I’m always conflicted about buying WWE games. For most of my childhood–say from 1991 to 1998– I was about as devoted a follower of WWF and WCW as it was possible for a child to be who lived in the UK without satellite television. These days, I would describe myself as a fan of the art of professional wrestling, and I follow what goes on and listen to occasional radio shows and podcasts, but I don’t watch the current ‘product’. Like many people, I’m very nostalgic about pro wrestling of the 80s and 90s, but have little more than contempt for the WWE as it exists today.
I regret that, because there is a huge amount of wrestling talent in today’s WWE, which is portrayed in WWE 2k16. Present-day superstars like Dolph Ziggler, Daniel Bryan, and Dean Ambrose are all present and correct, as are female stars (sorry, ‘Divas’–apparently women can’t be superstars) like Paige and Natalya. There are a wide array of stars of yesteryear, too, with personal favourites like British Bulldog, Rick Rude, and Jim Neidhart featuring alongside staples of recent WWE games like like Stone Cold Steve Austin, Bret Hart, The Rock and The Undertaker. The roster for this game is probably the best I have encountered since WCW/nWo Revenge on the Nintendo 64, and this is one of the game’s main selling points.
So, the game does a good job of showcasing the array of talent in the WWE of today and of years gone by. The production values of the game, like those of the shows you see on TV, tend to be very impressive, with some wonderful entrances for characters like Goldust and Chris Jericho. However, the game is deeply flawed and its problems mirror those of the real-world WWE. In-ring action tends to be quite stilted, with matches generally lacking the kind of rhythm one would expect in high-quality wrestling. 2K made a big effort to push the fact this game featured a new reversal system, but that only seems to have made it to next-gen consoles because the matches in the PS3 version are the same old reversal-fest as before.
It’s absurd, but basically the only way of getting a move in against a competent player is to reverse their reversals of your own move. It’s neither realistic or fun. Against the computer it can be teeth-crackingly frustrating. It’s well and good to point out that the system has been changed on PS4/XBOne, but it strikes me as a tawdry and cynical decision to leave the old system in place on the younger sibling consoles. Similarly, there is supposed to be a new pinning system on PS4, but on PS3 you’re stuck with the stupid ‘hold A until the bar reaches the right point on the meter to kick out’ system. This was a stupid system in the first place and I really can’t believe they left it in here.
The PS3 version also lacks the ‘career’ mode found in the next-gen versions. It would be easy to complain about this, as another way 2K has engineered the PS3 version to be inferior, but personally I’m not bothered. I can think of few things more soul-crushing in today’s world than the travails of a young wrestler trying to climb through the ranks of the WWE, and the career mode apparently features Triple H as a prominent antagonist trying to bury your career. This is literally what happens to everyone in today’s WWE and I have no desire to put myself through it in a video game. The PS3 does include the ‘Showcase’ mode, which is essentially a retrospective on Steve Austin’s rise to stardom in the WWE, dating from late ’96 to about 2003. Even as an Austin fan, there are only so many Stone Cold matches you can get through without getting bored. It starts well, but after what feels like 100 matches against The Undertaker and unlocking the 10th alternate Stone Cold attire it is natural to lose interest.
So, that leaves us with WWE Universe. This is the mode where you get to create your own shows, build your own rosters, and play out WWE the way you want to without everything being decided by Vince McMahon. It sounds good on paper, and every couple of years I get excited by this prospect and pick up a WWE game, but I never get very far with this mode. I think booking a wrestling show the way I’d like it just makes me more depressed about the state of wrestling in reality. Also, it’s, er, a bit of an embarrassing time sink for a man in his 30s.
The control you have over your ‘WWE Universe’ is also more constrained than you might think. For example, like many people I’m fed-up with John Cena, who was the highest-rated wrestler in my game (96). The second-highest in the game is my own most hated wrestler of all time, Shawn Michaels (95). Want to change a wrestler’s attributes? You can, but–you have to buy the ‘Accelerator’ DLC! This is literally just to change a bunch of numbers. It’s one thing having extra wrestlers as DLC, or even moves or arenas, but to make people pay to do this is downright offensive. Sadly, it’s also characteristic of today’s WWE.
Another gripe is with the online functionality. This is heavily touted, both for playing matches against other players online, as well as to download wrestlers created by other people and to upload your own creations. However, in the five days I had set aside to play this game, the online servers were completely and utterly down for the first four. That’s right, it was not possible to do anything online–no matches, no downloads, nothing. When I had WWE ’12 I had the same problem–the servers never, ever worked–but for that I blamed THQ, the publishers of that game, who were going through their death throes. But the fact this seems to be a recurring problem is ultimately the fault of WWE. Everyone knows how obsessively WWE’s senior management micro-manage every single aspect of their business; indeed, it’s one of their biggest problems. This is an embarrassing and ongoing fault with their games and I can’t believe it’s impossible to get it right.
It is possible to have fun with this game. In ring action tends to be largely boring and stilted, but there are moments of genuine comedy, especially when playing with other people, and sometimes a match ‘clicks’ and starts to feel something like the real thing. On the whole, though, the gameplay is not very satisfying. People have been saying it for years, but the developers have to try and find a game engine that delivers drama, momentum and physicality and doesn’t just feel like a technical simulator for showing people ‘this is what this move looks like’. Maybe the PS4 version is better–I wouldn’t know of course, because 2K decided not to include their major gameplay changes in the PS3 version. And that last was a fact I barely saw reported anywhere in the promotional literature or critical responses to this game.
In essence, this game lacks a soul. It doesn’t play like a game that has been created to bring joy or happiness to human beings. It just plays like a product that has been created to satisfy the requirements of WWE management. Guess what? That’s exactly what watching WWE today feels like, too. So this game is a good facsimile of current ‘sports entertainment’, and no doubt it will make a profit for WWE and for 2K. But from an artistic and entertainment perspective it is utterly moribund. I walked away from this game feeling even more depressed about wrestling and WWE than I did before I played it, which I didn’t think would be possible.
I really need to learn not to watch WWE anymore.