The Legends of Wrestling series has always been one of those games where the concept was better than the execution. Taking control of an all-time great who has either retired or passed away and pitting them up against another great sounds like a great idea for rabid wrestling fans – and it is a great idea, it's just that the actual games have left a bit to be desired. Acclaim is aware of the previous titles' shortcomings and for this game they transferred development responsibilities to their Austin studios. The end result is a title that's improved over last year's in many ways, but one that still needs more work and polish.
The biggest draw of Legends of Wrestling is its large roster of past and current stars of wrestling. Hulk Hogan, Randy "Macho Man" Savage, Sting, Ultimate Warrior, Andre The Giant, Jake "The Snake" Roberts, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes, Bret "Hitman" Hart, Diamond Dallas Page, Andy Kaufman, Big Poppa Pump, Eddie Guerro, and many more are present. There are also a lot of tag teams included in the game, some of which are: The Road Warriors, Steiner Brothers, British Bulldogs, Koloffs, Nasty Boys, Rock-n-Roll Express and more. Obviously everyone can't be in the game, but there are many notable omissions like Rob Van Dam (who was in it last year), Junkyard Dog, Scott Hall, and Jesse Ventura. There is a create-a-wrestler mode that can help you make some of the superstars that are missing, but it's not anywhere near as robust as what you find in some other wrestling games.
Once you select your wrestler you have a variety of play options from which to choose. The meat of the gameplay, if you're playing alone is the "showdown challenge". Here you will guide your wrestler through three decades of wrestling all in pursuit of a match against Hulk Hogan. Each match is set up through a somewhat flimsy "story" in a wrasslin' magazine. There are several match types including: Singles, Tag, Cage, Ladder, Ironman, First Blood, Battle Royal, Hardcore and many others. None of these matches are revolutionary, and you've probably played each one many, many times if you're a fan of wrestling games. However, the match list is deeper than it was last year, which is always a good thing.
The actual gameplay in Legends of Wrestling is still not up to par with upper echelon of wrestling titles, but it is much improved over the previous LoW games. The series has always had a somewhat sluggish feel to it, and now, while it's still not blazing fast, the pace of the matches is much better. The controls are standard fare and easy to learn, and even the counter-moves are easy to pick up. The fact that the controls aren't intimidating is refreshing, and something that will encourage your buddies to play against you even if you're far better, because they'll still get some good shots in.
Unfortunately, there are still several problems with the overall gameplay. Key amongst these is that sometimes the controls just don't seem to respond or if they do, it's very late. You'll often see a sequence of moves where both wrestlers seem to be reacting to moves that you performed several seconds before, or sometimes they look like they're just doing their own thing. The AI is also a bit suspect as there doesn't ever seem to be much strategy to what the computer is trying to do to you, and the tag-team AI is bad for both sides. Overall, the gameplay is much better than before, but there is still a long way to go before it's great.
One key area where this year's version shines compared to the rest is in its visual presentation. The cartoony look has been ditched in favor of a more realistic rendition of each wrestler and they all look great. The animations for special moves, taunts and entrances are also quite good. In particular, while many of the punches and kicks aren't that great, many of the slams are fantastic looking, especially with the zoomed in camera. In fact, the camera is another very good aspect of the game – it will zoom out when needed, but when the two wrestlers are grappling or one is performing a move on the other, it will zoom in and get right up on the action.
Showdown features a three-man commentary with Tony Schiavone, Larry Zbyszko & Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, and while the effort is appreciated, the commentary is generally bland an uninteresting. After the 3rd time in one minute where I heard the announcers ask how someone was going to get out of the scorpion deathlock, and I wasn't even performing it, I knew it was time to mute the commentary. Since there are all sorts of licensing issues with using wrestlers that wrestled for several different companies over several different decades, much of the entrance music isn't what you remembered hearing as a child. Jimmy Hart, who has written many classic theme songs, composed songs for wrestlers that couldn't have their "real" tunes, and for the most part, they sound fine. Some wrestlers have multiple songs, which is designed to compliment a gimmick or character they played. For example, Hogan has a song similar to "Real American" and he also has a song that's like "Voodoo Child" from when he was a heel. This is a really nice touch, and one that adds to the authentic presentation in the game.
Overall, Showdown: Legends of Wrestling is a must-have for any old-school wrestling fan. However, if you're a more recent fan of the WWE, or you're just a casual fan, there isn't enough depth to the game, nor is the gameplay solid enough to warrant a purchase. Yes, it's better than it was last year, but perhaps a year off for the series to really re-tool is in order because it just can't keep up with the likes of Smackdown: HCTP.