WWE has released a video game based on its flagship brand of sports entertainment every year for close to three decades now, so it may be surprising to some that this year’s entry has veered away from the franchise’s grappling roots in a variety of ways. For a start, all traditional forms of locomotion have been removed, as you can instead summon the power of ghost magic to ominously float around, under, and otherwise through the ring. The ga­me even chooses to take a particularly strong stance against tattoos on custom wrestlers, punishing the player’s blatant violation of Leviticus 19:28 by ­unceremoniously crashing their PlayStation 4. This is a particularly brave choice, as you don’t truly get to play as your favourite WWE Superstars either, since performers in the conventional sense are occasionally substituted for a pair of incorporeal floating eyeballs with adjacent haircut. Efficient. WWE 2K20 is a comedy horror title from Visual Concepts and its very existence is completely baffling on almost every conceivable level.

Before we dive into the “fun” stuff, it’s worth taking stock of what’s made it into the game this year, and if you’re familiar with the 2K run of WWE titles, you’ll find 2K20’s gameplay offerings consistent. There are a vast array of exhibition match types where you can face off against AI and friends both off and online, the challenging 2K Towers returns from last year, and there’s always Universe mode if you want to micro-manage the day-to-day operations of WWE’s intimidating TV schedule.

Showcase mode returns once more, this year shining the spotlight on The Four Horsewomen – a quartet of prominent female wrestlers given credit for kickstarting WWE’s Women’s Revolution. It’s a neat if repetitive package, following significant matches and moments from the ladies’ careers intercut with floating head endorsements straight from the horses’ mouths. The gameplay itself veers violently into the dull side of simple however, with the real match being recreated and animated in-engine, and the player tasked with performing certain actions in specific locations in order to advance the mode, providing outfits, performers, and currency by way of a reward.

It’s just a shame that said outfits and performers are the worst they’ve looked in years. It’s an indisputable fact that 2K20 has received a substantial graphical downgrade when compared to previous years, with incorrect skin tones, wide, unblinking eyes, and poorly motion captured entrances making up just the tip of the Goldberg – sorry. International mega star Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson looks like your mate Dave cosplaying as Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, and don’t even get us started on Macho Man Randy Savage. The guy is an icon of wrestling, and to see him realised as your frumpy aunt is an insult to his legacy. But we digress.

Further pushing the envelope of female representation is the inclusion of mixed-gender tag team matches, and they may or may not also appear in 2K20’s much-touted WWE 2K Originals mode, but… we wouldn’t know. Despite being featured prominently on the main menu, the mode remained inaccessible for the first few days after launch, only coming online at the time of writing to reveal a spooky-themed selection of modes, all of which were locked behind a pay wall. Never have we experienced such horror.

If we were able to take part in the Big Spook Parade however, just how would we actually rassle? Well, the seeming obsession with iterating via complexity and raising the bar for entry has continued unabated. Don’t get us wrong, the controls are fine, they’re just unnecessarily clunky. Different combinations of shoulder and face buttons activate specific abilities and moves, and we frequently found ourselves having to consult the pause menu for controls assistance when confronted with some of the more precise match objectives. Certain moves – including reversals and signatures/finishers – have completely changed buttons this year for no apparent reason, although it can’t be denied that taking the time to acclimatise provides some extremely satisfying results, and reversing an opponent’s finisher before immediately triggering your own will never not make you feel like a real grapple boy-or-girl.

The issue with reversing however is that the CPU will always take unfair advantage of this mechanic. The crux of 2K20’s combat relies on the amount of reversals you have stored up. These regenerate over time and when facing a human opponent there’s a real tactical game of cat and mouse to be played as you observe the amount of reversals you have stored up, and how close your foe is to earning a finisher. After all, the last thing you want to do is reverse a standard punch and then have nothing banked to prevent a devastating match-ending maneuver. That is, unless your rival is AI. If they’re AI, all rules are out the window, and they’ll gladly take as much punishment as you’re capable of handing them before – almost without fail – cashing in untouched reversals to instantly deny your signature or finisher. It completely demolishes the pace of a match and happens so frequently that we let out a sigh of relief every time the computer actually let us hit them with our biggest, sweatiest grap. It’s both unrefined, and a little bit upsetting.

Speaking of unrefined and upsetting, WWE 2K20’s flagship My Career mode is like watching a car crash in slow motion. It begins with the creation of both a male and female superstar who are referred to in the mode as Tre and Red respectively. You then follow the inseparable best friends through their careers by way of flashback sequences as they prepare to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame – the very last goal on their shared list of wrestling ambitions. Much like Showcase mode, what this actually means is that you’ll be watching a lot of cutscenes and occasionally having to follow in-match objectives like “perform a strike while in the ring”. This is one of the many reasons why My Career is almost unbelievably bad.

For a start the writing is abhorrent. Our two protagonists are completely unlikeable, with Red harbouring secrets from Tre at almost every turn about his adoptive parents – yes this is a real plot thread – and Tre being a moron, just an absolute idiot. He frequently stumbles into situations that make a complete mockery of the hard work and dedication required to be a full-time performer with the WWE, and in a standout moment near the beginning of the game, gets his tongue stuck to an icy barrier during a match in a carpark.

What we should say before we go any further, is that WWE 2K20’s My Career mode appears to be written as a comedy. Except nobody’s laughing. Red is portrayed as a total hot head who frequently rises to pathetic teasing, and comes out with shockingly over the top one liners like: “I’m going to give your grandmother bed sores.” Firstly, who says that? And secondly, how can you expect us to root for this person? Especially as – despite getting to design how your Tre and Red look – outside of extremely limited decision-making the story is very much on-rails. You have no choice but to play as these chuckleheads, you have no choice but to listen to their near United Passions-level masturbatory delight about working for WWE, and you have no choice but to endure horrifying cutscene after horrifying cutscene.

Honestly, a lot of these animated segments are what we imagine Night at the Museum might’ve looked like if it was directed by Stanley Kubrick. Environments are PS3-era bland and ugly, textures flicker constantly, and the stiff mannequins portraying the wrestlers are seemingly incapable of emoting in a way that could be described as "natural". They just stand there between lines, staring, occasionally jerking their entire bodies in place of normal human reactions, biding their time until you to go to sleep. There are no more sweet dreams for you dear friend, there is only Peyton Royce and her unblinking gaze.

The absurd party doesn’t stop there however, with the Hall of Fame induction ceremony apparently taking place so far in the future that in the background of shots you can spot bow tie-wearing robots. At one point you even get into a SPACE CAR to take you to the venue. WHO WROTE THIS? An honourable mention has to go to Samoa Joe however for putting his all into actually appearing as though he cares, as almost every other voiceover provided by real life superstars sound like they were recorded in a small cupboard on someone’s phone. It is absolutely the worst career mode we’ve experienced in any WWE video game, and the whole thing feels utterly unpolished from beginning to end.

Conclusion

Perhaps as much as anything else, we feel angry at WWE 2K20 for robbing us of precious time as we circle the swirling vortex of death. It’s completely bewildering that a game of this magnitude has been released in such a state, and whether you want to pin the blame on outgoing developers, poor management, or a rushed development cycle, there is absolutely no denying that this title needed more time in the oven. We initially wondered why 2K weren’t that keen to send us their latest WWE title, but after playing one of the highest profile flops of 2019, we’re starting to understand why.