Playing an early build of the game at last week's Konami Gamers Night, I couldn't help but notice that, underneath all of the focus being placed on the type of wrestling going on, the game itself already feels like a competent wrestling title. I had a chance to enter the ring one-on-one against another human opponent and what followed was a well-paced match, albeit not the most exciting to look at -- but only because we were both just learning the ropes.
During the presentation that introduced the game that night, there was such a rapid-fire reading of features planned for the final game that it was difficult to make out anything beyond promises of robust character creation and online matches, including máscara contra cabellera "mask versus hair" challenges where the loser either loses his mask (and identity) or gets his head shaved. There's also a planned gameplay mechanic whereby signature grapples for each luchador are unlocked as they gain the favor of the audience, but I didn't experience that aspect in my play time.
What I did experience was what felt like an already very solid fighting engine that shares a basic "feel" with the earlier Smackdown! games but features a deeper grappling and submission system. Similar to the old -- classic -- N64 wrestling games from Aki, AAA Heroes of the Ring let me initiate standard or strong grapples on my opponent, at which point the face buttons would each execute a different move. In this respect, it feels like the Aki games, sans the ability to swing around an opponent for front/rear grapples.
The submission and pin system was a combination button-mashing tug of war and button matching game, where random button icons would appear in the on-screen meter and both of us had to pound the correct one as quickly as possible to escape a pin/submission or prevent the other from doing so.
Nothing really wowed me about the character animation, but the game does look good at this point. The ring, audience, arena and referee were rendered realistically, so at least there won't be 2D "standees" where the onlookers should be. A real standout visually was the creativity in character design, especially the luchadores' masks and costumes.
As a fan of pro wrestling, it's nice to see someone finally giving lucha libre a game of its own -- and one that seems to do justice to the style and heritage it possesses. Still, even if the game turns out to be good, it's going to take a lot of effort and money on Konami's part to get WWE fans to take notice, since I doubt fancy masks and acrobatics alone will do it.