At this point in the series, following WWE 2K often feels like watching the developers playing Jenga with themselves. Every year new systems are introduced, stacked upon systems, stacked upon legacy systems, and this year, with WWE 2K17, is when that tower seems most at risk of toppling.
Lest I sound overly negative, let me stress that there’s certainly fun to be had playing WWE 2K17. When everything works, and the game focuses purely on the action within the ring, WWE 2K17 might present the closest approximation of “sports entertainment” in the series yet. Unfortunately, I spent just as much time having fun of the sort derived from playing Goat Simulator, or watching highlight reels of Skyrim bugs.
With the exception of one glaring omission which I’ll cover later, you’d be hard pressed to fault WWE 2K17 for lack of content. Practically every match type you could ask for present, from TLC matches to the welcome return of playable backstage areas and fighting in the crowd. As advertised, WWE 2K17 also comes loaded with “the largest roster in WWE games history”, and I’ll even give bonus points simply for including the best tag team on the planet, The Revival. As always, some of the character models clearly had more effort put into them than others – NXT cover star Finn Balor looks spot on, while Dana Brooke’s demonic stare will forever haunt my dreams – but the new lighting system helps significantly, with light reflecting off bodies much more convincingly than before (I’ve given up on the series ever figuring out how to make long hair look remotely realistic though.)
NEW GAMEPLAY CHANGES
Gameplay has seen the introduction of several new inspired ideas, though the quality of execution varies wildly. Thanks to two key changes, multi-man matches are perhaps the best they’ve ever been in the series. The first one might be seen as backhanded praise, but I’m overjoyed to note that manual targeting finally works – snappy and responsive. Yes at long last, you no longer have to impotently hammer on R3, trying to shift your focus onto the opponent rushing towards you with a clothesline, instead of the one lying dazed on the ring apron.
The second new introduction is the “roll-out system”, which forces a wrestler to roll out of the ring after taking a certain amount of damage and recover, while the action in the ring carries on. During this time, the player can choose to wait out the recovery meter in exchange for a momentum buff, or make an early recovery for perhaps, a dramatic pinfall save. Some may find this enforced period of “inaction” frustrating, but in practice it makes multi-man matches flow much more like their real life counterparts now. Responsiveness could be better – I lost several matches despite triggering an early recovery because my character was still completing his recovery animation – but otherwise this is a very welcome new mechanic.
The taunt system has also been overhauled for the better – pressing left on the D-pad now plays to the crowd, increasing the speed at which you build momentum for your signature and finishing moves, while pressing right taunts your opponent, providing a temporary damage buff. WWE 2K17 also builds on the system of limited reversals that last year’s edition first introduced to prevent the reversal spam that plagued earlier entries. This time, many more high impact moves have both “minor” and “major” reversals windows. Hitting a major reversal costs 2 bars of your reversal stock, but temporarily prevents your opponent from making reversals of their own, increasing the chance of you dramatically countering a big finishing move with one of your own. The timing on the major reversals also appears to have been relaxed, so saving up your reversals, lying in wait for your opponent to attempt his finisher (while intentionally taking damage from weaker moves in the process) is now a viable tactic. Combined, these two revamped systems introduce a new layer of strategy to the gameplay.
So far so good then. So why the negativity? Let’s start with that one glaring omission – 2K Showcase, effectively the “story” mode of the WWE 2K series, is nowhere to be found. As a long-time wrestling nerd, I’ve always appreciated the abundance of video packages detailing the history of the WWE; and if there’s one thing that the WWE could always be counted upon for stellar delivery, it’s quality video packages. That leaves us with two major single player modes, MyCareer and WWE Universe. MyCareer let’s you take your create-a-wrestler (“CAW”) through an entire WWE career, starting from the developmental brand NXT through to the bright lights of Wrestlemania, while WWE Universe is basically a never-ending sandbox. Unfortunately, these modes share a common theme – both are a slog to play through, and riddled with glitches and illogical “booking” decisions.
Take MyCareer. Effectively a pro wrestling RPG, the goal is to take an underpowered, unskilled developmental talent and, through matches and cutting promos, earn sufficient VC (in-game currency) to unlock new skills and level up your abilities.
Here’s the first problem. Each match is rated on a 5-star scale, which in turn determines how much VC you earn. Though a good idea in theory, it eventually becomes apparent that any match can receive a high rating simply from being long enough. Short, efficient wins won’t cut it, and instead you’re encouraged to pad each match out for as long as possible. Penalties for “poor performances” are miniscule – I could consistently raise matches to a 2 star level simply by stomping on my opponent repeatedly 8 to 10 times – making the road to 5 stars one more of attrition than tactics.
Here’s the second, one that plagues both Single player modes – although the game tracks numerous meters that determine your face / heel alignment, disposition and relationships with other wrestlers, these systems are barely explained, with little to no feedback on how any of your actions affect these statistics. Case in point – at one point my heel CAW attacked a top face from behind during his entrance. After a brutal beatdown, including multiple German suplexes on the floor, and chair shots in front of a jeering crowd, I receive a notification that my heel rating had… decreased? What gives, WWE 2K17?
This lack of clear instruction carries through to the game’s new “Promo Engine”. Though a good idea in theory, requiring you to play to different crowds by choosing from a series of 4 pre-scripted lines to create a promo and build up your face / heel meter, the execution is vague and often laughable. It’s often unclear which lines to choose to direct your character alignment, with only short lines such as “STRONG REACTION LEVEL 1” or “OK CHOICE” serving as player feedback. In addition, the generic script is often inane and absolutely out of sync with the character of the wrestler speaking. Best (worst) of all are the promo battles, which always feature two wrestlers standing face to face, taking turns to hold two totally unrelated conversations with themselves.
Combine all these issues with some very long loading time in between matches and the inability to skip intro videos for every show, and you’re often left feeling that in the absence of 2K Showcase, there isn’t much of a compelling framework left to slog through the single player modes. Online multiplayer fares little better too. In a game so reliant on split second timing for reversals and kick-outs, lag continues to be prevalent, rendering many online matches near unplayable.
And this sums up my feelings about the game in general. Lots of great new ideas, marred by bouts of poor execution, and have I mentioned the shocking glitches? Oh… so many… glitches, all of which conspire to wreck the illusion of a true-to-life wrestling match. How do I count the ways…
- Enzo Amore corpsing in the first minute of a multi-man match after taking a kick, refusing to move for the entirety of the match,
- Shinsuke Nakamura freezing in mid-air while revving up his Kinshasa finisher,
- Roman Reigns getting his foot stuck in the barricade mid-taunt, then proceeding to slide around the boundary of the ring on one leg,
- Being told that my ranking had increased in MyCareer, from Rank 9 to… Rank 9,
- Michael Cole repeating “… and Zack Ryder is on his way.” for the entire first minute of a match,
And all these happened in my first hour of playthrough, on the latest version of the game. Whether you find these issues a detriment or benefit to the game depend largely on your tolerance for unintentional slapstick comedy featuring your favourite sports entertainers, but these undeniably detract from the developer’s efforts to create a truly realistic simulation of the sport. 2K have even found ways to break features that weren’t broken before. Inexplicably, the end of match Highlight Reel often not only misses the finishing move leading to the winning pinfall, but cuts off before the decisive 3-count. One match’s highlight reel was entirely composed of wrestlers pinning other wrestlers.
Lastly, though this is about par for the course, the audio remains consistently poor. Although new chants have been recorded, crowd sounds have sudden dips and jumps in volume that sound very inorganic, almost like watching Smackdown during its pre-recorded, edited days. Commentary is as painfully stunted and generic as ever, and most horrifically Jerry Lawler returns, continuing to refer to the ladies as Divas. Women’s Revolution? What’s that?
With WWE 2K17, 2K yet again delivers a sequel that disappoints more then delights, a feeling compounded by the potential promised by the wealth of new ideas and refined systems, undone by glitches and poor design decisions. There’s a sense that we’re running out of time for that one truly great wrestling game of this console generation, and one wonders if 2K can ever deliver on that without jettisoning the creaking, Yuke’s-developed game engine of years past.