Well, here we are. Another year, another WWE game. Another awkward cooling off period as the runaway hype train of YouTube videos, updates, Q&A sessions, tweets, blogs, interviews, panels with Steve Austin wearing spectacles and random mid carders telling us "THIS IS THE BEST GAME EVER, THERE ARE SO MANY MODES AND UH… FEATURES" finally comes to an end, as WWE 2K15 has at last hit shelves.
The release of WWE 2K15 on Xbox one and PS4 is unique for many reasons. It's the first game to be released on the current/next gen (delete as appropriate depending on what you own). This, of course, was the game's main selling point. It also had the misfortune of being pre-empted by WWE 2K15 for Xbox 360 and PS3, which came out in a month earlier and got as much support and attention from publisher 2K Games as Chris Hero did from WWE developmental. If you went with the old-gen version, you'd have to deal with a lack of modes, a lack of gameplay updates and repugnant graphics.
It would just be me—and the other cool kids who had a new console—who would truly be experiencing WWE 2K15 this year. And afterwards we'd all Skype while watching the big game and stream our reactions on Twitch with the touch of a button! Then we'd play Lego Marvel or something and convince ourselves we're responsible with our money….
Having finally torn into the game this past week and clocked as many hours as socially possible, I can tell you that WWE 2K15 is in fact an impressive game. It's also a frustrating one. For every great moment, there seems to be a massive stumbling block. For every instance of something tiny and annoying finally being fixed (your music being played as soon as the 3 count happens, for one), there are baffling omissions (most match types). It's a game that will, in many instances, irritate its core audience, but it does have the potential to draw many new eyes to the franchise solely because of its very impressive visuals.
I've only owned a PS4 for around a week, so I am still reacting to seeing the highly-defined graphics on my television screen by shrieking like an ape, throwing bones around my living room and jumping up and down. That said, I am sure 2K15 looks good. The wrestler's ring entrances, most of the game's character models and the in-ring presentation are all slick.
My tradition with any new WWE game is to boot it up and immediately do a one-on-one match with two characters whose entrances I want to see. For this game, I went with everyone's favourite member of the New Nexus, Bray Wyatt, as I took on the most bust-ass member of the roster, Stone Cold Steve Austin. Bray's entrance was pretty much impeccable. The reaction in my room to his coming to the ring involved more smiling and eager clapping than the magician's audience at my fifth birthday party. This year, 2K15 employed facial scans for the majority of the roster, and by in large they look brilliant. The scans look brilliant, particularly for the likes of Wyatt, HHH, John Cena and Cesar. You can see their expressions change during a match. You can see looks of fear, happiness and fatigue. It's a great touch.
The much-hyped "new gameplay mechanics," however, are somewhat suspect. I don't think messing around with the game's speed and the timing of reversals counts as "new gameplay" but WWE games constantly get away with doing this. You're used to pressing R at a certain time for a whole year, then they put it off by 0.01 of a second and suddenly the game's artificial intelligence is advertised as revolutionary and it's "a whole new game." They've fiddled with the controls! Big whoop! You get nice chain wrestling at the start, but it's pretty superficial.
The only true improvements to what happens in the ring are again linked to presentation. Your superstars drop to a knee as a match takes its toll. They crawl to get a pin after a big move. These are excellent additions and really go a long way to make the matches you have feel like something you'd see on TV every week.
The commentary has improved, albeit by such a small degree that it will probably be unnoticeable in another week, once I've heard every line in Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler's repertoire. This year, 2K have in fact recorded Cole and Lawler commenting at the same time, a series first that definitely falls into the category of "Why didn't we do this 10 years ago?".
Crowds sound enthusiastic, and they react well to the action, particularly to finishers and near falls. The graphics for the crowd have also been radically improved. They are individually animated and raise their arms in the air to go "YES YES YES" during Daniel Bryan's entrance. They wander up the arena stairs during matches. The crowd definitely feels more "real" this year.
Unfortunately, if one thing potentially spoils the game's presentation this year, it's the horrid soundtrack that CONSTANTLY blares at you as you face countless lengthy loading screens. The soundtrack was curated by John Cena, which I'm sure means he drew a big squiggly line through a giant piece of paper titled "worst music ever made lol" and then picked 12 of the most nauseating tracks ever. No wrestling themes on the menu this year. But we do get a bunch of songs that were probably destined for an off-brand version of FIFA. I turned them all off in the jukebox section but found the 5-10 minute silence between matches scary and worrying. So now I have that one Dizzee Rascal song on repeat and stuck in my head. Dear 2K, in future, just put The Big Boss Man's theme on repeat. That'll do nicely and you'll only have to pay royalties to Jim Johnston.
Loading screens are the bane of the game's existence. Disc-based wrestling games have always struggled with this, chugging and churning as they attempt to load the various bits and bobs constituting the entrances, but I naively assumed being "next gen" we'd get some respite. Let it be known that the PS4 can boot up in around 15 seconds with no hassle. Starting a tag team match in Universe Mode took four minutes. I know there's something wrong here. And the loading screens become a real pain once you crack into "MyCareer", 2K's new single player mode exclusive to next gen. Much like the UFC games of past, or 2K's other sports franchises, MyCareer sees you crawl up from the primordial ooze of the performance centre, wrestle while Bill DeMott shouts at you and then hit NXT. From there, you go on to the main roster and into various feuds. Cutscenes dot the experience. You'll be doing a lot of waiting.
The levelling up of a custom character in MyCareer makes the mode tremendously addictive, and it's definitely the stronger of the two main single player modes. Any fans of NXT on the WWE network will be ecstatic to see the likes of Sami Zayn, Adrian Neville and even the Full Sail arena lovingly recreated. However, progress can be slow, and the very abrupt end of the mode leaves you feeling somewhat wanting.
The other big offering is rivalries mode, which sees you battle through HHH and HBK's storied 2002 rivalry (a rivalry that caused me to stop watching wrestling for four months, for the only time this ever happened to me!) and the infamous CM Punk/John Cena encounters from a few years back. Uh-oh. This is awkward. CM Punk is certainly not on our TV screens anymore (his departure from WWE was...controversial), but this hideous approximation of Phil "CM Punk" Brooks has to be one of the biggest gaffes in WWE games history. 2K were really between a rock and a hard place this year, and the timing was admittedly awful, but Punk's inclusion is both baffling and dreadfully executed. Look at this image.
WHO IS THIS MAN? In the valley of face-scanned superstars, the one you made from scratch is most certainly not king. And while we're at it, can you guess who else didn't get scanned?
LOOK AT VINCE MCMAHON. 2K win the award for "game that made me go oooooh and then FOR FUCK'S SAKE within the space of 20 minutes"! Random hideous character models aside, rivalries mode is still fun and provides the same high-end promo videos we've gotten for the last two WWE games. These hype videos make the matches feel special, and the additional commentary in matches is an added bonus. Rivalries mode definitely has legs, and there seems to be more on the horizon in the form of DLC.
(Above image via Smackdown Hotel)
Finally, there would be no point in me writing about this game without mentioning the creation suites and the changes made to them this year. We've lost 'create an arena', 'create a story' and the original logo creator. Creating female characters is also gone. Perplexing, as there exists an unlockable item in the game that requires the use of a "custom diva."
These are all massive disappointments, and while 2K and WWE games have made it very, very clear that we're not allowed to be annoyed about this, I'm annoyed about it, and if you're been a fan of these games generally, you'll be annoyed too.
WWE games for the last eight or so years have always had flaws. Every year, features are removed, then put back in in later installments and we're meant to view it as progress and be thankful. Last year, 2K14, despite its flaws, had a genuinely amazing creation community to its name. Hours were spent downloading people's arenas, meticulously detailed wrestlers and the hilarious and bizarre user-crafted storylines, all for use in the game. It feels like this community has been overlooked this year. By proxy, my community, the "wrestling fans who like nice things in their game but don't want to spend time making them," are really, really being screwed over.
Next year, you'll probably be able to make a female character again and we will be expected to act like it's progress. It's not. And even given the difficulties of changing consoles and supposedly "building from the ground up," there are enough similarities there for anyone with half a brain to spot that features were removed so that the game could be released quickly and in time for holiday season.
Many of the touted additions to the creation suites are not really impressive at all. The ability to change attire for in-game wrestlers seems like a massive leap, but I'm recalling doing that in Christmas of 2000, when I got No Mercy for the N64. The lack of items for custom characters this year is also quite difficult to accept. As a man with a beard and glasses, I was obviously a tad pissed there were no acceptable beards or glasses for me to use this year. I'm obviously wary to complain from my position of privilege, as 2K were kind enough to include my gender this year.
All in all, the gameplay and the majority of the visuals make this is an impressive installment of WWE and 2K's franchise. However, given the massive cuts to creation modes, which give the game its main line of playability, I don't think this is one we'll be playing for very long. With so few custom slots and no custom arenas to play with, my friends Adam and Billy and I probably won't be making "Extremely Risky Wrestling" as a brand in Universe mode. We also probably will never have that Rob Ford vs Vince Russo rematch in the Pepsi Arena either. Money on the table, brother.
If you've got a PS4 or an Xbox one and are a wrestling fan, WWE 2K15 is probably a purchase you're going to make regardless of what reviews will say, and let's face it, the makers of the game are probably counting on that. If you only have a 360 or PS3, this game can't be recommended. Just stick with 2K14; it's also flawed and you can't play as Luke Harper, but it's probably going to engage you just as much and for far less money.
Kefin Mahon co-hosts the Attitude Era Podcast, which looks back at the PPV's from the WWE in the late '90s and beyond. Join Kefin, Billy and Adam as they take a humorous look back at the highs and lows of the time. You can download all their episodes for free on iTunes or through Soundcloud or check out their audio commentaries for wrestling films over at Sellfy.com. Check out the Attitude Era Podcast on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.