to the game, players will have to be willing to see it through to the end to attain all of the rewards it has to offer – which may prove a challenge in and of itself as it soon tends to get repetitive.
At this point, you might find yourself questioning some of the more scathing comments made earlier on. Make no mistake: some of 5 Star Wrestling’s gameplay concepts are truly innovative, and with all the variables being in your favour, it’s possible to have some fairly memorable matches in this game. However, I must emphasise that the way in which these concepts have been realised is, on the whole, decidedly lacklustre.
Most irritatingly, 5 Star’s collision and hit detection systems are sorely lacking. Along with a number of match-ending glitches and generally clunky animations, they often turn many bouts into farcical exhibitions, which are entertaining only for all of the wrong reasons. Expect to see wrestlers constantly fall through the ring, float above the apron, and in some extreme cases, attempt to put on a match with an invisible man. Even with the best will in the world, it’s impossible to look past these infuriating bugs, as they have such a heavy impact on the title’s core gameplay.
In my experience, these glitches became even worse when playing 5 Star’s offline multiplayer (there are no online modes to speak off). Out of five matches I played with friends, we were only able to actually complete three of them. In one contest, Gregg Hearty got seemingly superglued to the top turnbuckle, completely impervious to all damage, while in another, HarVee Dee sunk beneath the ring canvas, never to reappear. It became so bad that I was actually embarrassed to play the title at a Wrestlemania party, which was supposed to be a celebration of all things wrestling.
Such grievances become practically unforgivable when you consider the game’s $24.99 price tag; by no means a budget release considering the fact that it is last-gen only. Along with its mediocre graphics, shallow roster, and an unpolished overall presentation, 5 Star Wrestling’s bug-riddled gameplay makes the title feel very much incomplete.
Its failure to perform on the big stage is a real shame, because Serious Parody are clearly huge wrestling fans themselves, and had some genuinely ambitious ideas and creative plans for 5 Star Wrestling. As it turns out, these appear to have been too ambitious for the limited resources the independent studio had at their disposal.
Rather than forging its way into the pro wrestling genre as a serious main event contender, 5 Star Wrestling seems destined to perpetually linger in lower-midcard hell.