It’s been a month since we saw WWE 2K15’s last-gen offering – a game that we called “a kick in the teeth” – released on the PlayStation 3, but with updated visuals, an improved control scheme, and promising new game modes, is its PlayStation 4 big brother much better?
Thankfully, the power of the next-gen hardware has allowed 2K Sports to create a new engine for this year’s release, with wrestlers making their entrances in spectacularly realistic fashion thanks to the vast amounts of motion capture that was undertaken by the superstars themselves. While certain performers, including CM Punk and the Ultimate Warrior, were obviously unavailable for this process, their digital recreations are equally as impressive, setting an exciting precedent for future releases.
The combat itself, while largely familiar, has undergone a number of changes. Beginning with a chain grapple that’s meant to emulate the ‘feeling out process’ – quiet back there – both participants must first select a hold that they wish to pursue, before pushing the right analogue stick in the direction of the sweet spot, which is located by rotating the nub until the controller vibrates. Upon successfully seizing control, you can crack off a few knee and elbow strikes, or chain into a new hold.
After completing the initial grapple, normal WWE game rules apply, with X inducing a grapple and square delivering physical blows. Performing enough moves and taunts eventually earns you a signature manoeuvre, and upon hitting this, or waiting too long, you can use your combatant’s finishing move for massive damage.
Providing more of a tactical, realistic edge to proceedings, all participants now have both a stamina and health bar. Continuous running or high impact moves will take a lot out of a performer, so you may find yourself spluttering and wheezing at inopportune times if you aren’t careful enough. Equally, as the matches drag on, you may find that you and your foe are on similar levels of health, making moves much slower, but more devastating as you grapple for victory.
Pleasingly, your superstar’s level of health and stamina is reflected in their animations. If you’re low on stamina after a move, you may drop to one knee for a few seconds to catch your breath, and if you’re running out of health, you may lay on the floor for as long as your victim after a suplex. It’s little additions like these, and tweaks like being able to crawl and throw a weak punch to break up a pin after being thrown to the ground, that makes all of the difference in bringing this series alive – although a lot of the magic is lost when facing computer controlled opponents.
However, as soon as more than two people are in the ring, things very much revert back to the old style of play, with chaos reigning supreme. While many of the bugs that plagued older titles have now been squashed, artificial intelligence teammates will often still try to attack one another when their eyes lock, and the game can do a really poor job of recognising just who you wish to fight. There was one instance in particular that saw the opponent that we had been fighting leave the ring, and upon trying to attack his partner, we swung wildly at the ropes, before turning around and inadvertently kicking our own partner in the face.
Disappointingly, a number of staples from previous titles, as well as the PS3 version of the same game, are lacking too, with series mainstays such as the broad and all-encompassing creation suite being trimmed right back. You can still create a wrestler, but now it can only be male, and even then the variety of hairstyles, tattoos, and clothing have been reduced to a dozen of each. Create a title, arena, and move have been victims of the cuts as well, but perhaps most disappointingly, the match types on offer have also suffered; even events as popular as Tornado Tag matches are now gone, despite being readily available on the PS3 version and previous series entries.
Universe mode is back once again, and is all but identical to the version featured in the PS3 edition, as is 2K Showcase mode. Consisting of two rivalries – Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H and CM Punk vs. John Cena – the latter tasks you with playing through signature matches, fulfilling objectives as you go. Other than seeing a graphical upgrade and slightly slower gameplay, this game mode is indistinguishable from the last-gen version, although the in-game cutscenes still look a little rough around the edges.
The centrepiece of this year’s game is My Career mode, which sees you starting as a rookie in NXT, and working your way up to championships, before eventually headlining pay-per-views. After creating your character, and working a few test matches at the WWE’s performance centre where you’re taught the controls, your journey begins when you debut on NXT.
Your matches are rated out of five stars, depending on how varied and interesting your performance is; the better the quality of the match, the higher the rating – and the bigger the social media following. The more social media followers that you have, the more popular you become, and the more likely you are to be called up to the big leagues. After each match you are rewarded with SP and VC, which can be spent from your My Career home.
SP is used to level up a broad range of attributes, from durability of limbs to strike speed and strength. It can also be used to purchase abilities. These include increased manager interference, being able to escape the ring while lying next to the ropes, and using an opponent’s own finishing manoeuvre on them. However, as your character’s very weak to begin with, you won’t pay any attention to these until later on.
VC can be spent on additional moves, managers that will accompany you to the ring to distract the referee, and skills. Some skills cannot be equipped in conjunction with others, but allow for special, OMG moments, like spearing people through the ringside barricade, performing special moves on the top of ladders, and hitting a DDT on the ring apron. As well as serving as a base from which to spend your SP and VC, your My Career home allows you to visit the performance centre once a week to take part in an extra match to earn additional SP, although it becomes quickly obvious that this distraction provides very little reward for the time that you put in.
Unfortunately, My Career is an agonisingly drawn out and uneventful affair. In our 17 hour torturous playthrough, we would go for hours without ever encountering a single piece of narrative content, and we never got the opportunity to make a meaningful decision. Each week, we’d receive a post-match message from the general manager saying that there was nothing available for us yet, and when there finally was, the entirety of the story progression took place via voiceover-less text messages. This would result in a match that we would win, and then it would be another couple of hours of winning boring, story-less matches before something else came up.
This repetitiveness might have proven a little more bearable if the gameplay didn’t get so stagnant after the first dozen matches. While facing a human opponent may prove to be a challenging and exciting affair, fighting against the AI is far less entertaining. Most of the challenge and fun that we encountered at the start of our career came courtesy of our very weak character overcoming the odds and beating significantly more powerful opponents, but after winning your first pay-per-view match, you’re showered with an inexplicably large amount of SP, making all future matches a complete piece of cake.
Monotonous gameplay issues also lie at the feet of the smallest roster in the series’ recent history. The developer has included a few hastily assembled created foes to flesh the lineup out, but you’ll be fighting the same guys week in and week out. This issue is then compounded when you make it to the bigger shows, where you’ll regularly be facing, and beating in convincing fashion, the main event stars, rendering any potential story-based matches completely meaningless and devoid of anything that would make them feel special.
Infuriatingly, when you do finally reach the final bout, and whip the champion that you’ll have already beaten several times before, a post-credits sequence has the nerve to inform you – via a text box, no less – that your wrestler went on to have an incredible career. We only wished that we could have actually, y’know, seen ours, as this feels like an excruciatingly slow tale of rags to riches, where instead of riches, you’ll get slightly nicer rags – and by rags, we obviously mean spandex.
Despite great advances in graphical fidelity and core gameplay, there’s not enough here to make up for WWE 2K15’s stripped back features, teensy roster, and mind numbing My Career mode. The series’ PS4 debut is very much a case of one step forward, two steps back – and while it lays the groundwork for a great game, 2K Sports has a lot of work to do to unlock it.