Since the release of THQ and AKI’s WWF No Mercy on the Nintendo 64 in the year 2000, a new standard was set for games based on professional wrestling in the minds of audiences and analysts alike. In the intervening 15 years since that game’s release, wrestling games have ranged from bottom-of-the-barrel awful (WCW Backstage Assault) to cream-of-the-crop great (WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw 2010). The main problem with pro wrestling today is that the only real game in town is Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE. After his two chief rivals went belly-up in 2001, there have been several independent promotions (like Ring of Honor) that provide solid wrestling in their own territories, and at least one organization whose mediocrity makes it a distant second place for nationally televised wrestling (TNA).
The brand saturation also extends to video games. Where in the late 1990’s you could look forward to different titles from different federations to play as your favorite ring warriors, nowadays you’re limited to the yearly WWE games, just as you’re basically limited to the WWE product on television. This hasn’t always been a bad thing, as many of the recent games (like WWE ’13 and WWE 2K14) have been respectable efforts in their own rights. Last year’s game in particular showed promise as we headed into the sunset days of the Xbox 360 and PS3, with a strong creation suite, an historically expansive single player story mode, and relatively tightened controls. There were a few issues, but we knew that at least we could count on next year’s title to clean things up a bit.
We’ve now arrived at that title in the form of WWE 2K15, developed by series regulars Yuke’s, with additional work by Visual Concepts. The game touts itself as being “so real, you can feel it,” with very visible fundamental work done to the visual presentation of the game to fully take advantage of the greater horsepower that consoles like the Xbox One and PS4 offer. Is this a new beginning for the pro wrestling simulator on new hardware? Let’s take a look and find out.
Presentation and Design
One of the things that’s very clear the first time you pick a wrestler and step through the ropes for the first time in 2K15 is the work put into the game’s visual elements. While the last few games on the previous console generation didn’t look “bad,” the effort put into representing the real arena climate of a live WWE event is unmistakably more realistic. The audience models feature greater levels of detail and more realistic animations, lighting effects are for the most part very strong, and in most cases, wrestler likenesses are flawless. The only real hiccups in the likenesses of some wrestlers are in the ones that are no longer with the company. CM Punk, for instance, looks better than he did last year, but his character model has nowhere near the amount of detail that Triple H’s does.
The authenticity also extends to the presentation of character entrances, too. Likely the most iconic element of a WWE live event is the theatrical walk down the aisle to get into the ring, with a wrestler’s unique entrance music playing as the stage transforms into graphic representations of themselves. When CM Punk hits the ring, the stage behind him becomes engulfed in tones of red and black, and occasional static. Kane’s entrance begins with a plume of fire as the stage behind him flashes the oranges and reds of hell, fire, and brimstone. In nearly every case, the entrances are preserved very effectively, but it would’ve been nice if the developers went the extra mile and created more unique stage dressing for the characters on the roster who don’t have it, including created wrestlers.
As is typical with most yearly WWE games, the arena environments are authentic recreations of the previous year’s worth of live events, in addition to some older locales present in the game’s story mode. The current stage and ring design of the two primary weekly shows, “Monday Night Raw” and “SmackDown,” are also available should you decide to tear it up on one of the WWE’s trademark stages. Other included stages from the story mode include televised and pay-per-view events from 2002-2004, and from 2011, included so that the game can accurately recreate rivalries from those eras in the single player mode. Overall, the presentation of WWE 2K15 is the series’ strongest to date, largely because of the work put in by Visual Concepts (known for creating the realistic players and environments in other 2K Sports games), and the increased graphical power available because of the transition to the more powerful Xbox One and PS4 consoles.
Looking beyond the surface level, though, the game begins to develop some problems.
Single Player Stories
In total, there are three specific modes designed for a solo player to discover what the creative roots of the game are. The centerpiece of the single player experience is “2K Showcase Mode,” which includes two specific rivalries from WWE’s recent past with promise of more content on the way in the form of paid DLC. Similar in overall function to the prior two years’ “Attitude Era Mode” and “30 Years of WrestleMana” mode, Showcase Mode’s chosen rivalries are between former friends and DX compatriots Shawn Michaels and Triple H from 2002-2004, and the Straight-Edge Superstar-making face-off between CM Punk and John Cena from 2011.
From a narrative and gameplay perspective, this mode is definitely the successor to the story sections of the previous two games. Playing each match gives you a certain set of eligibility requirements you have to complete in order to make it to the next one, and between a few matches you can see specially created video vignettes of actual footage of those rivalries from when they originally took place. As a game mode, its certainly well constructed, and these two rivalries definitely seem worthy of the “Showcase” treatment, but they can seem a little drawn out when compared to the previous story modes and their relatively wide field of time in which they take place (especially last year’s mode). The second single player mode is the returning “WWE Universe,” where you can play a series of matches at each monthly WWE event, and basically act as general manager for the brand, setting up rivalries, and playing out as many possibilities as the game will allow.
The final single player mode makes the transition from the other 2K Sports games in the more traditional “Career mode,” where you customize your own wrestler, and move on up through the WWE’s ranks. Starting in the developmental NXT program, your character begins wrestling in minor league matches before beginning to carve a niche as either a babyface (good guy), or heel (bad guy). Eventually, you move up to the major leagues and come into confrontations with different wrestlers depending on your alignment. Presuming you play everything well, it all culminates with a match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania, the organization’s premiere event. There’s a lot of grinding to get to that point, though, and the Career mode in the end can feel like quite a slog. Match quality gives you points you can use to upgrade your attributes, an essential element of becoming the next big thing in the WWE.
Overall, the single player mode is decent, but not the best of the series. While it’s an interesting direction to take for 2K Showcase mode in focusing more narrowly on specific rivalries as opposed to “eras,” they likely could’ve chosen more representative rivalries of the 2002-2004 period, and the DLC Showcase rivalries that will be released just don’t seem particularly noteworthy. This would certainly be forgivable if, like the visuals, basic gameplay got a new gen upgrade that was just as impressive. Let’s take a look, now at the most important element of the experience.
For good, or for ill, seasoned WWE players will find a lot of familiar elements here. Maybe too many. The largest new addition to the gameplay is the new chain grapple minigame. Much like a real WWE match, most starting moves in WWE 2K15 will start with a basic collar and elbow tie-up. Pressing one of the face buttons on your controller moves the tie-up into a move like a side headlock, and then a new minigame starts: you have to move your right thumbstick in the direction of the “hot zone.” Once you find it, hold it there until the circular indicator fills up with red. If the aggressor fills the hot zone first, then they get to keep things going in their favor. If the receiver fills up the indicator first, they can then turn the tables on their aggressor and take the fight more directly to them.
The other major addition is the new momentum, health, and stamina meter located at the bottom corner of the screen. In previous games, it was a little bit more of a guessing game as to whether or not your stamina was low, but now you can see clearly what your body’s condition is, how much stamina you have, and whether or not you’re close to achieving signature or finishing moves. While it’s nice to be able to see everything clearly laid out for you, something is definitely off because the pacing of every match feels significantly hampered. Stamina runs out very quickly, which makes your wrestler move very sluggishly. While in some cases this can effectively recreate the tempo of a real WWE match, transitioning it to an interactive environment makes for a questionable end result. Even a lot of exhbition match types, like ladder, and “I Quit” matches, are mysteriously absent.
Beyond that, many of the controls are virtually identical to last year’s game, and locomotion has the same problems. For instance, being too close to the corner of the ring and trying to hold the left trigger and run up to the top rope almost always produces an undesired result: bouncing off the ropes, running in circles, even exiting the ring. While Michael Cole and Jerry “The King” Lawler recorded some new commentary tracks reacting to certain wrestlers and maneuvers, a great deal of commentary is simply recycled from previous games, with some lines being nearly a decade old by now. They still have yet to redo all of the commentary from scratch, and this is even more obvious and exacerbated by the differing volumes and general audio quality of some of the clips used.
While the Creation Suite in last year’s game was definitely a culmination of all of the games up to that point, some basic options have been either limited, or removed entirely. The option to create a female wrestler, or “diva,” is gone in 2K15. As are the options to create an arena, create a title, or to create a finishing move. Creating an entrance is now severely limited as well, and the option to import your own custom entrance music is mysteriously absent. All of these modes helped add to the unique customizability of the previous games, and seeing them omitted from this game is a definite knock against it, especially when it seems like there’s no particularly compelling reason to remove them in the first place.
Creating your wrestler’s appearance and moveset still features a wealth of options, and you can even import a picture of your face to superimpose over an existing character model to assist with creating your likeness. Still, the fact that overall customizability has been severely limited definitely makes the overall creation suite less than what’s come before, and that really shouldn’t have happened for the first game to bow on new gen consoles.
WWE 2K15 is an interesting game. On the one hand, its visual presentation is by far the best of the series, granted because of the transition to new hardware. Many wrestlers’ likenesses are absolutely uncanny, bodily proportions are exactly as they should be, the crowd moves and roars with the intensity of a real live event, and the pyro effects are impressive. On the other hand, while introducing some ambitious new features and visual aids, match pacing has been slowed heavily, certain special stipulations are missing entirely, and the overall customizability of the game has been severely limited by the perplexing removal of some really well-liked features.
Story modes are generally interesting and return with a degree of familiarity, but some of the feuds spotlighted (or that will be spotlighted) don’t seem like they’re notable enough to be featured in a video game’s centerpiece mode, and largely the same gameplay mechanics — what was both right and wrong about them — have made their return. As a game that shows off the graphical capability and really impressive sense of photorealism, WWE 2K15 is a success. As an effective wrestling simulator, it shows promise, but there’s a lot of work to do still. Let’s hope that the developers are up to the task for next year’s game.
A copy of this game was provided to GeekNation for reviewing purposes by representatives of Take-Two Interactive.
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