More inconsistent than a 15 time champion
Every year, come October, I embrace disappointment.
That’s not strictly true – every year, come October, I find that something which was on a fantastic track has taken one step forward and two back yet again. This time, we have a generational shift, which means changes to the pattern.
This year, WWE 2k15 changed that pattern by taking three steps back.
To get this out of the way, the Smackdown Vs. Raw series peaked, in my opinion, with 2009. 2007 was a fantastic edition that had a variety of modes, plenty of wrestlers, and lots of attacks to use. It was a bit of a dial-an-attack situation, but it had options. 2008 lost some of those attacks in favor of an mixed analog control system that provided a lot of branching. It kept things unpredictable, and added a lot of environmental interactions. Players really got to dictate the timing, picking just when to throw that punch to the guy on the turnbuckle, how fast and hard to shake that rope. 2009 worked to combine the two, and mostly succeeded. It didn’t have the variety of environmental interactions of 2008 or the moveset of 2007, but it put things together admirably.
It’s all been downhill from there, but hey, new generation, new company, new branding. No longer Smackdown Versus Raw, it’s 2k15!
But it feels like 2k6.
If we start with the big step forward, it’s undoubtedly the community content and creation options. WWE 2k15 makes a masterful move of letting players download jpegs and apply them as textures to a wrestler. No more spending inordinate amounts of time applying primitives, and the value of the approach shows – a few hours is all it took for the community to update Cody Rhodes by uploading countless incarnations of Stardust. Clothing options have a decent variety to go too, although the load times per item are absolutely brutal, as are reversions. There’s no preview per item, so players spend a lot of time deciding a thumbnail looks good and waiting to see how it looks once loaded, then an equally long time as it’s unloaded.
There’s plenty of room to create great wrestlers, but it does require a lot of patience – and a specific facial structure, since that can’t be edited. Players can work with a pre-defined face, but alterations common in other games (eye distance, nose shape, chin size, etc.) are utterly missing.
It’s more like a step forward with its own steps back, because for all the incredibly accessible nature of the new layer masks you can apply, it comes with PS2 era trappings.
So, what about the other half of the time you’ll spend?
The core game, well, it’s a wrestling game. Grapple button, strike button, special button, throw button, reversal button, run button. There’s a little more going on, but it’s all combinations of those things, really. The problem is, the combinations are less and less every year. In previous iterations, there were branching grapple paths. Armlocks, headlocks, waistlocks, accessible via directional inputs. While there’s a new chain grapple system I’ll get into in a moment, 90% of the action takes place in the same headlock, it seems. That’s not quite true, but a grapple ends up in the same position, always, and provides 10 (give or take) options from there. Wrestlers also can get 4 quick throws from the front, and four from the back, 2 running, 2 turnbuckle…rather than list them all, it’s safe to say here that they’re reduced from the past, significantly, and the options wear very thin, very fast in any decent match. Moreover, they just feel meaningless. Yes, some attacks hit certain targets – overwhelmingly damaging the head or body – but there’s nothing very unique about the timeframes, the counter windows, and by the eighth time you see the Russian leg sweep into bulldog in two minutes, it stops being fun.
The core mechanics themselves are otherwise solid, if just not meeting their full potential. Because it’s so predestined, there’s a diminished tactical game. The best performance doesn’t come from watching the other wrestlers, but from guessing when an attack is coming. Environmental interactions are particularly limited in this regard now, only using one or two attacks, occasionally a finisher, rather than what once was a sequence. I’m all for simplification, but a lot of classic wrestling is missing because of it. Nobody rides the top rope, nobody gets a series of chops in the corner. Heels can’t even hold a submission for four seconds after a rope break.
Even the new mechanic, the chain wrestling, falls somewhat short. As long as the current match involves only two wrestlers, both of whom having stamina meters at the top level out of three, a regular grapple results in a quick paper-rock-scissors selection of headlock, arm lock, waist lock. From there, rotate the right analog stick to find the sweet spot and hold it to transition, like some sort of homoerotic lockpicking mini-game. Dominant wrestlers can also attack, which interrupts progress and randomizes the sweet spot location, but the tactic doesn’t see a ton of use, and the chain wrestling ultimately turns into a contest to see who loses the first level of their stamina bar before the match continues as normal.
This thinness of mechanics isn’t just important in terms of single matches, although it clearly matters. Where it really becomes clear is in the flagship mode, “My Career.”
The new career mode aims high, and lands like Yokozuna attempting a hurricana. It tries, but it just doesn’t have what it takes, despite a very solid foundation.
Career mode starts out in the Performance Center, with a created wrestler in for tryouts, moving onto NXT, and through the ranks of the prime time lineup, with the occasional pay-per-view event scattered in. Progression is based mostly on social media followers, meaning that to get ahead you have to get over. At least, that’s the idea. In practice? Just win the match. The promise and the performance really show their dissonance as you start to get further and further into career mode.
The core idea is a really exciting one for fans, and the presentation is generally one that sticks to kayfabe – a little odd for something that has such a behind the scenes approach, where winning is purportedly less important than putting on a good show. After every match, players are given a rating from 1-5. Personally, I never saw anything below 3 stars, and that was for a lazy squash match when I stopped caring. Anything with a hint of effort is likely to be rated “instant classic” or “greatest of all time”, particularly for any player remotely skilled at countering the predictably timed attacks of the AI. Throw in a signature attack and a finisher, that’s all it takes. The core action itself is still enjoyable, but wears thin.
It only wears thinner when it’s hard to figure out why it matters. Of course, in any fighting game, if there’s no fun in just picking up and playing, there’s no point at all. It’s certainly not that bad in the match-deficient quick play modes, but career mode just rings hollow. While a wrestler makes his rise to the top (sadly only his – the women’s side of things is incredibly lacking at 8 members, despite a constantly strengthening WWE roster), it’s almost entirely a series of standard pinfall matches with nothing else going on besides “you should win.” Rivalries are rare and unexplained, and no significant storylines unfold. Vickie Guerrero tells someone to beat the next four opponents, Bray Wyatt doesn’t like you, The Shield attacks you. There’s virtually no dialog thanks to the mute player created wrestlers, just occasional social media interactions limited to one of up to four Twitter responses.
These things are supposedly determined by face/heel status, but it’s hard to tell how much effect is had, and just what affects that. There’s a meter on the main career mode menu showing which direction a wrestler is in and how much, but no clear indicators of what affects it. While it’s fair to assume dirty wrestling adds to heel status, it’s mostly a guess as to what does exactly what. Some moves are labelled as such, and presumably removing a turnbuckle or defending a championship by getting disqualified are classic heel tactics, but others – like holding a submission too long – are missing. As for what gains face points, there’s no indication at all – and the same applies to what takes them away. Players are left to guess whether or not stealing someone’s finisher is a heel tactic, whether busting someone through a barricade is considered bad, or even using a steel chair in a fatal 4-way.
Vince McMahon mentioned these very issues, interestingly, on the Steve Austin podcast. Good wrestling alone isn’t enough. People want stories, they want to care. They want to know why these two men are fighting. The new career mode provides none of that. Wrestlers are purely passive agents in the affairs, finding themselves ambushed or ordered around, never initiating. The subtleties of the dynamics are lost entirely as well, diminishing the effects. Dean Ambrose is one of the company’s biggest draws right now, pulling tremendous amounts of pop by acting like a heel. Ambushes and cheap shots are why the crowd loves him. Historically, The Rock was an anti-face, only getting over when he became antagonistic toward the crowd; rather than the expected heat, he was met with applause. Even Bray Wyatt, distinctly a heel, got cheered for his feud with Cena. In WWE 2k15, there’s no place for that. Either one is a face or one is a heel – there are only Bob Backlunds and Shane McMahons, and no story to go with them. Only a cutscene of an ambush.
The ultimate symbol of this emptiness is the – spoiler alert – ending to career mode.
The promise of career mode was a 15 year journey. Now most sports games are only 10 years, so it’s ambitious, moreso when it’s sticking with the same roster. The game could make random characters, pull from the community, use people in NXT that are going to get a push, of course, or younger superstars.
Instead, it just skips ahead as soon as someone gets the WWE title belt.
Over the course of my five year journey, I’d participated in around twelve pay per views – players only get to pick 3 per year they want to be part of, and those choices are actually limited by some invisible flags. The first year had four to choose from, as did the last, even with a full complement of events on the docket in the middle years. Frankly, none of them were exciting. Extreme Rules? Pinfall match. Tables, Ladders, and Chairs? Pinfall match. Hell in a Cell? Pinfall match. Royal Rumble? Pinfall match. Only one of those was a championship match. There was an early no disqualification match for the intercontinental title belt at Survivor Series, and the feud with Bray Wyatt ended on a cage match at Extreme Rules. Two matches of 15 pay per views, including multiple championship matches and rivalries, were anything besides what happens every night on the show I was currently booked on. In my entire career, I never saw anything besides a very rare no-DQ match, a single falls count anywhere match, and two fatal 4-ways. No ladder matches. No table matches. No elimination chambers. No brawls. Just the same match versus random opponents with a choice of “earn more followers or earn more money.”
When I finally got the WWE Championship in a regular Pinfall match at Royal Rumble, from my supposed bitter enemy Randy Orton, who swore he’d come back for the belt, I thought “Surely this is where it begins. Now that I’m at the top, this is where the interesting matches start.”
Everything stopped. I was presented with a tile of text saying that my wrestler had joined the greats and would dominate for the next ten years, and was suddenly shuttled to the end for my retirement match, allowed to choose between “an up and coming superstar”, Daniel Bryan, or my rival – a player created wrestler I cannot even begin to remember. It was a standard pinfall match at Wrestlemania, of course, because why suddenly add excitement? Why, after I reached the pinnacle of WWE and was rewarded with 10 years of nothing, should I expect anything else?
Sure, there are other things I can talk about. The bug I ran into that caused everything I’d painstakingly unlocked to return to the ether, permanently. The fact that after all this time, WWE games still don’t tell you match objectives ahead of time in Showcase mode. That the music is terrible and that the crowd’s reactions are completely random, eliciting more cheers for a chop to the chest than a superplex over the turnbuckle. Awkward attempts to force in references to make fans happy, such as “I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. The cost to raise [skill] is [credits].” Weirdly specific things, like the near impossible nature of leaning someone against a ring post, or that any created wrestler who does a spinning leg drop to an opponent on the security wall starts with a Rob Van Dam taunt. The times Cole will talk about a ferocious elbow drop and shattered announce table when someone gets suplexed into the steps.
Really, though, it all finds itself best summarized by the way career mode ends – a microcosm of WWE 2k15’s pervasive question: “That’s really it?”
WWE 2k15 scores two out of five title belts. It’s loaded with potential, but never lives up to it.
(This review refers to the Xbox One version of the game, rented via Gamefly. The PS4 version is comparable. Don’t even bother with the PS3 or X360 versions.)