Taking A Bump
Game: WWE 2K18
Developer: Yuke’s & Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Games
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4 (Review code provided)
For better or worse, Yuke’s have been the only real option when it comes to home console wrestling games for the best part of fifteen years. There has been the odd challenger or independent upstart over the years which has tried to create a new world order in wrestling games, but these have either been poorly implemented, or lacked the financial clout and popularity of the WWE brand.
When 2K Games took up the mantle after the public collapse of THQ, many grapple fans had high hopes that the same depth and polish that the other 2K sports games have long been famous for would be carried over into the WWE titles. Sadly this revolution never quite materialised. So instead, in the five titles since the takeover, fans have sadly had to put up with more or less the same wrestling game that has been wheeled out year in, year out since the turn of the millennium.
Most long-time wrestling game fans will tell you that THQ did manage to perfect a slow and methodical system of grappling in its immensely popular wrestling games on the Nintendo 64 console, but sadly this has never been matched in any title since, and development team AKI were moved away from their WWE series in favour of the more accessible version that Yuke’s provided. But enough of the history lesson; let me tell you a little more about WWE 2K18 in particular. On the surface, very little has changed; if you were to pick up and play a quick match in 2K18 it still feels an awful lot like 15, 16 and 17 did. Since 2K Games took over the reigns, a kind of happy medium between the arcade simplicity of early Smackdown games and the more methodical grappling of the AKI games has been reached. This certainly doesn’t please all fans, but is a fairly balanced and accessible gameplay style.
Small changes, such as the way that submissions are pulled off, have been made (finally giving you a choice between different submission methods to suit your personal control preferences), but a lot of what’s on offer is familiar. Despite the new submission controls, mat-based submission wrestling seems to be less accessible and harder to implement than ever before, so it will be pretty infrequent that you will even get to use the new method. A new carry system does make things more interesting. You can now pick up opponents, as long as your stamina is high enough, in order to setup location-specific attacks, or just fling them out of the ring. This adds a whole new array of moves to your arsenal, and does change up the regular grappling system somewhat, as well as adding some new Royal Rumble elimination options.
Matches still consist largely of reversed moves and strikes, resulting in something less like chain wrestling and more like chain reversing. Rather than crafting intricate matches where you focus on a particular body part to wear it down and weaken it, 2K18 often just feels like you are hoping that you can hit a finishing move without it being reversed, and then relying on the fact that the pin kick-out system is still far too hard to master. In the past, kick-out controls were just hammering buttons with the hopes that you could power out of a pin, and whilst the current controls are obviously an attempt to move away from power and more to precision, by timing a button tap to successfully escape, far more often this just allows to to lose a match when your character has barely taken a scratch, simply because your timing is bad.
The most impressive improvements this year are in the little touches that make the game feel more like real wrestling to fans. For instance, the “selling” animations are now almost one hundred percent better than in the past. These are the animations and facial expressions that actual portray how much a move hurts, or how badly beaten up a wrestler is. The implementation of the need to rest and recover energy mid-match slow the pace of the often-hectic matches and does help the overall experience feel more authentic. Even the way in which fighters in a Royal Rumble match try to roll out of danger and rest, when the rest of the field are busy fighting, is a marked improvement and makes a bigger difference than you would think in creating a real-life feel.
Royal Rumble matches now feel a lot more realistic in the sense that eliminations now happen much more easily and unexpectedly. There has been quite some backlash to this change, as it is not what gamers are used to and is also somewhat more difficult, but it certainly makes the Rumble feel more like the real thing. Most pleasingly, as well as improving reaction animations, there are generally less of the crazy animation glitches and clipping issues that have plagued the series since its inception. Collision detection is better than any previous entry I can remember and whilst glitches still occur, the number of times I encountered opponents stuck in the scenery or getting trapped in animation cycles can now be counted on one hand, rather than needing a calculator like in the past.
Yuke’s have made a valiant attempt to move back to the heyday of the series where almost any match type you can think of was included in the game. Online multiplayer does still somewhat limit what modes you can undertake however, with the most glaring omission remaining the over-the-top rope elimination Royal Rumble. The perfect mode for a ridiculously frantic eight-player online experience remains off the table. Online play in general is a little disappointing, with a lot of slow-down when eight people are in the ring at once, poor matchmaking where games will take a very long time to be populated and a fairly useless party system. Thankfully I have always preferred playing couch multiplayer in wrestling games, and 2K18 is chock-full of options for this, even allowing you to create and save your own match types, with full rule customisation.
It must be said that customisation remains a strong point of the series, with characters, arenas, moves and more able to be customised. You can create your own pay-per-view events and weekly shows, booking your own wrestling company and changing the championship belts to whomever you want to hold them. This sort of depth and customisation does allow avid fans to keep the game as up-to-date as possible, but excessively slow loading times hamper almost every customisation screen. A lot of your customisation options are sadly now locked, requiring in-game currency or random loot boxes to unlock them, which can be best earned through the MyPlayer modes. Slow load times hamper the MyPlayer career mode also, and whilst a lot of effort has obviously been taken to allow you freedom in the career mode to wander backstage in arenas and pick fights with different grapplers or complete side missions, there is something missing.
It could be the fact that no wrestler voices are featured in career mode, leading to silent swathes of awkward and unconvincing text to read, or it could be that just getting to the point where you can wrestle a match involves so much waiting through loading screens and wandering through the same characterless hallways, but career mode feels like an unrewarding slog. You can now choose to be a fan favourite or a corporate stooge, therefore increasing the replay-ability, but it just feels too painful to have to interact with characters whose lines have been so poorly-written, that I couldn’t imagine going through it all twice. A Road to Glory online aspect of the MyPlayer career has also been added, which adds weekly events based around real wrestling shows, where extra loot can be unlocked, but there seemed to be a matchmaking issue at the time of writing so this mode unfortunately never worked properly.
A lot of people have talked about how good the new game looks. Yes, there are definite big improvements in lighting and animations, but the character models in WWE 2K18 don’t have anything like the visual fidelity of other current-generation titles. Comparing the game to its previous iteration might make WWE 2K18 look good in comparison, but do the visuals hold up to other non-wrestling games? As has been the case with the last few titles from Yuke’s, a few key wrestlers seem to have had a great deal of attention paid to their in-game model, and these have been used in all subsequent marketing and demos. But it is apparent that many very popular superstars still get the short end of the straw and only barely resemble their real-life counterparts. The less said about long hair animation in general the better also, which looks nearly as bad as it did in the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 days of the Smackdown series.
Despite its failings, there is still a lot of fun to be had with WWE 2K18. Playing through exhibition matches and local multiplayer is always amusing, and there are less of the trademark series glitches on display than in the past. These technical improvements, along with the impressive new array of animations and extra final touches make the title massively more enjoyable. The sad fact of the matter however is that just like in the real WWE, where stagnation and a lack of innovation can kill the on-screen product, the WWE 2K series needs to evolve and innovate in order to stay relevant. There is a strange insular ecosystem where wrestling game fans are kept happy with minor improvements, whereas almost every other genre of game has leaped forward in big ways since the year two thousand. Rather than remain content to wrestle with mediocrity, 2K Games should be focused on creating something great, and that’s the bottom line.