Last Tuesday evening my wife came out to the living room, glanced at the TV screen, and asked how much longer I'd be watching wrestling. She did a double take when I told her I was taking WWE 2K17 for a test drive, unable to believe how closely the 3D models for Romen Reigns and Brock Lesnar—two of the 10 wrestlers the game lets you play during installation on PS4—resembled their real-life counterparts.
WWE 2K17 boasts not only the largest roster in franchise history, but the most visually stunning as well. From the way Finn Balor crawls along the floor during his moody entrance to the way The Rock thumps his chest and hoists newly captured championships over his head after a hard-fought match, 2K17's polygonal characters capture their flesh-and-blood counterparts more accurately than any wrestling game to date.
Other than head and facial hair, which still looks as fat and clumpy as hair textures from the PS2 franchise's PS2 era. That's not a knock, mind you. It's almost characteristically charming at this point.
The game's sharp visuals extend beyond theatrical entrances and victory fanfare. Animations are crisp and fluid, suffusing every move with weight. Snap suplexes emphasize snap, knife-edge chops look and sound as stinging as they feel, and I was tempted to look for missing teeth when Shawn Michaels super-kicked Daniel Bryan out of midair.
WWE 2K17 is more than just a pretty face. There's a tremendous amount of tactical depth here for wrestling purists to appreciate. Taunts, for instance, now serve different purposes. Perform a damage taunt to pack a bigger punch, or use momentum taunts to accelerate the rate at which you build up signature and finishing moves.
A third type of gibe, and arguably the most useful, coerces opponents to their feet. Not only is this a great way to shift a match's tempo in your favor, it's a robust psychological tool: Forcing opponents to stand precludes any opportunity for them to play possum and lure you in; instead they're on the defensive and wondering how, or if, you'll attack when they're ambulatory.
In terms of game types, WWE 2K17 maintains the series' long tradition of give-and-take design. 2K Showcase, a cinematic mode that followed the careers of wrestlers replete with video clips and voice acting, has been removed, which may disappoint players who enjoyed taking strolls down memory lane with the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Undertaker.
WWE Universe more than fills the void left by 2K Showcase. Yukes grants you total control over rosters, rivalries, tag teams, and more. Storylines evolve organically through actions that flesh out alliances and rivalries, although feuds still advance primarily by fighting the same opponent week in and week out.
I put more stock in a wrestling game's mechanics than I do its cinematic elements, so I haven't missed 2K Showcase. Whether or not Universe will scratch your itch for rope opera-style storytelling depends on your own predilections.
I haven't waded into WWE 2K17's My Career mode, a journey that takes your create-a-wrestler character on a journey from the bottom of the card on NXT all the way through marquee match-ups at WrestleMania, nor have I dabbled in multiplayer.
Those experiences notwithstanding, WWE 2K17 expansive game systems represent possibly the most substantial update to the franchise in years.