The good news first: Wrestlemania 21 is the best WWE game on Xbox. Definitely. Okay, so it's one of only three WWE games admittedly, and it's fair to say the first two - Raw 1 and 2 - were absolutely atrocious. Well, okay, Raw 2 was good at the time, but it's aged really badly.
What Wrestlemania 21 isn't, however, is the finished article. At least, not yet. New development team Studio Gigante may have had a good crack
at bringing a credible wrestling game to Xbox, but it's clear there's still some way to go before we get anything to rival PS2's excellent Smackdown series.
On the plus side, there are plenty of areas where Wrestlemania 21 really shines. In the graphics department for instance, this boasts some of the most realistic wrestlers we've ever seen in a squared circle game. Not only that, they all display masses of utterly convincing animation, along with some of the most painful-looking explosions of blood and sweat this side of a historical war movie.
There's also a pleasingly comprehensive list of match types to plough through. Standard one-on-one and tag matches, cage matches, hell-in-a-cell, ladder, table and chair scraps, plus the ever-popular Royal Rumble and bra and panties events. Okay, casket and buried alive matches still aren't in yet, but surely that's just a matter of waiting until Wrestlemania 22, right?
As for the meat of the single-player game, you're talking Career mode, and it's here that Wrestlemania 21 goes back to basics. Create your own wrestler and take them to the top of the WWE. Simple. But rather than bewildering you with the unfocused, open-ended approach of Raw 2, Wrestlemania 21 unfolds through animated cutscenes, each one voiced by the actual superstars involved. Admittedly the plot-driven nature means it gets a bit linear on occasion, but there's no denying Career mode makes you feel like you're part of the weekly Smackdown and Raw shows.
Where Wrestlemania 21 starts to struggle, however, is in the ring. Never a good sign given this is where the bulk of the action is supposed to take place. Control-wise, Wrestlemania uses the face buttons for strikes and grapples and the shoulder buttons for reversals, the trick being that a correctly timed reversal can block any other move in the game. Which is fine, if you have the patience to learn the often absurdly quick timings needed for reversals, but thanks to the frequently sketchy collision detection that's much easier said than done. The moves are easy enough to pull off when you're on your own, but in an actual fight things can become worryingly unresponsive, especially when your opponent continually rains the smackdown on you and refuses to let you pick yourself up.
It's not bad enough to be unplayable, but the fact remains: the Wrestlemania series needs plenty more polish if it's to become anywhere near as smooth and responsive as, say, DOA Ultimate's.
But the real letdown with the current incarnation is all the silly little errors that stink up Wrestlemania 21 like sweaty jockstraps in Triple H's laundry basket. Inconsistencies such as the out-of-date player roster (why are Jazz and Nidia still there, yet characters like Heidenreich, William Regal and Torrie Wilson aren't), the fact that only four wrestlers are ever allowed on screen at once (why not six, or eight?), and that the list of unlockable legends is limited to say the least (no Hulk Hogan!) To be honest, as big WWE fans, we can't help but feel disappointed.
Much better than the Raw games, it's a step forwards for wrestling on Xbox, but there are still silly errors that need fixing.