If you’ve been following along with the live shows, you’ve seen two wrestling legends — “The Beast Incarnate” Brock Lesnar and “Bill” Goldberg — threatening to come to blows over their respective appearances in commercials for WWE 2K17. Goldberg was freed from containment in a wooded bunker by some police officers, and Lesnar became the Night Mayor (whatever that is) of a destroyed, overrun-with-wrestlers municipality known as Suplex City. They’re resolving their issues at WWE’s Survivor Series, but we can run the digital version whenever we want.
We got a chance to really sit down with 2K17 over the past two weeks and wedge ourselves into its nooks and crannies to get a full vision of the game, for better or worse. Apologies if we get stuck in a trashcan halfway through the review and go skipping down a hallway.
WWE 2K17 (PS4, Xbox One, and PC, available now)
This is the first game ever made where you get to stage a Buddy Murphy vs. Bushwhacker Butch dream match, and I think we need to take a moment to appreciate that.
The game looks great. It seems like the same game at first, but the visual presentation is so much better than 2K16. 2K16 felt unfinished. Only some of the Superstars looked like they’d had someone take the time to make them look right. So Randy Orton and Goldust looked photo realistic, but, say, Emma looked like an alien trying to pass as human by wrapping themselves in a morphsuit of human skin. Remember trying to talk to Renee Young backstage without being weirded out by her crazy teeth-face? The best compliment I can give 2K17 is that it feels like the finished version of 2K16. 2K16 if they had more than like seven months to crank these things out.
Once you’ve got everything downloaded and/or unlocked, the roster is dope. This is maybe the best and most complete WWE video game roster since Here Comes The Pain. You can run Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Hideo Itami in the Tokyo Dome (thanks to the WCW Japan Supershow arena), you can book Carmella vs. Eva Marie on WCW Monday Nitro or you can send Fernando of Los Matadores to face the Ultimate Warrior at WrestleMania. As Fire Pro Wrestling taught us, the most fun thing you can do with a wrestling video game is get kinda bored of it and start running the most ridiculous, bullshit matches you can think of. 2K17 MURDERS that.
Here’s what you already know: WWE 2K17 isn’t that much different from 2K16, or, like, WWE 12. You know the engine. You know the quirks, and the problems. You know how difficult it is to create a competitive sim for a sport where the participants work together to tell an entertaining story rather than actually compete to win, and you’re either fine with micromanaging stamina and mini games, or you wish they’d just throw the slow moving animations and delays in the garbage and go full arcade again.
This year’s major addition to the gameplay is the Promo Engine, which allows you to simulate “cutting a promo” in the ring. You’re given four choices on a timer, and it more or less turns Fallout 4’s truncated conversation system where you only get the gist of what you’re choosing to say into a mini game. It’s like taking a multiple choice test you haven’t studied for. You’re supposed to consistently match tone and make a promo make sense, but you’re piecing it together on the fly with zero preparation or context for what you’re saying, and you don’t even know if what you’re choosing says what you want to say.
Here it is in action:
By watching that, can you tell what’s supposed to be a face statement, and what’s supposed to be heel? Even if you do, you have to match it to the “crowd type” in the arena, meaning you can be scored negatively for playing the character you want to play based on a totally random decision on what an arena’s crowd will like. I guess that’s pretty accurate, but we’re trying to make a fun game here, not recreate the chaos theory of bad WWE writing.
The biggest improvement here, and maybe it’s a placebo effect, is that 2K17 is fun to play. The game feels a little more balanced and focused on entertainment, so while there’s still a frustrating sim aspect to it, the tinkered-with stamina system and down-to-earth character rankings allow (generally) for more “good matches.” It’s so hard to contextualize a simulated sport as a video game that’s technically closer to a “real” WWE than WWE itself.
As always, it still feels like they’ve put too much emphasis on the minutia of the game and sacrificed the bigger picture. Playing through a superstar’s career can be fun, but the game grinds you to a halt with menu screens and promo classes and tutorials where you aren’t totally sure what you’re doing, aren’t totally sure how you’re supposed to be doing it, or what Video Game Prince Albert wants from you. Are you a performer on the show? Are you trying to win these matches? Exhibition matches get run-ins from time to time, which seems like a weird way to encourage you to book an exhibition followup, and playing through an episode of Raw feels like it takes an actual three hours. There’s just SO MUCH. So many modes, so many modifiers, so many sliders, so many manies. That probably makes me sound like an old man pining for the days of Frogger or whatever, but I feel like we could get to “fun wrestling game” without a wrestling version of everything from Madden and 15 conflicting stick and button mashing contests in every match.
Also, this thing is still here:
Ready to lose your epic 20 minute match to a chinlock at minute 18? Here’s WWE 2K17’s submission system, which you’ve either been great at since it was introduced, or go “ah shit” out-loud trying to avoid. Pinfalls are still reliant on you being able to stop a circular meter on a tiny spot, too, because kicking out of pins in real life is all about timing, and not endurance or stamina.
And again, this is either your thing, or it isn’t. If you like this style of gameplay, this is the best ever version of it. If you don’t, you’re going to get frustrated with it, and no amount of guys on the roster or arenas or customizable championship belts will keep you interested.
That’s the staying power of WWE video games. You play them for a few weeks because they’re admittedly pretty fun and cool, and then the annoying stuff starts to break you. So you stop playing, play something else for a few months and come back to it like, “oh, I want to make Papa Shango fight Zack Ryder, this’ll be fun.” And it IS. So you start playing it again, and like 40 minutes later Kalisto taps you out to an armbar before flying up to the ceiling as a jittery glitch and you’re like, “oh, right, that’s why I stopped.”
You know the drill by now. If you want all of the characters, you needed to pre-order it and pre-order a special edition with downloadable NXT guys. And after that you’re gonna have to buy the season pass, or you’re gonna be paying for each DLC batch. Are there any WWE fans who are like, “man, I really need BUDDY ROBERTS OF THE FREEBIRDS in my game?” Did Michael Hayes even say that? Is anybody like, “I can’t wait to pay extra so I can make A-Train fight Apollo Crews?” WWE DLC lives or dies by asking you to pay extra for one thing you want — Nakamura! Eddie Guerrero! — and shoveling the rest onto you out of obligation.
Outside of that, the game’s glitchy as hell. You’ve seen the clips. You’ll keep stumbling onto things that don’t seem totally thought out or finished, or you’ll hear Jerry Lawler quip about wanting to investigate the Divas or whatever, and you’re left wondering if this is the finished version of 2K16, and not a weird PS4 remastering of WWE 13.
Maybe WWE 2K17 is like pro wrestling itself. Great but kind of embarrassing, and best in small doses.
Verdict: It’s the best version of this one kind of game, so grab it if you like those. And get the one with Nakamura, because it’s fun to shin people into unconsciousness.
This review was conducted on a Playstation 4 with a review copy provided by the publisher.