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Minor tweaks and improvements are the usual selling points of annualised sporting titles. Yes, the teams and kits may be updated, player ratings may be tweaked, and 4K beard follicles may now be visible in replays, but that’s usually your lot. Not so with 2K’s WWE series. Standing on the shoulders of WWE 2K22’s solid efforts, the hulking mass of WWE 2K23 can barely fit through the door, boasting such an obscene number of playable modes, match types, and grapplers that it not only wants to consume all of your free time but then drop an elbow for good measure.

Those of you who played last year’s WWE 2K22 will feel right at home with how the game plays, as, for the first time in a good few years, 2K has stuck with the same control scheme. An accessible, combo-based system will see you opening up an assault with a light strike, before continuing with a mix of light, heavy, and grab attacks to produce a variety of violent offence. More complex controls are also in the mix for experienced players allowing for the lifting/positioning of opponents – as well as outside-the-ring offence – and usually involve utilising the right stick or a shoulder button.

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Different manoeuvres will target different parts of your foe’s body, and damage and progress towards powerful Signatures and Finishers can all be tracked via the Superstar HUD at the bottom of the screen. In our opinion, it was already a fine system not in much need of refinement, and the fact we didn’t have to re-learn how to play the game this year was a blessing in itself. There are still some rather janky issues in terms of collision, though, as we often found ourselves inexplicably missing the odd punch or grapple, making ourselves wide open for a counterattack.

Fortunately, you can still reverse, dodge, and attempt a combo breaker to get out of trouble. However, between the reversal prompt appearing in various, tricky-to-spot locations, and the combo breaker – where you attempt to match the button your opponent has pressed – being complete guesswork, we did frequently find ourselves on the end of a frustratingly long string of offense.

It’s good news, then, that at least you’ll be looking darned good while being kicked in the face, as the overhauled lighting engine from last year’s game is back in action. It’s difficult to say whether or not this year’s release looks better, but certainly the scans of the superstars are excellent, with entrances, and moves motion captured to preserve this pristine presentation. With over 180 playable wrestlers there’s plenty to choose from too, and although a number of them feature outdated entrance music and attires, it’s a far more up-to-date roster than we had in 2K22.

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This year’s flagship mode is the John Cena Showcase. Here, much like with Rey Mysterio’s run last year, the spotlight is shone on the 16-time world champion’s 20-year career in WWE. The man himself is on hand to talk you through encounters with some of his greatest rivals, with you then playing through these matches, completing objectives in line with real events as archive footage melds with in-game animation. In an interesting twist, you don’t actually play as Mr Cena, instead taking on the role of the big names that’ve manage to upset him over the years.

Playing through Cena’s biggest defeats as he “tries to get his wins back” is a fun way to freshen up the formula, but we just wish it was a bit more engaging. After a pre-match monologue, players are left to themselves, with no commentary, no pointers or narration from the subject of the Showcase – as with Rey last year – and with only a generic soundtrack and crowd noise for company. While we certainly appreciate John Cena must be an extremely busy man, this year’s mode fell flat for us on account of the vast stretches of silence between his appearances. Additionally, there are a few high-profile losses notable by their absence (CM Punk, anyone?), and some of the animated/real footage combos that separate gameplay go on for a really long time – in one, we were just sat watching real footage of the final few minutes of the match.

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Thankfully, 2K23’s MyRise mode is much improved. Acting as the title’s career mode, you’ll either play as The Lock or The Legacy. The male campaign sees you lace up your boots as The Lock, a world-travelled, indie wrestling standout who fulfils his dream of joining the WWE. Unfortunately, he’s immediately saddled with a very rough gimmick (character) from management that he must outgrow and overcome. A similar tale of underdog tenacity can be found in the female story, where you’re cast as the niece of a fictitious WWE Hall of Famer as you attempt to escape her shadow and forge your own path.

The previous MyRise offering in WWE 2K22 had an over-reliance on the in-game social media feed, with much of the game’s “Stories” taking place with minimal fanfare and no real overarching narrative. While the dreaded social feed is still present in 2K23, we were thrilled to discover a return to a much more focussed, linear narrative. This year, chapters of the game will have a number of playable moments, named Must Play Story, Optional Story, and Challenge Match. As you can probably surmise, Optional Stories and Challenge Matches are more of the filler content we experienced in 2K22, but are far more palatable thanks to their placement around significant Must Play Story moments. Rewards are earned from each of these, including attribute points which allow for the improvement of your custom performer.

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If we had one major criticism for the mode, however, it would be the load times. Across the board, we found WWE 2K23 to load rather quickly all things considered, but in MyRise where you’re constantly fine-tuning your appearance, move-set, entrance, and entering/returning from matches, players will find themselves in lengthy loading screens more often than not. The robustness of these creation tools notwithstanding, staring at a blank screen for up to 45 seconds (by our count) is not the kind of experience we expect on PS5.

Nevertheless, while it may take a while to load, the creation suite is once again an extremely impressive set of tools. Beyond custom superstars, entrances, and movesets, players can also customise their own championships, match types, and create videos. With the return of custom image support, the Community Creations tab will once again be a must-visit area, prominently featuring the community’s top-notch recreations of missing wrestlers, super heroes, and of course, Shrek.

Once again we have to applaud 2K – as much as you can applaud avoiding a terrible decision – for not locking customisation parts like hair, clothing items, moves, and entrance music away in loot packs. This was a disastrous idea that majorly hampered the creativity and enjoyment of WWE 2K20, and as such everything is available for you to create your dream superstar/monster. There are still some items that will be unlocked as you play through various modes, but there’s more than enough to get you started, and with the added ability to import custom wrestlers created outside of MyRise into the career mode, 2K seem dead set on streamlining players’ creative processes.

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Universe, MyGM, and MyFaction all return this year, too, with the former still allowing for complete creative freedom – either as a superstar or omnipotent wrestling god – to oversee weekly programming. Begin rivalries, play or simulate the matches, or even create entirely new wrestling shows with unique rosters; Universe mode provides nearly endless playtime for players who’re that way inclined.

For a more competitive, focused experience, MyGM mode is probably for you. Now allowing for up to four General Managers to go head-to-head, players begin by drafting their roster while paying close attention to their budget. Booking your three-match show each week, superstars will come to you with requests, deployable Power Cards can change the tide of a week’s show by sabotaging others or bolstering yourself, and compatible performers must be matched up to produce the highest ratings possible. The end goal is to earn the most money, win the ratings war, and enter the Hall of Fame.

There’s a practically overwhelming amount to keep track of here. Each Superstar on your payroll is either a goodie or a baddy and has a popularity, star power, and stamina stat, and you have to carefully plan each week around their ability to perform. Additionally, budget comes into play when organising the production of the show itself: the venue, crew, pyro/special effects, and advertising must all be considered in your race for viewership supremacy. It’s clear a lot of feedback has been taken onboard for MyGM this year, with the inclusion of the Tag Team titles and mid-card US and Intercontinental championships bizarrely missing last time around. Despite a robust tutorial, however, it’s still a lot to get your head around, so it may take a while for all but the most seasoned players to get in on the action.

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If managing a wrestling card isn’t for you, how about playing with a wrestling card instead, as 2K’s card-based MyFaction mode would once again like to take all your money please-and-thank you. After the endorphin rush of opening your first freebie card pack, a team of four male and four female wrestlers must be selected to join your team, with a manager heading it all up. Customise your faction name, name plate, logo, and wallpaper, and take on other factions online or in the numerous weekly and daily challenge matches available to earn enough currency to purchase more cards or “evolve” existing cards.

As with similar modes in other series, the cards range in rarity from Bronze up to the absurd sounding Pink Diamond, with daily login rewards, premium currencies, and lifetime challenges hoping to bring you back for more. While it is fun to see your line-up standing shoulder-to-shoulder after a victorious encounter, it’s another endlessly playable mode in a game already full of endlessly playable modes. The difference here, however, is that they stand to make lots of money from you.

Besides returning features, perhaps the most hyped-up addition to WWE 2K23 is the War Games match. Originally used in the late ‘90’s and recently returning to prominence on WWE TV, the match features two rings surrounded by a steel cage. With two competitors starting things off, their team of up to 3 compatriots are locked in a separate cage with one member joining every couple of minutes. As such, one team will have the advantage until each team is at full force, and at this point, the match will begin properly.

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Once released from the holding pen, competitors have the opportunity to retrieve weaponry from under the ring and introduce it to the match, and so once all eight players are involved, the result is absolute anarchy. With chairs being swung, wrestlers hitting Finishers, and performers scaling and then flying from atop the cage, nobody is safe. We did have a couple of issues with the AI refusing to split off and face an opponent – instead insisting on interrupting our chosen encounter – but other than that it runs without a hitch, and considering where we were just a few years ago with 2K20, that seems rather astounding. While Hell In a Cell might have been the go-to multiplayer car crash mode previously, it’ll almost certainly be War Games going forwards.

Conclusion

After a tumultuous few years of WWE releases, 2K and Visual concepts have finally been able to begin building on the solid foundations of last year’s game. WWE 2K23 isn’t a huge step up from 2K22 with long load times and a surprisingly unpolished Showcase Mode for John Cena, but the series has still shown growth, considering War Games is pure chaos and MyRise is much improved. The future is once again bright for WWE and 2K, and so WWE 2K23 should be celebrated by fans as though they’ve just won their first world championship.