2K Games is back with another iteration of their wrestling game, WWE 2K16. What better way to find out how well it does than to get real-life wrestler and better-at-life Greg Glorious himself?
Hideo Itami circles an exhausted Finn Bálor, having just nailed a successful comeback sequence. Slowly, he heaves Bálor onto his shoulders, readying his trademark Go To Sleep finisher, but Bálor finds the energy to wriggle out of the move, before hitting Itami with a huge spinning clothesline! The crowd erupts at this pivotal moment in the main event of NXT Takeover, the cumulation of a month-long feud between the two internationally renowned superstars.
Now with the upper hand, Bálor ascends to the top rope and launches himself, hitting his double foot stomp finisher on a prone Itami. Bálor goes for the cover… but Itami scores a lucky break and somehow kicks out at one! Infuriated, Bálor lifts his groggy opponent to his feet for the Bloody Sunday DDT, but it’s Itami’s turn to evade. Seeing sufficient space between them, he sprints towards Bálor and attempts to finish the match with a Shotgun Kick, but Bálor pivots around Itami, using his momentum against him to roll him up for the win!
When unscripted sequences like that occur in the game, WWE 2K16 feels like the best wrestling game in ages. Unfortunately, inconsistent controls and niggling legacy issues continue to plague the action in between these moments, resulting in a frustratingly uneven playing experience.
Its predecessor, WWE 2K15 was – to put it kindly – not a good game. It was heavily criticised by gamers, due to sluggish gameplay, dearth of options and relatively small roster compared to past entries. Hopes were high that Yuke’s and Visual Concepts, having had another year to work on next-gen consoles, would right the wrongs of last year’s aberration with WWE 2K16. I’m pleased to say that they were successful on several fronts, particularly in terms of features and roster depth, however the gameplay still has some way to go before the franchise can call itself a prime time player again.
Every wrestling game in history has had to toe the line between being a competitive fighting game (Saturday Night Slam Masters take a bow), and recreating the choreographed drama of a professional wrestling performance. WWE 2K16 veers the series even further towards the latter end of the spectrum, evident in many small improvements to two of the main single player modes available.
In MyCareer, you take your created wrestler through his developmental career, fighting up through the rankings to eventually main event Wrestlemania, and cement his place in the Hall of Fame. This time around, you play through 15 years of your wrestler’s career, so don’t expect to be wrestling at The Grandest Stage of Them All in your first few hours of play. Rather, be prepared to slog through many, many hours working NXT first – though one could argue this reflects real life!
MyCareer is the most RPG-like and compelling of the modes, and I must say I felt a small thrill in seeing the digital version of Greg Glorious slowly acquire the bad-guy abilities worthy of his heelish nature. However, don’t expect to be able to pull off high-flying moves at the outset, instead, it’s going to take a lot of grinding through matches to rack up enough experience points to unlock new skills and abilities.
The developers have taken a page out of Fire Pro Wrestling’s book, awarding experience points not only for winning the match, but also based on how dramatic the match was. You are encouraged to work towards an epic five star rating through mixing up your moves, making near falls to heighten the drama, and carrying out well-timed reversals resulting in back and forth match flow. Even inadvertently knocking out the referee gives you a “memorable moment” point bonus!
New to this year’s edition are backstage interviews with a very creepy rendition of Renee Young, where you pick canned responses to her queries. Some of these options could benefit from more clarity – for example, when asked how I felt about Tyler Breeze interfering in my match, I confidently replied “He’s not even my focus!”, intending arrogance and disrespect. However, the game interpreted my reply as gallantly showing confidence and drive instead, and to my horror, turned Greg Glorious in-game alignment into that of a goody-two-shoes face.
You also now have the option of interfering in your designated rival’s matches. Though having the option to run-in to mess up your rival’s match is a great addition, several small niggles irritate, such as being forced to load the match even if you have no intention of interfering, then being told to spectate or quit the match via the pause screen. Why not just provide the option to skip and simulate the result from the main menu screen?
Though at first glance this mode appears to be more or less the same as last year’s version, allowing you to fantasy book the WWE roster, the developers have made several tweaks under the hood, in an attempt to add more depth and unpredictability to the storylines. It’s now easier to track the progress of key rivalries through the “News” tab, making it easier for players to decide which matches to play through and which to simulate. There have also been some attempt to add further depth through wrestler-specific status effects and stat changes as a result of match outcomes, however these don’t appear to have much significant impact on actual gameplay.
This mode certainly benefits from the much-expanded roster, clearly making up from 2K15’s slim pickings – the inclusion of a significant number of NXT talent being particularly cool. I won’t go into the controversy over the exclusion of the Four Horsewomen, but you won’t mind it that much (perhaps) once you wrap up another epic battle between Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens!
On a related note, a lot of work has gone into detailing the unique movesets of the new additions. I was pleasantly surprised to see Sami Zayn retain his amazing tornado DDT through the bottom ropes (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you need to see it to believe it), while Kevin Owens gets to retain his package piledriver from the indies!
The Showcase mode is the scripted “story mode” of the game. Past editions of this mode took you through the much reminisced about Attitude Era of wrestling, or Thirty Years of Wrestlemania, reenacting notable historical events in-game, supported by (or is it the other way around?) fantastic video packages typical of WWE’s high standards. This year’s edition focuses solely on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s career, from WCW through to his retirement at Wrestlemania 19, to mixed results.
On one hand, if you’re going to choose one wrestler’s career as the focus of an entire campaign, you could do much worse than The Rattlesnake. However, this also results in the least interesting gameplay in the series to date, as Austin’s the only wrestler you’ll be playing as for the bulk of the mode. Coupled with Austin’s admittedly basic moveset, I found myself struggling to get to the end.
As is par for the Showcase mode, the game still frequently breaks away from regular gameplay to play scripted QTE sequences, and forces you to play matches in very specific ways, in accordance with historical facts. “Damage Wrestler X to fill a bar” / “Whip Wrestler X into steel steps” / “Whip Wrestler X into the ring” / “Damage Wrestler X again to trigger QTE” can quickly get frustrating when you have to replay levels over and over to unlock all the content in the game.
In terms of gameplay options, WWE 2K16 has loads of depth, packed with systems within systems. If you’re new to the series, or haven’t played a WWE game since the glory days of Here Comes the Pain, be sure to read the manual! Mechanics are complex, and with no explicit tutorial, you’re practically thrown in at the deep end from the title screen, with gameplay tips drip-fed to you as you play through the various modes.
Some of the new systems work really well. Limiting the number of stored reversals is a masterstroke, requiring series vets to rethink their approach to matches. No longer is it enough to know each move’s reversal window to win; you now need to make snap decisions whether to even counter a move in the first place, or to save the reversal for a more pivotal point in the match.
It’s particularly thrilling when you’ve goaded your opponent into expending all of his reversals, giving you free reign to place attack after attack (just don’t burn out your stamina meter!) Conversely, desperately evading attacks while refilling your reversal meter just in time to reverse an opponent’s finisher is a brave new dynamic for the series. Not only that, but certain moves now have more than one counter window, complicating matters further. This is really tricky to master, but could turn out to be gratifying for players willing to put in the time to practise.
On the other hand, the new submission system is really tricky, and is flat-out not fun. Rotating the analog stick as the defender to move your blue segment around a circle, avoiding it from being overlapped by the attacker’s red segment, so as to fill your respective bars, is as unintuitive as it is confusing. I haven’t even mentioned how pressing L2 makes your segment move faster at the expense of stamina, or how collecting the randomly appearing glowing orb around the circle could let you swing the momentum in an instant. Put simply, of all the new changes to gameplay, this is the biggest misstep of all.
Sitting right in the middle of the fun spectrum is the return of chain wrestling, a holdover from last year’s iteration. Although this makes matches start with a flow akin to that of a real match, spinning the right analog stick in a circle to fill a red bar wasn’t particularly fun to play last year, and it isn’t any better this year. If nothing else, 2K16 comes closer than any WWE game before it to visually recreating the drama of a professional wrestling match, but sometimes at the expense of truly compelling and fun gameplay.
On the bright side, controls are the most responsive they’ve been since 2K Games took over publishing duties, though you may still find yourself hammering buttons more times than necessary to trigger actions. On many occasions, I’ve tried to lift my opponent to his feet while outside the ring, only for my grappler to circle my prone adversary while looking for the right position from which to trigger the animation.
Overall, this year’s graphics are great. Old troubles such as hair rendering and some wonky faces remain, but a number of animations have been overhauled to dramatic effect. I particularly love the smoother transitions between moves, e.g. how wrestlers now use the ropes for support as they stagger to their feet. Then again, though it’s great to see small details such as your wrestler shaking his head in disbelief after a near fall, it isn’t so great to have your opponent recover and hit a move on you while you’re still locked in that head-shaking animation.
I had some trouble logging on to test the online modes, however I was pleasantly surprised after a marathon session with Peter that two-player local multiplayer is where the gameplay truly shines. Where single player breaks down to memorizing the tiny reversal windows for each attack by the CPU (often I was going on muscle memory from past games, as the timing for many of the canned animations remains the same), playing against a human opponent makes the timing much more unpredictable, and games flow much more interestingly as a result.
Last, and most certainly least, commentary is bad as always, with the addition of JBL only serving to further muddy up the flow within the commentary “team”. JBL also has a number of long wrestler-specific monologues, during which he speaks in an awkward drawl that would make you think he’s been off drinking and smoking up a storm with his old pal Farooq again. Lines are often repeated several times in the same match, and not always even in sync with the action in the ring (case in point, King shouting excitedly, “Jericho’s tapping out! He’s TAPPING OUT!!” except for the fact that Jericho had just put Austin through the announcer’s table on the outside, and was standing at ringside taunting.)
WWE 2K16 has made great strides in correcting the many missteps made by its predecessor. Though the Showcase mode is the most uninspired in the series yet, the various new tweaks and additions represent a clear mission statement from the developers that they intend to continue to chase the ambitious goal of making the series into a true simulation of the sport. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that as the series ages, the cracks are beginning to become truly evident in the heaving and creaking engine that Yuke’s first created more than a decade ago, and that a massive overhaul would be required to truly bring about the revolution that WWE fans crave.