Ah, the WWE 2K series. The cobbled-together, glorified Playstation 1 ROM hack of annualized sports franchises. More traditional annual sports games may be criticized for a lack of substantive changes year to year, but at least they’ve advanced over time and look like they belong in the current generation. The WWE 2K games just...aren’t that. As I described in this space two years ago, it’s a series that’s benefitted, in large part, from a complete lack of competition for much of its existence, especially once it went cross-platform in 2007, pushing out the likes of the better-received WWE Day of Reckoning series on the Gamecube. What’s now WWE 2K is widely considered to have peaked on the PS2, with 2003’s SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain. The scary part is that it’s become increasingly clear, especially as screenshots and videos of the unusually secretive WWE 2K20—dropping this Tuesday, October 22—keep surfacing, that the series may have peaked graphically in the PS2 era, as well.
What makes this year’s game unique? It was first reported by Video Games Chronicle in August that Japan’s Yuke’s, the developer of the series since its inception on the PS2, would no longer be producing the series at all. 2K Sports’ Visual Concepts, which had co-developed the series since 2014’s WWE 2K15, has taken over entirely, though Yuke’s told VGC in a statement that they would “continue providing support to 2K with regard to the game engine.” In other words, Visual Concepts wasn’t going to be reinventing the wheel. They were sticking with the famously buggy and visually antiquated game engine...without the day to day assistance of the developers who know the quirks of said engine best. I don’t doubt that 2K, if they took a year off, could hire the right people and make a really good wrestling game, but they clearly have no desire to do that.
The result of all this is that as screenshots and video clips from YouTube influencers and the like started showing up online on Monday there was a much wider recognition of the collapse of the series than there had been in years past. (As of this writing, 2K has not responded to an email asking for comment on how the screenshots and videos came out or the backlash to their release.)
It probably didn’t help that 2K had been quite secretive in recent months by holding back on actual gameplay footage. This is reminiscent of 2K15, when a few top wrestlers were given higher quality models and only those were released, seemingly to imply that the whole game looked like that when it didn’t. Perhaps most tellingly, there’s this tweet comparing The Rock’s new video game visage to those from the past:
Two years ago, The Rock, being a huge star, got a pretty solid-looking model, but now, he looks like a middling player-created wrestler. Much more alarming, though, is the second image, comparing 2K20 Rock to the Here Comes the Pain Rock from 2003. Aside from the lower resolution inherent to being two console generations ago and pre-HD, the 16 year-old PS2 game has an undisputedly better and more accurate rendition of The Rock’s face. The infamous 2013 meme documenting the de-evolution of Booker T’s facial textures was bad enough, but at least it only covered a five year period. Now? The Rock’s model, in a game that was released late in the current generation by one of the top publishers in the business, looks like a bootleg knock off compared to that of a PS2 game from 16 years ago. This goes deeper than The Rock, though, as a Reddit post compiling the worst faces in the game showed many more wrestlers whose faces looked cobbled together rather than scanned, though none of those are as ghastly as what they’re trying to pass off as Io Shirai and Dana Brooke.
And of course, the the series’ awful-looking hair is worse than ever. Pete Dunne’s beard looking like a solid mass of...something, as does that of someone who I think is supposed to be Trent Seven. Among other things. Bianca Belair’s back-length braid that she uses as a weapon (really) has the rigidity of dried spaghetti, a massive step down from the more realistic hair physics of 2K19. Asuka’s hair has glitched clean off of her head, leaving a multicolored wig floating next to a visage of “The Empress of Tomorrow.” Hell, these graphical problems extend much further than the authenticity of the models of real people. Title belts still have issues conforming to the wrestlers, for one. Lighting effects are noticeably inferior to even last year, and in the story mode cutscenes, the background textures of 2K20’s high school cafeteria appear to be noticeably less detailed than those in Here Comes The Pain’s WWE locker room.
Something is deeply wrong here.
Hell, even the few brief glimpses of the story mode itself—which now offers a female character option—show a general lack of quality control that goes beyond the series’s decade-long graphical decline. In the aforementioned cafeteria, the (female) captain of the wrestling team, flanked by a male teammate, grabs the younger protagonist’s notebook and makes fun of her for writing in it that she wants to be WWE Divas’ Champion and be immortalized with her own action figure. Our hero’s beady-eyed platonic guy friend, who looks like he stepped out a Nintendo 64 game, jumps in to defend her dreams, with the protagonist—her name is Red—then following up by telling the bully not to touch their stuff again. You can guess what the bully does next (albeit not remotely looking like an accurate representation of a human grabbing an object), but you could never guess how Red responds.
“I’m gonna take that marker, bring it to your grandmother’s nursing home, and cross out parts of her chart, so when the nurse goes to give her turn down service, she won’t know to flip her over.” she begins. “That’s right, I’m going to give your grandmother bed sores!” Yes, the protagonist you’re supposed to identify with is not just kind of bratty, but threatened to give the captain’s innocent grandma a life-threatening infection because whoever wrote this story mode has no idea what bed sores actually are. With the roles suddenly reversed, the bully just deadpans “What is wrong with you?” Then Red steps to the captain of the wrestling team and eats a judo throw (where the two girls clip into each other) while her idiot friend slips on a lunch tray trying to run to her safety. He gets nicknamed “Tray” for that mishap, while Red gets ketchup squirted all over her by her foe so her face can “match” her name. Well, sort of. WWE 2K20 isn’t sophisticated enough to show that last part, so the bully grabs the low-resolution ketchup bottle and squirts it onto an offscreen Red...who has no ketchup on her face when the scene cuts back to her.
From what we’ve seen so far, this game is a complete failure on both a storytelling level and a technological one. At least the former is a realistic simulation of current WWE.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.