Republished on Wednesday 30th June 2021: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of July's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
Honestly, there's something sinister about WWE 2K Battlegrounds. And no, we don't mean Bray Wyatt's creepy mask, or the grotesque character models that look like they were designed by somebody watching Wrestlemania through one eye after a big night on the gin. No, there's a nefarious aura surrounding this game because it feels like a free-to-play mobile title that has inexplicably found its way onto the PlayStation store with a £34.99 price tag attached to it.
That price point feels more like a hit and hope, maybe-mum-and-dad-won't-do-their-research than a genuine value proposition. We can't imagine there won't be at least a mild backlash from people who picked this game up assuming that it's meant to be played, only to discover that it's actually meant to be paid. But we'll get back to the economy later.
First up, the gameplay. WWE 2K Battlegrounds is a cartoony wrestling game in which your objective is to press square repeatedly until your opponent is dead and then you can pin them for the win. You can also press triangle if you want, or if you're feeling really feisty you can use the right analogue stick to do one of four different grapples. You don't need to do any of that though because the artificial intelligence is so stupid that just tapping square will see you through most battles.
The wrestlers are split into a handful of classes and all wrestlers of the same class have the same move-set, the only difference being their finishing moves. Essentially, each wrestler is just a skin that comes with a couple of special attacks. Unlocking superstars should be exciting, but since they all play the same you'll likely end up feeling like you've seen everything the game has to offer in an hour or two.
The short campaign is the most fun you can have on your own playing Battlegrounds. The story is told in a comic book art style, and involves Paul Heyman convincing WWE owner Vince McMahon to start a new, more extreme wrestling show set in different locales throughout the country. The story is occasionally genuinely amusing, although we're not sure whether that's by design. You can have the whole thing wrapped up in five hours or so.
You'll play through the campaign as a handful of fake wrestlers created specifically for the story, each trying to make their name in WWE. Considering there's a character creation suite in the game it seems like a missed opportunity for the campaign to star crummy, made-up wrestlers you'll have no affinity for, but then they'd have had to give you lots of character creation options from the start rather than locking them behind a paywall in the store, and that just wouldn't do.
The art style for the game is meant to evoke hyper-stylised WWE action figures brought to life, right down to the blister packaging that they pop out of when you buy new wrestlers from the store. They're kinda hideous looking, like a Toy Story rip-off about wrestling figures made on a shoe-string budget.
The wrestlers have their official entrance music, but they don't really have entrances - they just drop down from the sky in a crate at the start of the match and stand there weirdly while the first twenty seconds of their music plays.
As for game modes, aside from the standard one on one matches, you can also bash square to win in matches with three or four wrestlers, or you can spice it up by bashing square in a tag-team match. There's also a Royal Rumble mode in which you bash square a bunch, and then you can mix it up by bashing L2 and R2 to throw your opponent over the top rope to eliminate them before doing it to somebody else.
Cage matches are slightly different in that you have to knock your opponent down - by bashing square - and then climb the side of the cage to pick up money (we don't know why) and then once you've picked up enough money you can climb over the top of the cage to win. Maybe the wrestlers have just bought WWE 2K Battlegrounds and they're picking up the money to make themselves feel better before they leave the cage. Who knows?
You can play all of these match types with friends or foes in multiplayer, and this is where the game is at its best. Playing with another person is undoubtedly more fun than playing the game on your own, but only in the way that a blackout is more fun if you're with another person: it helps having somebody to talk to during the doldrums. We certainly wouldn't recommend that you convince any of your friends to buy this game so you can play together, as they'll probably not be your friend for much longer if you do.
We suppose it's time to talk about the economy now, since it's clearly the part of the game that the most thought went into.
You can unlock some extra wrestlers and power-ups just by playing the campaign, but rarely the best ones. You'll unlock Baron Corbin after a handful of fights in the story mode but then why would you ever want to play as Baron Corbin? He looks like a thumb with a beard, and honestly, we're not convinced he's even a legitimate baron. No, no, no, if you want to unlock the best wrestlers then you're going to have to grind.
There's an in-game currency called Battle Bucks that you'll earn by playing the game and you can use this to buy extra wrestlers, new outfits for wrestlers, or character creation items. Generating the Battle Bucks to pay for a wrestler like Andre The Giant or Brock Lesnar takes a chunk of time. If you can't be bothered to do that because that would involve playing the game, then you can just use real-world money to unlock them - it amounts to a few quid per wrestler.
There are over forty unlockable wrestlers with more to come as future DLC, so all told it's going to take lots of time or lots of money to unlock them all. It's real sleazy.
WWE 2K Battlegrounds is a game that seems like it exists purely to house its storefront, offering predatory microtransactions which would be overly pricy in a free-to-play game. In a paid title - even a budget one - they're offensive. The only silver lining here is that the game is rubbish anyway, so feel free to skip it without feeling like you're missing out.