It's been two years since 2K Sports took the reins from THQ and began to offer its own spin on the flagship WWE game series, with last year's entry very much seeming like a testing ground for the company's ambitious goals. However, with 2K16 now body-slamming store shelves, has it learned from its mistakes?
While the controls are identical to those found in 2K15, immediately noticeable are the number of adjustments made to the gameplay. Matches will start off with a lock up – like a wrestling equivalent of rock, paper, scissors – with the aim of draining an opponent's stamina, but can easily result in either combatant pushing their opponents to the ropes or a turn-buckle, forcing the ref to come in and break the hold.
Equally, reversals are no longer a spammable option, instead being earned as a result of waiting for a bar on the HUD to fill segments. This prevents you from reversing every move that you attempt, and really helps to progress the back and forth gameplay that 2K15 worked so hard to produce.
When pinned, you're presented with a golf-style minigame in which the aim is to press X while in the highlighted sweet spot. The more damaged the participant is, the smaller the spot and more challenging the kick out. While fundamentally the same, the bar seen in previous titles has become a circle.
However, not all of the changes are positive, with the most frustrating adjustment coming courtesy of a new submission system. Previously, both superstars had to mash buttons to fill/empty a ring in order to complete the submission process. This year, a blue and red bar must chase each other around a similar ring using the right analogue stick. The person with the hold locked must aim to get their bar of colour into the opponent's in order to fill the central reservoir and submit them.
The issue seems to be with the controls. We tried spinning the analogue stick and pointing it in the direction we wanted to move, but its movement was sluggish at best, and when faced with AI who could zip their coloured bar around at will, we found the system incredibly unintuitive, and were regularly tapped out to underwhelming chin locks.
Cover star, Stone Cold Steve Austin, is the centre of attention this year, as this year's Showcase mode revolves exclusively around the Texas Rattlesnake. Documenting his tenure at WCW, ECW, and WWF/WWE, 2K16's showcase mode allows you to relive the toughest SOB in the WWE's finest moments.
As with last year's showcase mode, Austin's experience is a combination of real footage, gameplay, and in-game cutscenes aping the real-life events of the matches you're playing through. The gameplay element comes from fulfilling certain criteria outlined in the top corner of the screen, and can vary from 'Irish whip Undertaker in the ring' to 'grapple Bret Hart while near the steel steps'.
It's all basic stuff and never presents much of a challenge, and while it's true that there are very few wrestling fans that actively dislike Austin, the mode can feel like a bit of a slog at times. In our opinion, Showcase has been pushed as far as it can go, and it must be an easy formula to follow given 2K's recent reliance on it. However, a strong My Career mode is where the future of the series lies, so it's a shame that it's somehow become more tedious than last year.
You begin by creating your superstar and learning the ropes at the WWE Performance Centre. After being there for a couple of weeks, you'll start to have weekly matches on NXT and Superstars. The goal from there is to challenge for titles, make it to the main roster, and eventually fulfil enough career goals to make it into the hall of fame.
Thankfully, there's a much larger number of NXT superstars and lower-tier wrestlers this year to make up your opponents, but this doesn't stop you from facing the same people over and over again. A brand new system introduced this year allows you to 'break out' during an opponent's entrance and attack them before the match starts. You can even do this in matches you have nothing to do with, and this is how you make rivals and allies.
If you attack someone enough, they will become your rival, and interfere with your matches just as often. Equally, if you save someone enough, they will become your tag partner, allowing you to go for tag team gold. These rivalries seem to be the main focus in this year's Career Mode, which is a shame, because outside of horribly voice acted and repetitive backstage interviews, rivalries all seem to end after a couple of Pay-Per-Views.
It doesn't help that you start off rated extremely low stats-wise, meaning you'll either accumulate quite the losing streak, or matches will become long, tedious affairs. With a very low SP pay off for wins, and even less for losses – regardless of the star rating your match receives – facing the same opponent week after week can become pretty soul destroying. Hall of Fame objectives include holding a title for 365 days and winning the Royal Rumble three times, but after being number one contender for a title for three months without a championship match, we'd be surprised if most players don't even make it out of NXT.
Mercifully, creation tools have received a real boost with the return of a multitude of modes, including Create a Superstar and entrance. Create a Diva is finally back in, which should help soothe the pain of those still reeling from the exclusion of the 4 Horsewomen, as are suites for creating arenas and championships. New to 2K16 is Create a Show, which allows you to design a new WWE brand, including an arena, all the artwork, and the name, before letting you use it in universe mode, which also makes a return.
WWE 2K16 definitely makes some strides in the right direction, but with Showcase mode becoming a little stale and Career Mode somehow taking a step back, it's clear that 2K is very much still getting to grips with the series. The gameplay is getting better and presentation-wise there's not a great deal that needs improving, but it's going to be a while before we see the publisher with championship gold around its waist.