Here in 2016, professional wrestling proves to be one of the great entertainment quandaries of our time: regaled by some as high-class performance art – a mix of dance, storytelling, athleticism, and fan participation; jeered by others as sweaty men in spandex performing “fake” moves on one-another.
And this identity crisis has followed the industry into the medium of video games. For years, WWE games have struggled to tow the line between “sport” and “showmanship.” Some outings have given fans a bevy of features and endless match options, but have failed to deliver a fighting system of much substanance. Other efforts have managed to spotlight in-ring action at the expense of replayability and features.
2K Games is still trying to strike that balance. After acquiring the license just under three years ago, it’s delivered a last-gen effort more iterative than original with 2K14, a current-gen beauty all looks and no brains in last year’s 2K15, and this year’s “you win some, you lose some” WWE 2K16. And yes, unlike what McMahon and Co. would have you believe, wins and losses still matter.
What? What?! WHAT?!?!
The focus of this year’s advertising is “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. The Texas Rattlesnake graces the cover, he graces the ads, and the entire 2K Showcase is built around his historic career. As an attitude-era kid who still has his original WWF-branded “Class of 3:16” ballcap on display in the spare room, this mode was hand-crafted for somebody like me.
Unfortunately, it’s something I’ve already experienced a handful of times in recent years. One of THQ’s final outings had us re-living the Attitude Era beat-by-beat – and many of the same beats featured here. And 2K14 filled us in with some of Wrestlemania’s biggest matches of all time. So while it’s great to see many of Austin’s biggest moments so lovingly handcrafted (and the presentation here is nothing short of phenomenal – JR and Jerry Lawler together again makes my heart swoon), I really miss the deep-dive in WWE’s catalog we got last year. Playing out select feuds – like CM Punk vs John Cena, or the classic Triple H/Shawn Michaels firestorm that brought “The Heartbreak Kid” back in WWE full-time – felt like something… different.
Again, I can’t undercut all the hard work 2K put together in curating one of the most thorough (and most fun) Austin retrospectives, with video packages, commentary, and more. I just wish a different decision had been made from the get-go. Nostalgia is a trip, just one that’s gone on a little too far.
The Champ is Here
2K also returned to, and expanded upon, the more sim-based grappling system it defined in last year’s game. It has its merits: the submission mini-game, the grapple mechanic, and the rest-hold system are all pretty fun. Unfortunately, they don’t last long enough for the user to really process what’s happening. I wish they were dialed back just a little bit – more akin to EA MMA or the latter UFC Undisputed games – to make me feel like I was actually “grappling” and jockeying for position. As it stands, it still feels kind of like dumb luck. Similarly, the rock-paper-scissors tie-up game is… literally… dumb luck.
The limited-reversal system is back, as is the cumbersome stamina system and irritating health bar. I understand these create a more “realistic” approach to the in-ring action, but they each have their flaws.
For example, only having a set number of reversals (you can earn more) means that once you’re done, you have to wait before countering anymore of your opponent’s moves. This sounds great, in theory: no more endless reversal chains that see neither superstar get the upper hand. But I’d argue that the smaller reversal window achieves this exact same effect – having to “time” your reversal in such a particular way pretty much ensures you won’t hit more than one or two reversals in a row. Furthermore, running out of reversals breaks up some really great moments. Like imagine countering your opponent’s finisher, countering his follow-up attack, and then striking back with a finisher of your own? If you’ve used any reversals within a few moves, you’re unlikely to have enough in the bank to do all that.
The stamina and health bar make sense from a theoretical perspective. But in execution, I kept running into situations where I could dominate my opponent throughout an entire match, hit a flurry of moves to put him down, but then barely make it to the top rope for my finisher. Why? It seems like if momentum was on my side, and the crowd was behind me, I’d have no issue popping up for the win. Instead, the action slowed down when things got most crucial.
Other weird things… Playing as John Cena against Bo Dallas, beating him to within an inch of his life, and having him kick out of an Attitude Adjustment. Also, every opponent I played against kicked out of a finisher on the first attempt, and I had to follow up with ANOTHER finisher before they’d stay down for the count.
This might seem nitpicky (it is) and it might not end up being that big of a deal to most (it won’t), but I found that the style of gameplay didn’t suit what I typically associate with WWE television. I get it, 2K is going for a “sim” style and that’s fantastic. But the balance still isn’t perfect. While THQ’s later games definitely erred on the arcadey side, the gameplay ticked along in such a way that it felt both fun, frenetic, and authentic. 2K doesn’t need to abandon the formula, it just needs to refine the recipe. And knock out a few nasty bugs along the way.
For the Benefit of Those with Flash Photography
There’s little doubt that 2K Games is the king of sports sim presentations. The menus are dazzling, the voice-over work incredible, the characters all look fantastic and lifelike (save for a few stray models which are undoubtedly last-gen holdovers), the animations are smooth, and every little WWE broadcast nuance is in full display. The game feels as close to being there as sitting ringside.
A few small issues cropped up in my gameplay time. For example, the camera would go haywire at spots, inducing mini-earthquakes while zooming in on the action. The logo animations between replays showed a sudden drop in framerate that was disconcerting. And various bugs kept popping up that made me scratch my head (like the time Seth Rollins magically warped through the ropes). Of course, these issues are par for the course with wrestling games, so this is not a “2K Games” specific issue as much as it is a “wrestling games have a lot of junk going on, with too many overlapping systems” issue. And when you consider the one-year turnaround time, it’s impressive they squashed as many gremlins as they did from last year.
Another area of concern was load times. I didn’t notice it that much in-between gameplay screens, or when choosing match types, but they were downright atrocious when I was trying to create-a-wrestler for Career Mode. It was almost painful enough to make me want to go play something different. Again, the game is balancing so many different systems with endless options, so it’s not entirely unexpected. But I shouldn’t be required to pull my hair out trying to choose tights for my future superstar.
That being said, the team at 2K Games added back in so many match types, extra options, and depth to existing modes, that I can’t beat them up too much. Sure, much of it was just replacing what was stripped out last year. But where they built extra, it felt meaningful. For example, the Career Mode returns with actual choices and variety of paths. This time being a WWE superstar, from NXT to WrestleMania, feels more authentic, than last year’s on-rails experience. Changes to WWE Universe mode feel more iterative than exciting, but again, they’ve added in a few key areas to freshen the experience. And the roster is as up-to-date as one can expect, with new outfits and gimmicks dating back to Summer 2015.
Basically, it’s everything a wrestling fan could want, with 2K’s shiny coat of beautiful on top.
The Bottom Line…
Last year was a decidedly “meh” affair. WWE 2K16 brings things a little more on the plus side, with a number of great additions, even more bug fixes, and the attention to detail that 2K Games prides itself in. Is it perfect? No way. And while I question a few key decisions, there’s so much endless fun here that wrestling fans should find themselves occupied for hours to come.
I think we’re still one year away from the greatness that 2K is truly capable of. In the meantime, WWE 2K16 will do a pretty good job as #1 contender.