Having steered clear of the WWE’s annual sojourn into the grand old world of video games since 2008’s Smackdown vs Raw, there’s more than an element of mild interest at coming back into the squared circle (or the ring, for the uninitiated) for WWE 2K16. The negativity thrown in the direction of last year’s entry was somewhat difficult to ignore, so with that in mind, it’s the perfect time to serve up an incredibly heavy-handed wrestling metaphor in order to answer the question; is 2K’s series still King of Ring, or has it hit Rock Bottom?
Nope. Not even apologising.
Here’s the headline; 2K16 isn’t a bad game, even from the perspective of a series outcast. Outside of the actual wrestling aspect of things, the menus are easy to navigate and offer a comforting amount of choice. There’s a predictably wide range of single matches on offer and the MyCareer mode has a comfortable depth to it. Sure, the option of taking your carefully moulded creation and let him/her loose on the company’s roster from NXT to the heady heights of Wrestlemania isn’t a new thing, but the use of rivalries, tag partners and the implementation of a league-style system that pushes you to reach #1 in a table of superstars for a shot of whichever title you fancy fighting for is welcomed. It gives you something to shoot for, regardless of the belt you’re gunning for.
Of course, for the game’s real draw, you only need to take a quick glance at the box art. The Stone Cold Steve Austin 2K Showcase is, and there really is no other word for it, cool. Sure, it’s nostalgic to an incredible degree and an example fan service in its purest form, but it’s difficult not to enjoy this romp through the Rattlesnake’s career, starting from footage of his WCW days as Stunning Steve Austin and covering a good 15 years of moments, memorable matches and documentary style footage. The production level here is ridiculous, with Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler re-recording their original commentary from each of these matches for extra authenticity (presumably partly to avoid the constant bleeping of the company’s previous name), and requires the player to carry out various actions and moves to continue the narrative of each bout, like stunning Shane McMahon through an announce table. Of course, the element of surprise is gone; we know Austin beats Shane and Vince in that ladder match, we know he turns heel at Wrestlemania 17. You’d also be hard pressed to suggest that this showcase is a gamechanger, but it’s so well presented and executed that it’s tough to drag it down, especially when 2K16 manages that without any prompting in some other areas.
Technically, 2K16 isn’t a disaster by any means, but there are still plenty of glitches and unintentionally hilarious faults. Putting aside the fact that you’re still able to suplex your opponents horizontally outside the ring even when there’s barely any space to swing a steel chair, the AI is capable of some incredible brain farts without too much prompting; for instance, playing for review, I’ve seen handicap matches won with one superstar being covered for a 3-count whilst his partner watches on, 50cm away, motionless, presumably wondering “Oh, he’s getting pinned, there…” along with and Undertaker taunting my superstar as he was perched on the top rope. FYI, it was hilariously mistimed, and he was subsequently greeted with a flying elbow. These instances don’t crop up in every bout but they’re inescapable and they tear you away from the experience, even if the sight of the Undertaker perpetually running into the ring apron and eventually knocking himself down was a memorable moment.
The wrestling itself can flow quite well when it wants to, and as you’d expect, moves look authentic and the bigger knocks, clatters and slams look suitably destructive, but it saps its own flow far too often. The submission system is awkward and needlessly difficult, simple grapples and requests to escape or re-enter the ring can go unregistered and the only tutorial on offer comes during MyCareer, which you’ll likely stumble across accidentally. That last aspect is baffling, and particularly unwelcoming to newcomers or returning players. Where it can excel is match management, particularly on MyCareer where move variation and drama are encouraged in order to make a more entertaining match.
2k16’s something of a mixed bag when it comes to its visuals, emphasis on the mixed. The entire roster looks good, for the most part, but the supporting cast look awful. Backtstage reporter Renee Young’s hair moves so much to resemble Medusa herself, announcer Lillian Garcia’s character model has a decidedly low-budget appearance and the entire crowd look like they’ve been dragged straight from a 90s EA Sports game. The latter wouldn’t rankle quite so much if there wasn’t so much focus on them during entrance sequences, but they do, meaning you should get used to seeing a close up of two fans running the same fist-pumping canned animation in perfect synchronisation a little more often than you’d like.
It’s in stark contrast to so other many areas of the game where the attention to detail borders on obsessiveness, but it’s not mirrored across the board. Elsewhere, loading screens are alarmingly frequent, a surprise given the hefty 40gb install on PS4, and an unshakeable feeling that 2K16 is missing another mode, something hefty and involving is inescapable. Wrestling fans have long been clued into how the business works, and the reluctance to develop some sort of rich simulator to allow them to run WWE as they see fit feels like a missed opportunity.
The good news is if next year’s edition can expand on its game modes, continue to exploit the nostalgic angle and tighten up on its numerous technical issues, then 2K could be onto a certified winner. For the time being, 2K16 is a fun game that (just about) walks often than it stumbles, even if the reasons for the latter seem to be self-inflicted.
Midlife Gamer Rating: 6/10 Format: Xbox One / PlayStation 4 Release Date: Out Now
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of WWE 2K16 by the publisher for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of five days. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.