“It’s All About The Game, And How You Play It”
Game: WWE 2K17
Developer: Yukes/Visual Concepts
(Review copy provided by publisher)
Much like Donald Trump, professional wrestling is dumb and probably not real. No one lacks that much self-awareness, do they? He must be trolling us all. On November 9th I expect him to tweet ‘LOL!’ and reveal himself to be Jeff Stanza, a retired steel-worker and part-time character actor from Minnesota. But putting Trump aside (like most Republicans probably wish they could) things don’t have to be real to be enjoyable. A lot of people seem to have a big hang-up with the most violent of the performance arts, professional wrestling, as it’s still pitched as a ‘sport’, one that you can even bet on. It may come as a surprise to a non-fan, therefore, just how big of a business ‘sports entertainment’, a.k.a professional wrestling, actually is. But it is. But it’s bigger than Brock Lesnar the weekend after a drugs test.
Enter sweaty pantomime simulator WWE 2K17, the latest installment of the only wrestling game in town. It would be very interesting if someone were to produce a PES to WWE’s FIFA; a largely unlicensed, high-profile game that players could nevertheless customise to their whim, to rival the top dog. Competition breeds innovation, and you’ll be hard pushed to find another wrestling game on consoles that comes close to getting this level of attention. In the same way it dominates the wrestling airwaves, WWE also dominates this section of the games market.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with WWE 2K17. If you want to reproduce your dream matches between the world’s biggest superstars it’s literally your only option, but it’s a good option to have. There does, however, feel like there’s some easy room for improvement still, something that the developers probably don’t feel that fussed about seeing as their title is basically Bill Goldberg circa 1998; squashing competitors before they even have a chance to get their tights on.
Modern wrestling moves very quickly. Gone are the days of employing huge, hulking fat dudes to pretend to chop each other across the chest for ten minutes. The modern spectacle is more akin to having a load of stunt actors in a ballet; incredibly tightly choreographed and technical, constantly pushing the boundaries of what one oiled-up human can do. And this is where wrestling games have always struggled; unlike other fighters like Tekken, WWE 2K17 feels slower than the real thing by some way. This is not to throw shade on the motion captured moves and animations; these are inch-perfect and do a fantastic job of conveying the character and attitude of all of your favourite Lycra-fanatics, as you’d expect considering they are literally reproductions of the athletes themselves on screen. But the movement still feels a little old-school still, especially next to 2K’s other big sports release, NBA 2K17.
The other area where the game falls down is the sound, although it’s hardly the only big sports game to do this and will not be the last by some way. As a general rule I always mute any sports games and opt for other music instead, an approach that would serve you well here. I think this is a common problem for fairly obvious reasons; it must be hugely difficult to try and record sound bites that flow and complement each other for every possible thing that could happen, and the Yukes team have made a decent effort to get around this by having the broadcast teams focus on interesting milestones or facts about the competitors involved, rather than trying to narrate the match too closely. There are still serious stumbles, though. During a women’s match, both of my combatants were referred to as ‘he’, and the microphone jockeys don’t always seem sure who is delivering the attack and who is receiving it. In the case of Jerry Lawler this could plausibly be because he is quite, quite old I suppose, but it does ‘break the immersion’, as proper games journalists say. The soundtrack, curated by Sean ‘Puffy’ ‘Puff Daddy’ Combs, is also a bit hit and miss. Never one to miss a trick, Sean has indeed stuck some of his own tracks on there, and also some very disposable hip-hop nonsense alongside, oddly, Paranoid by Black Sabbath, and that Andy Black song they kept playing every five minutes at the Payback PPV. At one point while flipping through menus I noticed a lyric in one song that said “I’ve got deep enough pockets to eat MacDonald’s five days a week”, which is either the worst boast of all time or a hilarious commentary on rap culture. Sadly, I suspect the former. What is he eating the other two days of the week? Giving his poor intestines a rest from all that fast food, I hope.
There has been a huge improvement in the character models themselves since the build of the game we got our hands on earlier this year, and these are almost faultless. The likenesses are reproduced well except for a couple of anomalies (The Miz looks like one of Donald Trump’s kids, appropriate considering the laboured introduction to this review but unfortunate for him). But this attention to detail is what will sell the game to the WWE fans, and it doesn’t disappoint. When entering the ring as Enzo and Big Cass you’re treated to their full salvo of catchphrases (if you’re not into wrestling probably just skip this bit), right from ‘YOU CAN’T TEACH THAT’ to ‘SAWFT!’. The arenas also make a good stretch to convey the feeling of watching a PPV, and the amount of variety and diversity in the crowd movements is pretty convincing considering the sheer amount of them. Sadly, the ringside area does not feature a Spanish announce table, perhaps the most ill-fated piece of furniture ever, to powerbomb your opponent through.
The attention to detail continues apace throughout the game; the roster is full and expansive, although anyone who isn’t on the current roster is locked away to begin with. You can unlock Diesel and Diamond Dallas Page, or perhaps Scott Hall, someone who was literally the coolest man alive for about 5 years in the late 90s (and is still in the top ten). There’s a decent selection of legends available in general, including both versions of Sting from his ‘happy-hardcore-raver’ days to his ‘I’ve-watched-The-Crow–and-listened-to-The-Cure-for-two-weeks-straight’ days. In fact there’s plenty of alternate versions of characters, and that’s not including all the fan-made customisations and creations you can download too, featuring everything from Batman to Harambe, everyone’s favourite animal murder victim. You’re also treated to the bizarre sight of Stone Cold with hair, in his WCW incarnation of Stunning Steve Austin, when he was pretending to be from Hollywood and before he started throwing beer and stunners at everyone from The Rock to your grandma. Interestingly, The Rock also puts in an appearance as a starting character, being one of the best examples of the likenesses of movement in the game despite only popping up from time to time these days to raise his eyebrow at PPVs and remind everyone he’s remaking fucking Jumanji or Baywatch or whatever.
Strong leaps forward in the gameplay mechanics are more than welcome in the matches, and the concept of just hammering buttons to resist certain submissions or kick-out of pins is mercifully gone, as it really should be from every game by now. These situations are instead replaced by jaunty little mini-games, usually involving split-second button presses, with an increasingly smaller window to do so depending on how much of a beating you’ve taken. This is pretty great, as it means no matter how far gone you are there’s always that tiny, slim chance you could get it right and kick out of a pin after taking seven chokeslams, just like in the ‘real’ thing. You even get rhythm-game style timed-tapping at points to replicate signature combos, or to keep yourself from getting tipped out of a Royal Rumble. It also adds a great amount of drama and tension as you suddenly focus in on the mini-game on the screen, more than just bashing every button on the controller could ever do. Timing the reversals, which you’re fairly reliant on if the momentum of a match has swung against you, is incredibly finicky at first, but comes with practice and experience.
But one of the game’s biggest strengths is its customisation. I legitimately think you could spend a whole day going through every possible option to mould your superstar to your specific requirements. You are of course given a quick set-up option if that level of detail isn’t you sort of thing, but if you’re something of a wrestling nerd there is indeed a lot here to play around with. From your appearance and hair, tattoos and so forth to full customisation of your entrance sequence and selecting variations of every single move, including reactions and the way you get in to the ring, as well as the option to walk down the ramp in different clothing, it is wonderfully obsessive. I eventually skipped quite a few of these variables in the interests of just getting started, but you can go back and modify them any time, happily, so it’s not quite so daunting to do it all at once.
Of course, when you’ve Frankensteined your own grappler you’ll want to check out the career mode and take them from the bottom to the top. Another huge strength, this makes full use of the WWEs NXT franchise, starting you off in training matches at their Performance Centre in Florida and ‘showing you the ropes’ (quite literally). You’re met with slick video montages and packages featuring great footage of the current roster in action to inspire you after every event, and even mini-games where you learn to get the crowd on your side using dialogue options to perform your best promo in the ring. They have covered all the bases, and then some.
All in all, WWE 2K17 is a wrestling game for wrestling people. If you know your suplexes from your DDTs this is pretty much the only game to sate that need for you, but it’s also thankfully a decent one. If you’re just looking for a new brawler for a short blast but you think the idea of men in pants pretending to hurt each other is silly (because it really is), then you’ll probably find this too slow and detailed to do much for you. As I’m in the former camp, I found a huge amount to enjoy and interest me within WWE 2K17.
Not quite a Stunner, but definitely getting there.