Wrestling fans across the globe had high hopes for the WWE video game franchise when the license was acquired by 2K Games, believing that with a fresh and more reputable publisher at the helm they would finally get the game they had always dreamed of. Unfortunately, since the franchise has moved to the PlayStation 4 it has been a case of two steps forward and three steps back with each annual instalment. The publisher has returned again with WWE 2K18, promising big improvements in a multitude of areas – but has it come?

The areas WWE 2K18 has most definitively nailed are the roster, presentation and the actual wrestling gameplay. This year's game boasts a staggering 174 unique playable characters available on the disc, a record for the franchise, and this number reaches 213 if managers and alternate versions of superstars are included. Almost every superstar currently in the WWE is featured, with less than a handful of notable superstars not making the cut. It's one thing to have a large roster, but it's a whole other ballgame for them to all look fantastic. 2K and Yuke's have worked hard to revamp the lighting system, which has made both superstars and arenas look far better than they did just a year ago. Similarly, the facial scans have improved this year, too. No longer will fans be put off by grotesque interpretations of the stars they know and love (Dana Brooke's character model was particularly egregious in WWE 2K17).

The gameplay was nailed quite early in 2K's time in control of the series and it's only improved upon it again. The WWE 2K series prides itself on being a realistic simulation of wrestling, and it's managed to replicate WWE's in-ring product almost perfectly. The pacing of matches plays out much like you would see in real life and the sheer variety and depth in the move-sets available means that even if you're playing with just one character for an extended period of time you'll never become bored. The improvements made this year might seem minor to the casual eye, but diehard fans will cherish each of these additions. 

Firstly, there is a new lifting and carrying system in play. You now have the option of four different ways to pickup opponents, which you can then use to transition into moves, or more importantly, can interact with the environment around you. It's so satisfying to pull off a turnbuckle power bomb or drop someone face-first into the barricade outside of the ring. Avid fans will also notice many new, smaller animations that further increase immersion. Last year introduced the roll-out mechanic in multi-man matches, which saw superstars occasionally roll out of the ring to rest after taking a move, much like in real life. This year it's been taken a step further, with some powerful moves activating an animation where you will roll to the outside of the ring in a singles match to prevent a further beatdown. Similarly, superstars may roll to the outside of the ring apron, which allows for you to continue your offensive onslaught in unique ways.

Tag matches have been given the roll-out treatment, too, but in the form of 'Hot Tags'. Wrestling fans will be familiar with the concept of a hot tag, where a beaten down superstar will finally make a tag to their fresh partner, who will now have gained all the momentum. 2K18 introduces this in exactly the way you'd see on TV, with the beaten superstar having to rest on the outside while their partner goes it alone. These may seem like minor additions, but they go a long way in making 2K's stellar wrestling gameplay even better.

Fans of the long-running Universe Mode will also be pleased to find a number of quality-of-life improvements this year. Firstly, there is a new wrinkle to rivalries in the "potential rivalries" function. Previously, if superstars weren't in a rivalry they would pretty much just mill around and not do anything of real importance. However, with this new aspect to rivalries you get to see rivalries slowly developing, meaning most matches on your card turn from boring filler to important bouts you'll pay attention to more often than not. To further add to this, cut-scenes are again available to appear in non-rivalry matches. This was a brilliant feature that hadn't been since WWE '12, so it's nice to see it finally return as it makes playing through Universe Mode a thousand times more enjoyable. Those who like to control every aspect of their Universe will also be ecstatic that editing matches no longer means cutscenes are prohibited from appearing in those matches.

Continuing the theme of trying to make Universe Mode less of a trudge, every single superstar is now given a dynamic goal to focus on. These can range from them wanting to rise up the newly-introduced power rankings to winning a championship or even breaking up or a forming a tag team with a particular superstar. This all gives the mode more direction and purpose, rather than the glorified exhibition mode it had started to become in recent years, and the creation and destruction of tag teams means your Universe feels like it's constantly changing. Unfortunately, you're still only allowed to assign four championship belts to each show, which means if fans want to create a real-life Monday Night RAW (which currently has five championship belts) they'll have to use some creative workarounds. 

2K and Yuke's decided to get ambitious with 2K18's MyPlayer mode. In the past, MyPlayer had been quite uninspiring and was mainly a constant grind as you climbed up title rankings in ridiculously slow fashion. This year it's opted to introduce a more focused story, which starts with you coming into WWE's developmental show, NXT, as the hottest free agent. MyPlayer then continues on with different story beats being weaved in and out as your progress. The revamped mode is ambitious, but unfortunately doesn't hit the mark every time.

The different storylines you come across are interesting and a great way to keep you motivated in developing your character, however the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The biggest downfall is that there are certain objectives you are forced to complete in matches. If you don't complete these objectives you can't progress through the story until you succeed. While it's understandable that it's trying to tell a particular story at times, it would have been nice to see it behave like almost all other MyPlayer modes, which adapt the story to how your in-game performance is going.

2K18 also sees the return of backstage roaming, a feature fans will fondly remember from the PS2-era of games. Here you can initiate brawls with other superstars or even accept side quests to help you earn more VC and increase your fan or backstage popularity. This is a good idea in theory, but in execution it's a bit of a mess. There is a very limited amount of side quests, which means you'll quickly become bored of them. You'll also find that the dialogue for most of the side quests is bugged and many people you talk to will say something contradictory to what just happened in the ring. There's also a glitch where characters will mention the wrong superstar they want you to attack or face off against, which makes it all very confusing.

The creation suite is one of the biggest and best aspects of every WWE game and 2K18 is no different. The creation tools are once again fantastic and are easy for beginners to pickup and use, while also offering a huge amount of depth for experts. There are also tweaks to the Community Creations section, which makes it a lot easier to determine which created superstars are the best. In 2K17 you would have to gamble on whether they had a move-set and entrance, purely judging them on the appearance, but you're now shown everything about the created wrestler, which makes browsing Community Creations a whole lot smoother.

Conclusion

WWE 2K18 is a solid entry into the annual series, but is unfortunately let down by a few clunky implementations. The presentation and actual wrestling gameplay are as good as ever and Universe Mode has seen a number of additions to make it far more enjoyable. Unfortunately, the ambitious attempt to revamp MyPlayer misses the mark a little with glitches, repetitive side-quests, and a story that's afraid to deviate even a tiny bit from its set path.