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It’s been close to three years since All Elite Wrestling’s first video game was officially announced. Many performers within the company itself have long extolled the virtues of 90’s wrestling video game royalty – and in particular, WWF No Mercy – even going so far as to position AEW: Fight Forever as something of a homage. But with the game finally superkicking its way onto store shelves, is the grappling sim everything fans had been promised?

Firstly, we have to talk about the wrestlers themselves. Outside of their instantly recognisable outfits, they’re strange, stunted action figures with weird, exaggerated features. This approach isn’t inherently a negative thing given the game’s clear inspiration, but any subjective appreciation has to end at the performer's face. Instead of sticking with the cartoonish stylisation across the board, a real scan of the roster’s visages has been slapped haphazardly onto the models with varying degrees of success, and it comes off as rather cheap. CM Punk, for example, appears to have his facial hair partially bifurcated by his mouth, whereas Sammy Guevara bears a passing resemblance to a fan who might have once shared a lift with Sammy Guevara.

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AEW: Fight Forever was never going to be able to hold a candle to the presentation of its big-budget contemporary WWE 2K23, and it wouldn’t be fair to compare the two. However, there were several occasions where we couldn’t quite believe how rough the wrestlers looked; ironically bearing more than a passing resemblance to the custom creations from 2K’s grappling powerhouse than anything close to the source material.

Fortunately, the moves look great, with an arcade-like fluidness to the animations that’s been missing from the wrestling game scene for some time, and an exceptional job has been done of capturing some of the more unique performers on AEW’s roster. Orange Cassidy, for example, can stick his hands in his pockets, employing his Sloth Style mannerisms as he’s prone to do IRL — we just wish we could see more of his understated entrance.

We’re really not sure why this decision was made – beyond, again, wanting to essentially remake No Mercy – but wrestlers' entrances are a handful of seconds long, and only show a pose on the stage before fading to black. What’s especially frustrating is that in multi-man matches where new participants enter once another has been eliminated, you can see the new entrant make their way to the ring, proving that full entrances were absolutely possible. There’s seemingly a stubborn desire not to iterate on Fight Forever’s apparent muse, and so we suppose it stands to reason that the gameplay also feels a bit out of time.

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In its defence, the grappling itself is easy enough to pick up, and on the whole, much simpler than that seen in WWE 2K23. Triangle is kick, Square is punch, and Cross is grapple. Additional controls to taunt, run, Irish Whip (throw your opponent across the ring), and interact with objects are available, but if chucked in at the deep end with no preparation, new players can expect to button mash and get some offense in. However, the necessity of more complex controls and a lacklustre tutorial will eventually leave those same newcomers dangling. Yes, you can punch someone in the face over and over again until you pin them after being prompted to do so, but how will you block and reverse the endless punches you receive in return?

Using L1 and R1 to block grapples and strikes respectively, and triggering just before an attack to reverse, Fight Forever makes the interesting decision not to prompt you to counter offense, instead leaving it up to the player. Some will applaud this as a way to increase immersion and encourage skill development, but we can tell you for a fact that it is absolutely not a fun system to learn, and that’s when it’s actually working.

There were several situations where we found ourselves on the end of relentless offense, either because we couldn’t get the reversal timing right, or it simply wasn’t registering. In fact, across the board, we’d describe the gameplay of Fight Forever as uncooperative. In one-on-one bouts, it’s simple enough: you attack your opponent with a variety of offensive moves until you fill your momentum meter, then hit a signature or finisher, pin or submit them, and move along. Adding additional performers makes matters far more complicated, with punches and kicks being thrown with reckless abandon, and frequently not really connecting with anyone. Couple that with no clear on-screen indication of a wrestler’s health, no way to see how close to escaping a submission/tapping out someone is, and no sense of when you’ll stand up after being knocked down, and bouts can prove an exercise in frustration.

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We spent one particularly irritating hardcore match desperately trying to interact with a table that only our opponent seemed to be able to move, eventually being put through that same table and being pinned shortly after. When you’re losing because the game’s actively fighting against your wishes to make full use of its array of tools, then something’s clearly not right.

Thankfully, an accessible, albeit extremely limited, creation tool is available, allowing players to construct a custom wrestler, team, or arena. Only a handful of preset faces, hair, and clothing items are on offer, but entrances, move sets, and ring announce names can be set. It’s not nearly in-depth enough to allow for the creation of one of the many, many missing roster members (including multiple current champions), and you can’t share any creations online either, but if you want to play through Fight Forever’s career mode equivalent with your very own weird little monster, at least that’s a possibility.

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Road To Elite is Fight Forever’s main attraction. Taking place over four sets of four weeks, you begin by picking a performer (be they male, female, custom wrestler, or real) and signing a contract with AEW. From there, players have four turns per week before their match and must manage their momentum, energy, and general well-being between matches, and this can be done in a variety of ways.

Working out will lower your energy but reward you with skill points that can be spent on upgrading your basic stats, or purchasing active or passive skills – but only for a custom character. As far as we could tell, there is nothing to spend these on if playing as an established star. To regain any lost energy, you’ll visit a restaurant and consume the local delicacy, with a fact card telling you about the miracle qualities of poutine, for example. Sightseeing can be undertaken, talk shows attended, and minigames played, all for cash, skill points, and to claw back some spent energy.

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Beyond an array of minigames that truly run the gamut of quality and enjoyment, none of these excursions are interactive; you’ll just watch the same scenes unfold over and over each week. Occasionally you’ll bump into another member of the roster at these locations, but the interactions are, quite frankly, really weird, and often end with the two of you posing for a selfie to be added to an album. We found the time management concept quite endearing really, but it’s truly bizarre seeing Pénta El Zero M chowing down on pizza and then snapping a pic with Riho after a stilted conversation about the speed at which she eats toast. Yes, really.

A fresh storyline will play out during each block of four weeks, with a large-scale Pay-Per-View blow-off concluding proceedings. While Road To Elite started off the same way each time we played the mode, we were happy to see some variety in the stories presented to us. From challenging for the World and Tag Team Championships to trying to take over the company, you’ll have the option to turn down or accept invitations to join stables as you go, providing a little variation to your experience. Unfortunately, it’s here that Fight Forever’s budget-feeling nature once again rears its head.

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With no voice acting or commentary across the board – save for some exposition by a barely conscious-sounding Jim Ross – be prepared to read the dialogue for yourself. While this does allow the game to randomly insert wrestlers into certain roles of the storylines, that’s hardly a silver lining when those storylines don’t make canonical sense. For example, in one playthrough we won the World Championship in our first block of weeks, only to have it not mentioned until the conclusion of the final block where it was suggested we were challenging for it and not defending it. Additionally, after winning the Tag Team championships, we were facing our tag partner in one-on-one competition just a week later and our team was never spoken of again.

With a little polish and extra attention, Road To Elite could’ve been something really special. As it stands, it’s a collection of interesting ideas executed bizarrely, and with a seeming lack of care applied to ensuring the experience is consistent throughout.

If punching strangers on the internet is more your bag, however, Fight Forever includes an online mode where you can do just that. If inclined, players can undertake ranked matches to truly test themselves and earn profile card-based rewards. While we did get disconnected a couple of times trying to join a lobby, we were pleasantly surprised to find the match-ups smooth and free of any nasty lag or performance issues.

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While playing through any of the online or offline modes, you’ll frequently complete the game’s huge array of challenges. From lifetime objectives like winning a certain number of matches to daily and weekly tasks that request a number of wins as a specific wrestler, these challenges will earn you AEW Cash. Along with whatever you’ve earned from any other modes, you can spend this in the game’s shop. Thankfully nothing too devastating is locked away, with just a few attire pieces for custom performers, an array of entrance music, and taunts on offer. On the other hand, and beyond the premium price tag for unlocking Cody Rhodes, the shop is sort of redundant currently, as after just one playthrough of Road To Elite we were able to buy everything we thought looked interesting. Our hope is that the shop will update with new items, but for now players are likely to pool vast quantities of Cash and have little to tempt them to spend it.


AEW: Fight Forever is an incredibly faithful tribute to 90’s wrestling gaming, and it’s clear that a lot of love has gone in to ensure the presentation, gameplay, and atmosphere all harken back to that time with unyielding accuracy. But the world has moved on, and more importantly, wrestling games have moved on, and the dogged determination to honour what came before has resulted in a title that will ultimately prove incredibly divisive. Most egregiously the game feels decidedly budget while demanding a decidedly not-budget price tag, and while the product may improve with updates and time, in its current state, it’s hard to recommend Fight Forever to anyone but the most hardcore of AEW’s fans.