For years WWE video games have been nearly as insular and unchanging as pro wrestling itself. Under publisher THQ and developer Yuke’s, WWE games trundled along, largely ignoring wider industry trends in favor of tweaking a formula established in the late-’90s (sound familiar?) Not that THQ’s underwear fighting sims didn’t have their cozy, familiar charm, but a change of pace has been needed for a while, and many fans hoped this would be the year a swerve was finally thrown into this familiar storyline. Not only was WWE 2K15 the first WWE game on current-gen consoles, but NBA 2K developer Visual Concepts was now co-creating the series with Yuke’s (2K Games took over the WWE license when THQ went belly up in early 2013). Certainly the message out of 2K was that WWE 2K15 was an all-new, fresh take on wrestling games.
Unfortunately, the reality is WWE 2K15 remains largely unchanged from the past few years, and what new stuff we do get seems to have been designed by people who don’t necessarily understand wrestling or what fans want out of a wrestling game.
You’re right to look disappointed, Randy.
As is usually the case with anything pro wrestling, it’s best to begin with the basics – does WWE 2K15 bring it in the ring? Well, it does and it doesn’t. WWE 2K15 is much more deliberate than, say, Yuke’s earlier, more arcade-like Smackdown titles, and it does a solid job of replicating the ebb and flow of a typical WWE bout. Matches tend to be quick (most are under five minutes), start with a feeling out process, move onto a lot of repetitive clubbering and holds, then end in a quick flurry of signature moves and finishers. If accuracy is your one and only concern, WWE 2K15 is one of the best wrestling games ever, but is it actually fun to play?
A good wrestling game needs to be true to the sport, but it also needs to give players a feeling of control and agency, and the latter is where 2K15 eats canvas. The game’s matches feel canned – there’s a very specific way to win in WWE 2K15, and the game does not abide any creative solutions.
The most significant addition to the formula is the new chain-wrestling system. Basically, the first three or four grapple attempts in a match will result in a mini-game that has you vying for headlocks and arm-wringers with your opponent. Unfortunately the mini-game and the buttons you’re pushing feel divorced from what’s happening on the screen. At first the chain wrestling is completely baffling, particularly since the game does very little to explain the mechanic, but once you get a hang of it, the difficulty curve swerves the other way. Admittedly, I’m not terribly proficient at WWE 2K15, but I am good at the chain-wrestling mini-game – so good that I can usually deplete half my opponent’s life with wristlocks and shoulderblocks within in the first minute-or-so of a match.
Once the chain-wrestling is done, things settle back down into the punch, kick, normal grapple, strong grapple system anybody who’s played a wrestling game in the last 20-years should be familiar with. This would be fine if it weren’t for the game’s annoying fixation on reversals. The reversal buttons pops up over your head almost constantly, and the AI reverses at least half (more like 60%) of the moves you attempt. Really, whether you win or lose comes down almost entirely to how accurately you can tap the R2 button. That’s it. There’s not a lot of other ways to gain an advantage or change the flow of a match – you’ll find yourself just standing still, waiting for your opponent to throw a punch so you can try to reverse it, because making the first move is basically never worth it.
This may look cool, but it’s almost certainly going to be reversed.
Thankfully, matches do become more satisfying towards the very end. Everybody has a couple signature moves, and hitting one of them usually earns you an immediate finisher. Hitting CM Punk’s corner knee and bulldog then immediately going for the GTS is undeniably gratifying and if, by some miracle, you opponent kicks out, the game can become a fairly gripping race to see who can get another finisher the fastest. So yes, WWE 2K15 finishes well, but until those exciting final moments, things are often about as exciting as watching The Usos wrestle Gold and Stardust for the 700th time.
So, we’ve assessed WWE 2K15’s basic skills, but what about the total package? Well, let’s start with the create-a-wrestler which is, lamentably, nearly unusable. Every tweak requires the game to load, and once you choose something, the game assumes you’ve locked in your selection and takes you to the color/pattern selection screen. Oh, and there’s no preview – if you want to see what something looks like, you have to select it. Want to check out a certain hairstyle on your guy? Select it, wait five seconds for the game to load, discover that you don’t like it, back out of the color selection screen, wait through another five second of loading, then repeat the above steps with the next hairstyle. And the next. And the next. Also, if you go back and change something, everything on top of that layer will be erased – choose a new head type and all your hair, facial structure and accessories choices will be wiped out. I’ve played a lot of so-so wrestling games, but I’ve never had one pull that one on me.
In the end all the tedious trouble hardly feels worth it, because all your choices are confined to a very limited range. The fattest possible character looks maybe 25-pounds heavier than the skinniest, and all your guys will look like slight variations of Cody Rhodes facially. 2K15 gives you the ability to add your own scanned images or art to the game, but the process felt too complex to bother with, and that’s coming from somebody who makes a living from Photoshopping stuff and graphic design. At least there are a good selection of moves to give your guys (I use “guys”, because you can’t create female characters).
You’re never actually going to use this.
Everything about the create-a-wrestler screams, “We don’t actually want you to use this, but please consider our exciting array up upcoming WWE 2K15 DLC instead!” 2K apparently doesn’t understand what a core feature create-a-wrestler is, which is worrying, because that should be a no-brainer to anybody who gets pro wrestling and its fans. Of course wrestling fans want to insert themselves and their silliest, most offensive creations into the action. Create-a-wrestler isn’t a side dish, it’s the main course.
WWE 2K15’s MyCareer mode, which is exclusive to the current-gen version of the game (not that that’s much to brag about) will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played any sort of sports game. Your guy starts out tragically underpowered, but you can earn various stat-boosting points by winning matches and completing challenges. Simple stuff. One of the more exciting promised aspects of MyCareer was being able to play through the WWE Performance Center and NXT, but unfortunately this is actually the dullest part of a generally dull mode. Training at the Performance Center involves having matches with randomly generated dorks in total silence (aside from Bill DeMott’s screaming). Fun? NXT is mostly fighting the exact same randomly generated characters with the occasional Bo Dallas appearance mixed in. If you’re expecting any interesting storylines or twists to develop, well, stop – the entire career mode never deviates from its main focus of grinding tediously for points. Completing career mode should take you around 10-hours – I was tired of it within one.
The game’s savior is 2K Showcase, which lets you play through major WWE rivalries from various sides. It’s the only part of the WWE 2K15 that feels infused with some real passion for the product. Smartly, Showcase uses actual, well-edited WWE footage to tell it’s stories – it helps the mode feel more lively and authentic than the rest of the game, which is more than a bit on the sterile side. The actual playable parts of 2K Showcase also do a solid job of replicating memorable moments using the in-game engine – even the matches themselves feature recreations of certain unforgettable spots. If there’s a criticism to be made of Showcase mode, it’s that there’s simply not enough of it. CM Punk/John Cena and Triple H/Shawn Michaels are the only two rivalries included in the game, with the rest being saved for DLC. 2K Showcase is, thankfully, largely free of filler, but that also means you can finish both of WWE 2K15’s included rivalries in less than half the time it takes to complete a single run-through of career mode.
CM Punk/John Cena is the more entertaining Showcase rivalry, but 2K and WWE didn’t release any screenshots of that one. Go figure!
So those are the modes, but what about those fancy new graphics 2K has been hyping? Well, they’re a bit of a mixed bag. Some characters (Randy Orton, Cesaro, Damien Sandow for some reason) look uncannily realistic, while others look just a little off (John Cena’s face has a vaguely ape-like quality to it) and some look like high-def Muppets. I’m not sure how to account for the wide range in visual quality, but if I had to guess, I’d say it comes down to who was able to spare the most time for 2K’s scanning process. The very top guys generally look good, as do some of the more prominent mid-carders, while guys like Xavier Woods and part-timers like Chris Jericho are lumpy-faced disasters. I suspect some of the worst-looking stars didn’t get scanned at all due to scheduling issues/not being important enough.
Cesaro is the most lovingly detailed wrestler in the game for whatever reason.
But hey, WWE 2K15’s visuals are a towering, award-worthy achievement compared to its audio. This game’s soundtrack will have you longing for the return of the “dig-diggity-dog” days of the N64. I’m not even sure how to describe this game’s horrifying amalgamation of nu metal, rap-country and dubstep, but after 20-minutes I would have gladly accepted any replacement. A looping version of Brie Bella’s theme music, R-Truth actually coming to my living room and shouting in my face as I play, anything. On top of that, the commentary by Cole and Lawler is as laughably stilted as ever – every line is delivered in a pedantic “reading a bedtime story to a five-year-old” voice, and the dialog sounds like it was generated by a robot.
Ultimately the most disappointing thing about WWE 2K15 is that it doesn’t even feel like a decent foundation to build on. Create-a-wrestler has been kneecapped, MyCareer is largely useless and the one thing the game does well, the Showcase stuff, has mostly been relegated to DLC. If 2K continues to build on what they’ve started here, I feel like next year’s game will be even worse – or at least, even less to my personal tastes. WWE 2K15 isn’t just a little green, it’s completely off-base. WWE 2K15 is Husky Harris, it’s Rocky Maivia and if 2K wants to save the series, it badly needs to go back to the drawing board and do a total Bray Wyatt/The Rock 180. If you desperately need a new wrestling game, you’re willing to shell out for Showcase DLC and have other people to play with (as with all fighting games, 2K15 is better when played against a real person) then WWE 2K15 comes mildly recommended. My suggestion to everyone else is to leave the WWE 2K series in developmental for another year.
This review was based on the PS4 version of WWE 2K15, which was provided by 2K Games.