WWE 2K15 was, by all accounts, a dismal experience. You couldn’t have created a worse ambassador for the series to a new console generation. The roster was lacking, match types were missing, the creation suite was decimated, and the gameplay was several steps backward. That’s a kind way to put it, too. We all know that the first iteration of a yearly franchise on a new console can be a bumpy ride, but 2K15 exceeded everyone’s worst fears.
In short, this game has a lot to make up for.
Let’s start with modes. The heavily advertised Showcase mode returns this year, however, this time it focuses not on an era, nor a long running event, nor even a special feud. Instead, it focuses solely on one man: Stone Cold Steve Austin. The meat of the showcase is twenty-five playable matches that encompass his career, from his break out King of the Ring victory against Jake Roberts to his final match against The Rock at Wrestlemania XIX. There are also a few bonus matches that cover some of his time in WCW and ECW. That’s right; you get “Stunning” Steve Austin and “Superstar” Steve Austin on top of everything else.
The mode works like the showcase modes have previously. You need to complete each match in sequence in order to unlock more matches, vignettes, and so on. However, there are special historical objectives to complete as well. These replicate how the actual match went down, unlock cut-scenes and quick-time-events, and special commentary. Completing them all unlocks of bevy of goodies as well. A substantial part of the roster is unlocked by completing these objectives, as is a vast number of retro arenas. It works well as a way to relive and pay homage to the Texas Rattlesnake’s legendary career. All of his famous feuds and moments are touched on and/or recreated in some way. Some of the matches are better/more memorable than others, but this is a great trip down memory lane.
My Career is back and supposedly greatly improved. You now have the ability to influence the personality of your created wrestler by answering questions. You can also start feuds and/or alliances pretty much as you wish. However, these are smokescreens. Your personality is completely irrelevant; you can act as disrespectful as you want, but you’ll still answer questions with the same generic canned voice clips. Rivalries are always generated by simply running in and attacking someone before their match, and you fight in a bunch of matches before the big payoff at the next PPV, then the rivalry is over. While both of these “improvements” could have made for dynamic storytelling, it amounts to nothing more than window dressing.
The mode is also a complete grind. You’re often wrestling two to three shows a week with very little concern for continuity or even face/heel relations. For example, I found myself teamed up with Sami Zayn and Titus O’Neil. Titus was one-half of the tag champs with Darren Young, who was not injured or otherwise unable to wrestle, so why were they not in the same match? Even worse, the next week I was put up against Young for no reason! In another case, Kalisto attacked me and started a rivalry with me… while we were both faces. Kalisto then had a match against his partner, Sin Cara. It would be logical to say that Kalisto must have undergone a heel turn and had ended his partnership with Cara based on this, but nope! They were teaming together the next week like nothing had happened. None of it makes sense. The worst part is that you’ll go through months of this nonsense while earning only a pittance with which to upgrade your character. On a good day, you’ll earn a little over one hundred experience per match, but you’ll be expected to pay upwards of three hundred experience to move one attribute up one measly point. There are over two dozen attributes! Likewise, you’ll need to earn virtual currency to unlock managers and special abilities. They keep the most useful abilities at a premium, while incredibly situational abilities are dirt cheap. For example, a simple hammer throw is five times more expensive then the ability to slam an opponent through a Hell in a Cell wall. You might never even end up in a HIAC match! Oh, but the good news is you can pay ten dollars to get DLC which will let you instantly upgrade your character near to max. Ugh. Look, if you just want to play some matches and build up a character (slowly), this can work. However, it’s just too damned time intensive for incredibly little payoff. By the time you manage to get to the main event of Wrestlemania, you’ll have countless dozens of matches under your belt.
Universe mode is back as well! As before, you’re put in the general manager seat and able to start rivalries, edit superstars, futz around with shows, and more. Parts of this are as fun as ever. You can create your dream roster and have them fight over whatever titles you want. However, there are some odd restrictions. For example, you can’t simply have a title match. It has to be a rivalry match, and once it’s made, any edits you attempt to make will delete it altogether. This is silly. Sure, you can literally just go in a menu and put the title on whomever you want, but that defeats the point. Still, with several of the creation options having been added back in this year, this mode offers a lot of potential fun.
Speaking of the creation mode, a lot has been added… back in. Once more you can create a diva, create a belt, create a show, and create an arena. They are trying to pretend that create-a-show is new for some reason, but I was able to do that back in WWF Attitude. It was also a staple of the universe mode beforehand. The ability to create your own finisher or story is still missing though. They have added some actual new options, at least. Now you can add hair dye, to allow for more unique hair styling. There are also different cloth types that you can use. They look and react differently from each other, and that’s pretty great. However, the mode is bogged down by loading times and the inability to preview an item before you select it. This means going back and forth between menus a lot in order to make a single character.
Okay. Let’s get some last few things in before going on. Some old match types have been added back into the game. That’s right, you can once again play in handicap, tornado tag, and ladder matches. Honestly, I don’t understand how ladder matches were absent from last year. Then there’s the online. You can now fight an AI opponent while you wait for an opponent, but the problem is still connection issues. You’ll be hard pressed to even find someone to play against, and there’s a good chance the match will get disconnected anyway. It’s another failure in a series that has been around long enough to do better.
On to the visuals, which are very feast or famine. Those who got their faces scanned tend to look great, while those who didn’t tend to look awkward. Some of the skin textures are bizarre as well, turning The Ultimate Warrior into Thing from Fantastic Four. Perhaps the most bizarre thing is that they didn’t bother trying to alter the faces of older wrestlers. This means that when you’re playing as The Undertaker from 1997, you’re seeing his 2015 face. It doesn’t look right at all. Some good notes include a more varied and dynamic audience. They still look terrible compared the roster, but we’re getting somewhere now. The animations are also pretty nice, particularly during transitions. You get the odd clipping bug or two here and there, and sometimes you can get caught on an object if you’re too close, but it’s not too bad at all. It’s a series of incremental improvements.
Perhaps the best thing they did for the game’s audio is give you back the ability to play Superstar entrance themes during the menus. You can edit the soundtrack to include any and all of the over one hundred songs in the game, as well as a handful of licensed tracks from names like Billy Idol and The Zac Brown Band. However, the commentary still sucks. The team this year consists of Cole, King, and now JBL. All of them sound bored, like they’re just reading lines off a piece of paper. There’s no energy put into it. Not even Jim Ross, who joins the fray for the showcase matches, can help things. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes the commentary does cool things like give you the history of a character, go back to a previous conversation about a finishing move, or actually call out the right move! However, you still have incidents of superstars being referenced as having old gimmicks, unintentional comedy involving bad calls, and more, and all of it within that stilted monologuing.
Instead of talking about how the gameplay works for half an hour, we’ll try to focus on what’s new. Like in previous years, there’s a striking button, a grapple button, all of the staples are more or less still here, and they all work the same for the most part.
The stamina system is back, and it’s just as controversial as ever. Every move you perform eats up stamina, and you have three bars of it to manage. A bar will regenerate over time, as long as you don’t use it up entirely. The kicker is that taking damage to a certain point will cost you an entire bar of stamina, so no matter how well you manage it, you’re going to lose it eventually. While there are some moves that can be performed with no stamina, all important signature and finishing moves cannot. If you don’t have enough, you can’t perform the move. Your only course of action is to stand around and wait for it to replenish. Even if you have enough to perform the move, you might run out while using it, and thus be unable to pin your opponent or even get up. This system slows the matches down significantly, and any sense of realism goes out the window when you have a cardio machine like Neville gasping for air two minutes in. They did, however, add the ability to perform rest holds! These moves, which are used in real matches to allow wrestlers to take a breather, are used in the game for a similar effect. The guy on top regains stamina while the guy on bottom loses it. You perform the same hot spot mini-game that you do for chain grappling in order to see just how much will be drained. While often not that useful of a move, correct timing can let you get rid of an opponent’s stamina bar, or let you stay on the offensive without having to stand around like an idiot.
By far the most important change is to the reversal system. There are a couple of major overhauls here. For starters, the timing of your reversal is important. Certain moves have two different times where you can attempt a reversal. If the icon is green, you’ll perform a minor reversal. Red means you’ll perform a major one. Majors are harder to pull off, but deal a lot more damage than minors. More importantly, each superstar now has a limited number of reversals at their disposal. Each time you reverse, you use up one bar that is gone until it recharges over time. If you use a reversal while another is recharging, that progress will be lost. If you have no reversals left, you can’t reverse. End of discussion. This creates an interesting dynamic where you have to think about when you want to reverse an attack. It makes for a more thoughtful combat system.
If the above paragraph sounds great, get ready for the catch. The number of reversals that you get is determined by each superstar’s reversal stat. That means while someone like HBK has a full suite of five, a slower guy like Mark Henry might have only three. This creates a massive advantage for the guy with more reversals. Simply put, they’ll have the ability to reverse more often, and can attack an opponent without fear of reprisal. Let me be clear: the slower guys may have more strength and/or durability, but this in no way makes up for the difference in reversals. Being able to hit signature and finishing moves without fear is all powerful. The most annoying part of this is you can’t see how many reversals each character has during selection. You can’t even check their stat unless you buy the season pass. This creates a system where you have to manually try each guy to see how many they have, and you’ll likely need to take notes, as there are over a hundred different people in this game. That’s a time consuming act that would easily be mitigated with a little bit of foresight from the developers.
The pinning and submission mini-games have been changed yet again. The pinning system is significantly easier; when you’re being pinned, you merely have to stop a building meter inside of the green zone to kick out. The zone gets smaller the more damage you take, but it’s still possible to kick out of big moves. However, the submission system is going to take a lot more time to get used to. It involves rotating the analog stick so that the attacker’s meter overlaps the defenders (or vice versa if you’re trying to escape). This fills up a circular meter in the middle. If the attacker fills it up, the defender submits. You can expend stamina to speed up your movement here, but it’s still a bit wonky until you get used to it. As such, you could be in a situation where you’re performing your third finishing submission move, but yet be unable to tap your opponent out. Clearly, there’s still work to be done here.
While there are some nifty improvements, the overall pace of combat is still sluggish. Characters plod along, even if they’re supposed to be speedy. Kalisto shouldn’t control like Andre the Giant. The need to conserve and regenerate stamina leads to a significant portion of each match boiling down to standing around and waiting. Even worse, you’ll have to abuse cheap tactics like tossing an opponent out of the ring just to catch your breath. The use of the new reversal system contributes to this feeling as well. You’ll often want to take your hand off of the controller and get beat down for awhile in order to regenerate meter, or you’ll use stalling tactics to do the same. This game actively rewards players for doing nothing. It’s just silly. For exhibition matches, some of these elements can be toned down or tuned off. However, you’re stuck with them for the major modes and online play. You have to get used them or you’re going to fall behind.
Let’s get some final things out of the way. Glitches return, but they’re mostly not so bad. I got a couple of visual hangups including Austin phasing through a pair of stairs that weren’t supposed to be there and an odd screen shrinking whenever I went to change the participants in a rumble. As for gameplay, most of the problems involved the bad targeting system allowing me to hit the referee or even my manager when I didn’t intend to do so. The oddest one was during a tag match in universe mode. I couldn’t select who I wanted to be until the match started, and I chose to be one of the recipients of a pre-match attack. Once I got back on my feet and into the ring, I discovered I wasn’t the legal man and had to wait on the apron. After asking for the tag, the game switched me to the other guy, meaning I once again wasn’t the legal man. Basically, the game somehow got it so I could never actually wrestle in the match. It was odd.
Short Attention Span Summary
WWE 2K16 is a vast improvement over it’s predecessor, but let’s not get too excited by that fact. 2K15 was absolutely god awful, and it did everything wrong. All this game does is add SOME of features back in and try out one or two more gameplay quirks. It’s a good start, but honestly this is the game we should have gotten last year, and I’m not going to award major points to a game simply because it doesn’t suck as much as the previous game. The vast roster and and showcase mode make this worth a look for any long time WWE fan, but there’s still a lot of work to be done before this series can be called legitimately good.