Whether made by 2K or THQ, the modern WWE series is essentially a string of fighting games treated like an annualized sports franchise. The way this has worked historically is in cycles, where the series comes out with one game that has a clear overhaul in terms of graphics or mechanics so that the next few games or so can coast along with minor updates and tweaks. WWE 2K23 fits in this latter category, with WWE 2K22 having already made the necessary course correction the year before by skipping over the planned release of WWE 2K21 so that the franchise could recover from the botch that was WWE 2K20. That said, this year’s offering does enough with the 2K Showcase and provides enough improvements across its many modes to maintain the standard of its predecessor.
Sustaining the grapple
By and large, WWE 2K23 unapologetically copies the gameplay system from last year’s installment, so if you’ve played WWE 2K22, you’ll feel right at home here. Light and heavy attacks can still be stringed together for short combos, the vitality meter is divided into green and red recoverable segments, and it’s still tough to stop an opponent’s onslaught unless you have the proper timing for a block, dodge, reversal, or combo breaker. Wrestlers have once again an unlimited number of reversals, so fights are more about input skill instead of saving up reversal stock.
One major gameplay change is the addition of an optional timed kick-out meter, which surprisingly feels more intuitive than the default setting. Getting out of a pin typically means having to mash a button to fill up a circle, but the new timed kick-out mechanic has you try to hit a hot zone as it moves left and right on a meter. The more damaged your wrestler is, the smaller and faster this zone becomes. But if you flick up on the right stick at the right time, mimicking how a wrestler literally kicks out, you can get out of a pin in situations where the button-mashing mechanic would have made that impossible.
The new WarGames match type, which has been highly requested by fans, makes a strong debut in this year’s installment too. Just like its real-life counterpart, it features two rings joined side-by-side with a steel cage encapsulating both. Two teams — either 3v3 or 4v4 — fight each other with staggered entries, meaning there are periods where one team is a man down, effectively turning it into a temporary handicap match. This dynamic plays itself well throughout the fight, making you think strategically as you decide which opponents to focus on since there are so many to keep track of. It only takes one wrestler to lose for the match to end, so keeping track of both rings is important to consider as you scale the cage, scour for weapons, and springboard between rings.
Other minor enhancements this year include more tired animations and visual expressions when your wrestler’s stamina is low (though I usually turn stamina off because I think there are already too many bars to worry about). You can now perform springboard finishers like Cody Cutter and taunts with a weapon, allowing for a few more options in a match. And female referees can now appear in the ring. The graphics haven’t changed too much apart from some more natural lighting so that clothes and sweat don’t look so glossy.
Tangled up in the ropes
On the downside, WWE 2K23 still has some inconsistencies that linger from its predecessors. Winning matches, especially on the higher difficulty settings, boils down to being adept at reversals, which takes some time to figure out since different moves can have wildly different hit animations. The system could be more reliable with where reversal prompts appear near your wrestler and could have more UI feedback when trying to counter combo attacks, since that doesn’t use the normal button for reversals. Hit detection can be a bit spotty at times as well, notably for giant characters (like my seven-foot created wrestler) whose swings can whiff for being too high.
To make reversals easier, there is a gameplay slider in settings that can widen the reversal window in case you need it. However, many of these advanced sliders don’t have a clear description, so it’s sometimes difficult to work out what they do. I have no idea what “AI 3+ Signature History Pin Value” means, so I just didn’t touch it. In fact, I had moved some of the other sliders around for balance, but for some reason this made it impossible for me to win by pinfall no matter how many signatures and finishers I landed. This forced me to revert most of these sliders back to their default position.
As for the roster, it’s hard to be disappointed with it having around 200 superstars right out of the box. It’s understandable if you feel gutted that one of your favorite wrestlers isn’t here, as there have been many superstars in 2022 who were cut, decided to retire, or moved to another brand like AEW, Impact, or NJPW. There’s still a good chance that some wrestlers like Nia Jax and Tegan Nox, who returned to the WWE late in 2022, might be added in as DLC. 2K has already announced the wrestlers that will be arriving in several upcoming packs, so your favorites could be put on the official roster eventually. In the meantime, you can rely on the community to create any missing wrestlers to fill in the gaps.
This year’s 2K Showcase puts an interesting spin on the usual retrospective of following a superstar’s career. Instead of featuring the major victories of John Cena, the cover star for WWE 2K23, it focuses on the most significant losses over his 20+-year career. Narrated by Cena as he talks about each match in a soundbooth, the mode is meant to highlight three words he lives by: Never Give Up. (Don’t worry, I thought it would be “Hustle. Loyalty. Respect.” too.)
Like past 2K Showcase modes, the point is to follow each match by copying specific moves that happened in real life, except that this time around you’re Cena’s many opponents. Get these moves right and it will trigger cutscenes that are spliced into the fight in real time and complete objectives that unlock bonuses, like new arenas and create-a-superstar parts. There are even a few special matches that unlock later in the mode (though we’re not allowed to talk about them yet).
The trouble as usual, though, is that you need the AI to cooperate during the entire match in 2K Showcase, which is frustrating for fights that have fifteen or more objectives that you mostly need to complete in sequence. The AI for Cena only wants to end the match and doesn’t care about your side goals. This means that trying to perform a specific move, like jumping from the top rope to hit Cena when he’s down at ringside, can take a lot more attempts than it should.
It also would have been more fitting for the mode to include some of Cena’s wins throughout his career, if just to communicate the theme of “Never Give Up” better. Being persistent after losing is an important principle to live by, but it’s made all the more sweeter when you take all the lessons you’ve learned and finally win.
Per usual, you can spend an incredible amount of time in WWE 2K23’s other modes, like MyGM, MyRISE, MyFACTION, and Universe mode, and the game offers several notable improvements for each of them. As someone who digs into the WWE 2K creation modes the most, I spent a good chunk of my time with MyRISE, which allows you to bring your created superstar through a crafted story. Not only can you finally import your created character over to this mode, but it presents two stories: one called The Lock for a male superstar and another called The Legacy for the female superstar.
This game’s version of MyRISE features fairly simple voice-acted stories, broken down between main missions and side quests, and it’s self-aware enough not to take itself too seriously. Even your wrestler makes fun of “The Lock” shtick from WWE management and having to emerge from a literal safe as an entrance. You don’t have to finish any of the optional missions, but doing so lets you interact with a lot of wrestlers, compete in a variety of challenging match types, and gives you upgrade points to improve your character.
Meanwhile, MyGM finally allows you to play multiple seasons, with a way to carry certain wrestlers over to the next season. You can also create your own custom GM or select fixed GMs like Xavier Woods, Tyler Breeze, and Mick Foley, and pick NXT 2.0 or WCW as new brands. Completing new seasonal challenges can net you Slammy Awards and entry into the new Hall of Fame. To add more customization for Universe mode, a new Rivalry system allows you to perform among a hundred different Rivalry actions before, during, or after a match.
MyFACTION can now be played online, after being just a single-player, offline mode last year. So if you enjoyed the process of upgrading wrestlers as cards, then you’ll appreciate the expansion here. Similar to Ultimate Team modes in some EA Sports games, this mode is really about bringing lootboxes to the fold, encouraging players to purchase packs for a better deck. The only reprieve is that you can still buy packs by using free-to-play currency. However, I already play the mobile game WWE Supercard, which is in its ninth season and is more complete as a card battler.
As for the various creation modes, most of the attention has been placed on adding advanced customization for created entrances and adding the ability to play custom arenas online. I miss the days when you could change the proportion of each limb in Create A Superstar, and not being able to create a custom class apart from the four presets still feels restrictive. Both Create A Finisher and Create A Story need to make a comeback as well at some point in the WWE series.
A one-two punch
WWE 2K23 is like watching a follow-up to a spectacular match between two wrestlers the week before — it crackles with the same energy, but you’ve seen this fight before. Fortunately, the game stands as a solid sequel that offers an intriguing 2K Showcase retrospective on John Cena, an intuitive timed kick-out mechanic, and two separate stories in MyRISE. While it still struggles with several flaws carried over from past games in the series, the game has plenty of ways to send you hurling toward one of its numerous modes and then holding your attention there for days on end. WWE 2K23 doesn’t risk going for a high-flying splash from the top rope, but it still packs a mighty haymaker.
This review is based on a PlayStation 5 digital copy of WWE 2K23 Icon Edition supplied by the publisher. WWE 2K23 releases on March 17 for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and Xbox One, with early access releasing on March 14 for those who have the Deluxe or Icon Edition.
- Original spin on 2K Showcase with John Cena
- New optional timed kick-out
- Two separate stories for MyRISE
- War Games match type
- Still need AI to cooperate in 2K Showcase
- Reversals could have better UI feedback
- New gameplay sliders need better descriptions