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WWE 2K15 Review: Monday Night, Undercooked

WWE 2K15 tries to put its best foot forward with improved graphics, presentation, and new ideas, but still grapples with legacy issues and omitted content in its next-gen debut. Our review.

9

Wrestling fans: remember when Daniel Bryan, the little guy that never quite made it to the top despite his incredible in-ring skill, finally beat the top guys in the company at Wrestlemania this year to win the WWE Title? Remember how it felt like such a breath of fresh air and a changing of the guard? Remember how much of a bummer it was when cruel reality set in and he got hurt and sidelined for the rest of the year? 

That familiar feeling crept in as I played WWE 2K15. Occasionally the promise of a new console generation shines through, but the realities of annualized franchises and the often painful transition to new hardware keep it from fulfilling its potential.

This is not to say that there aren’t some improvements to the formula. Whereas previous WWE games treated wrestling matches like sentient action figures bouncing off each other, WWE 2K15 attempts to add more realism by including some new wrinkles. New this year is a Stamina meter that tracks each wrestler’s energy and fighting spirit. Wrestlers slow down as the meter drains and most matches end in two exhausted competitors struggling to make the pin or get to their feet. While that may limit the game’s appeal in terms of its accessibility and speed, it’s a nice nod to simulating the dramatic aspects of a pro wrestling match. It also demands some strategic thinking on the part of the player as to when to press the attack and when to rest--that means no more endless move-spamming. 

The new Chain Wrestling system, which has players play a game of rock-paper-scissors as they move from one transitional grapple to another, seems silly and gimmicky at first but over time feels like a natural addition. The on-screen prompts and bizarre “rotate the stick to find the right position” minigame may break the immersion but do surprisingly end up creating an entertaining back-and-forth wrestling match.

Yet, for all the things the new gameplay systems do right, the now-prehistoric Yuke's engine still retains some incredibly frustrating elements. Reversals are still less a matter of timing than memorizing frames of animation, and the infuriatingly touchy kick-out system cost me more than a few matches I could have come back to win. There is simply no excuse for keeping these mechanics around, and they hurt the overall experience. 

On an audiovisual level, there is no mistaking this current-generation version of WWE 2K15 for its previous-gen counterparts released last month. To hear them tell it, 2K’s Visual Concepts team invested a great deal of time and energy into revamping the game’s presentation for this debut, from scanning the actual wrestlers to get more realistic character models to increasing their motion-capturing efforts for more realistic animations and interactions. For the most part, it shows. In the right light, at the right angle, some of these new character models look a whole lot like their real-life counterparts and the characters move with more fluidity and weight than previous games. Overall, it’s a significant improvement if not quite the generational leap I hoped for.

But even with the focus on the improved presentation, the game still leaves something to be desired. The body-scanning technology works well on the wrestlers who were scanned but it has the unintended effect of making the characters who weren’t look worse. It is jarring to see a generally lifelike Rusev walk down to the ring alongside his decidedly less-lifelike manager Lana (below), and Vince McMahon’s low-polygon Halloween mask face is all I can see when I close my eyes. And of course, the engine still hasn’t quite gotten the admitted complexity of beards and hair right.

Moreover, despite the promise of more variety in the in-match commentary, I heard lots of repetition of the same canned lines again and again in every non-Showcase mode. I’ve heard Jerry Lawler talk about “educated feet” so many times the words have lost all meaning. Finally, while the roster is more or less current, it still has some gaps; fans of the Divas and NXT divisions in particular will be disappointed with how few representatives there are in-game and how many have been held back for DLC. The several slots given to different versions of the same character (how many versions of now-former WWE star Alberto Del Rio do we need?) could have been better served adding fresh faces or old favorites. 

The game also offers some new gameplay systems and modes, and fortunately these fare a little better. Showcase Mode returns from 2K14, offering lengthy campaigns built around two of the company’s major recent rivalries: Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H and CM Punk vs. John Cena. Just like last year, the game tasks you with achieving certain goals to historically recreate important matches from each rivalry, and unlike last year the goals are easier to accomplish thanks to clearer instructions and hints on how to accomplish them.

2K also made some additions to the online mode this year, including a new matchmaking mode. While the game finding online matches for you is good in theory, in practice it is annoying. Rather than selecting your wrestler before you enter a match, you choose a list of “favorites” in the preferences menu and it assigns you whichever wrestler on your favorites list is available. This means if you want to try a new grappler you have to remember to put them on your list ahead of time. This, combined with netcode that can sometimes be just laggy enough to make the timing-based reversals and kick-outs occasionally impossible to pull off, means the online mode still has room for improvement. However, it's at least not as abysmally bad as it has been in some previous editions.   

The most interesting addition, though, is the MyCareer mode. It’s not quite a wrestling RPG but it’s the closest thing we’ll see in this industry until I become President of Video Games. You start out as a young WWE hopeful training at the real-life WWE Performance Center and work your way from the minor leagues of NXT to the C-tier shows of the main roster all the way up to WWE Champion. Along the way, you’ll increase your attributes, buy new abilities and movesets, recruit managers, and even gain Twitter followers. There’s even an element of branching storylines based on what matches you choose to take and an alignment system tracking your progress between “Heel” (bad guy) and “Face” (good guy). A lot of things go under-explained in this mode, but the whole idea is so goofy I couldn’t help but appreciate it. Like any RPG though, there’s a good amount of grinding as you try to get strong enough to outlast some very frustrating early fights. 

These new modes come at a cost, though. Wrestling games have long been built around their customization options, and 2K cut several of them in order to make the release date. If you want to make your own custom female wrestlers, championships, arenas, or storylines you’re out of luck. It’s abundantly clear that these decisions were made late in the development cycle, as the creation suite’s splash screen shows custom female characters that cannot be made in this version of the game. What’s more, the creation options that do exist are paltry in comparison to what fans of the franchise have come to expect, with only a handful of clothing, accessory, and hair options and limited save slots. The game does offer you the ability to edit existing wrestlers but you are limited only to clothing options, meaning my dream of painting Batista green and turning him into Drax the Destroyer like God intended was for naught. Considering the fan community that has sprung up around creating virtual wrestling federations and streaming them online, this is a significant step backward for the series.

Many actual gameplay modes seem to have been left on the cutting room floor too, and the omissions are often as inconsistent and baffling as they are disappointing. If you want to have a four-man Tables, Ladders, and Chairs match or Hell in the Cell, WWE 2K15 can’t help you (though weirdly it offers a six-man Hell in the Cell option). You can’t even have a two-player ladder match, but you can have a six-player ladder match. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to what made the cut and what didn’t, but the end result is a game that is decidedly lacking in options and content compared to previous entries in the franchise.

There’s no denying there is fun to be had with WWE 2K15. Yet, its legacy issues and some questionable design choices keep it from greatness. And so, just like with the sad case of Daniel Bryan, fans will be left waiting and wondering what could have been if things had gone differently. Hopefully next year. 


This review is based on a PlayStation 4 retail copy provided by the publisher. WWE 2K15 is now available for $59.99. The game is rated T.

Freelancer
Review for
WWE 2K15
6
Pros
  • Presentation is noticeably improved over last year
  • New systems simulate drama of a wrestling match
  • MyCareer Mode is a nice goofy addition
Cons
  • Noticeable disparity in character models and visuals
  • Online matchmaking is clunky
  • Legacy mechanics in dire need of overhaul
  • Creation options are a dramatic step back
  • Missing modes and features are disappointing and often puzzling
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