If you heard loud screaming coming from the back corner of Earls Court, it may have been us. Yes, 2K Sports brought the PlayStation 4 version of WWE 2K15 to the UK’s biggest video game fair this year, EGX London, and throwing ourselves at a free demo unit, it became all too apparent why our fellow revellers were yelling at full tilt at the pixelated performers that danced before them.
As expected, Vince McMahon’s sweaty man simulator – featuring some women – is due another annual instalment, but it’s only now that 2K Sports has full creative responsibilities since taking over the license from now defunct publisher THQ. And that’s clear as day here, as the scale of the changes to this edition put human slab of meat Big Show to shame.
Firstly, the graphical improvements are phenomenal. A notoriously weak area in previous series entries, 2K Sports is now making use of the same technology utilised to capture the basketball stars in its jaw-droppingly good looking NBA series, so each performer is rendered in incredible detail; from freckles to birthmarks and scars to facial hair – it’s all present and accounted for here.
Equally realistic are the entertainers’ entrances, signature move sets, and any other subtle nuances that they may bring to the table. Now fully motion captured by the wrestlers themselves, you can literally go and make a cup of tea in the time that it takes for Randy Orton to saunter his way to the ring, just like he does every Monday night, and we’re happy to announce that John Cena no longer runs down the aisle as if he’s suppressing a nasty bout of food poisoning.
However, the changes aren’t merely skin-deep, as the gameplay system has seen an overhaul as well. While the controls are largely the same as last year’s offering, just as in real life, each match will start off with the competitors grappling for initial control. When you lock horns, you must choose a hold that you wish to pursue – be it belly-to-back, or belly-to-belly.
Having chosen your desired hold, the game will then transition to a minigame, where you must find the ‘sweet spot’ by pointing the right stick in a specific direction. Once the circular graphic displayed on the screen begins to fill and the controller vibrates, you’ve found it, and the first competitor to fill their circle wins the grapple and engages their hold. From there, you have a variety of tactical options, from striking an opponent with elbows and punches, to initiating a move – or even entering another hold, at which point the minigame will pop up again.
It makes for a rewarding and realistic way to begin a match, and with a control scheme that’s easy to grasp, it won’t be long before you’re chaining successful counters into holds and other moves – although not if your adversary has anything to do with it, as all they need to do is land a lucky strike to swing the momentum back in their favour.
2K Sports has also introduced health and stamina bars that complement this momentum-based gameplay system immensely. Your health bar is comprised of three levels – green, orange, and red – and as you lose health, you become weaker, making it harder to counter and deal damage as a result. Similarly, if you’re handing out the beating of a lifetime, don’t expect to whale on an opponent indefinitely, as you’ll rapidly tire if you don’t take a break.
It’s in this capacity that, for the first time, a developer has finally managed to ‘get’ wrestling. It’s not always about mercilessly smashing your opponent without repercussions. Real wrestling – if we’re allowed to refer to it as ‘real’ – utilises the fabled notion of ‘momentum’ all of the time, with one lucky punch or counter resulting in a surprise victory – or, in the best instances, superstars going move for move in an exciting flurry of offence and defence.
The studio’s really managed to nail the feeling of excitement and unknowingness that we experience on TV, as matches aren’t simply three minute beat downs anymore, but rather 15 minute epics that tell the story of the grit and determination of the individuals involved. Reaching the culmination of a lengthy bout, when both competitors are exhausted, demonstrates this perfectly.
We spent a lot of our time with the demo enjoying the local multiplayer mode, and a particularly memorable engagement outlines just how well 2K Sports has succeeded at capturing the unpredictability of real wrestling. We found ourselves groggily making our way to our feet at the same time as our opponent, clutching various body parts as a result of the punishment taken over the previous ten minutes. We both had finishers, we both knew how to hit them, but all it took was for one person to mess up a counter or land the first blow to have it swing one way or the other, and so, as our adversary successfully countered our opening punch and planted us with their finisher, the fevered screaming began.
Both wrestlers lay exhausted on the matt, the toll of the match made very clear, but it was with the delivery of the final blow and a limp arm moving over our chest for the three count, that we realised that we’d been yelling at the top of our lungs.
Ultimately there was no way that we could have possibly kicked out of the pin, but we didn’t feel bad that we’d lost; in fact, quite the opposite: we put on one hell of a show for our spectators, from the people gathered behind us watching us play, to the virtual fans in the arena – and ultimately that’s what professional wrestling’s all about. It’s not always about who wins, but how entertaining a match is to watch, and thanks to 2K Sports, we’re closer to being a part of that than ever before.
Switching gears slightly, we were sadly unable to sample the commentary due to a lack of headphones and an abundance of shouting players, but we sincerely hope that it’s far less stilted than it has been in previous editions. Also, it must be noted that we encountered a fair few frame rate drops during our various engagements, but one would hope that the PS4 edition’s one month delay would allow for such issues to be dealt with.
In conclusion, then, it’s incredibly satisfying to know that the wrestling license millions of players flock to each and every year is in safe and loving hands. WWE 2K15 has come on leaps and bounds from last year’s effort, and seems poised to impress wrestling and non-wrestling fans alike with its back-and-forth gameplay and winning presentation. It’ll probably fail to ever expand upon its niche audience, but for fans of WWE, this is shaping up to be the love letter to wrestling that we’ve always wanted.
Are you already perspiring over the prospect of a decent WWE game, or will you be waiting for reviews before adding this to your wishlist? Put our head between your legs in the comments section below.