Every year, publishers release new versions of the big sports games. That goes for sports entertainment, too. WWE 2K17 has arrived on Xbox and PlayStation, bringing an increased roster, interactive promos, backstage battles, and more. Do those improvements make up for the lack of a Showcase mode?

Refined presentation

WWE 2K17 main menu

The WWE series is an annualized franchise, so it can't change too drastically from year to year. This time, 2K and developer Yuke's made the interesting choice of cutting the popular story-based Showcase mode (my favorite part of WWE 2K16) in favor of refining other features and elements of the presentation.

For starters, the main menu is much more intuitive than last year's. You can see all the main options for each category rather than having to select a category to see its sub-menus. Nothing is hidden off to the right any more – it's very clear that the main menu continues in that direction. And while you browse menu options, WWE Superstars stroll by and flaunt their stuff.

The unlockable system has been completely revamped as well. No matter what game type you play, you're always earning a currency called VC. This can be used in the VC Store to unlock Superstars, Arenas, and (less excitingly) Championships. WWE 2K17 features the largest roster yet of unlockable wrestlers, so you'll have plenty to unlock. But as usual, impatient players can grab the Accelerator DLC (now $5) to unlock everything right away.

The in-game visuals are still great. Most of the wrestlers look amazing up close, although the in-game version of my man Dolph Ziggler's currently dark hair doesn't hit the mark. Although the crowd is still too basic visually, I love that many of them wear Booty O's shirts. Entrances impress as always, and more live-action WWE footage has been incorporated into several modes.

Greater authenticity in and out of the ring

WWE 2K17 New Day

The core wrestling gameplay hasn't changed drastically from 2K16. The game still lacks a proper tutorial mode, a major hurdle for new players. The controls aren't even listed in the main options menus – players must pause from within a match to view them. Nor does the controls list describe how to do certain important things, like tag in after tagging out, grabbing weapons from under the ring, or dragging a prone opponent. You'd have to fumble blindly or search the web to learn some of this stuff.

The developers have at least added some context-sensitive tutorials here and there, though. The first time a player or the AI initiates certain types of moves, like chain wrestling or submissions, instructions for that mechanic will pop up on-screen. But telling me how to chain wrestle once I'm already doing it won't help if I can't figure out how to even start it in the first place.

Still, the fighting is quite good, once you figure it out. Each competitor tries to maintain momentum for as long as possible, striking, grappling, and occasionally using weapons and objects to wear down their foes. A sufficiently weakened wrestler can be eliminated by pinfall, submission move, and sometimes other methods.

Reversals play a key role in the direction of the fight. Most moves have a brief window during which they can be reversed by the opponent, indicated by an icon above the wrestler's head. Hit the button (Right Trigger on Xbox) at just the right moment and you'll escape the attack, consuming a bar of Reversal stamina and inflicting damage on the attacker.

The timing on basic reversals is still tough, as the icon usually pops up for only the tiniest instant. Hit the button too early or late and you'll just keep on getting pounded. Certain moves allow for major reversals, which involves hitting the button at two different times. The major reversal timing window is much larger than in 2K16, thankfully, so players now have a hope of pulling them off.

Taunting has been greatly expanded. Players can now perform three basic kinds of taunts by pressing directions on the D-Pad. These will force a downed opponent to rise, boost Signature and Finisher move gain, or boost stamina regeneration. The taunts themselves vary depending on position, with some wrestlers able to climb on the rope corners and taunt the crowd. This adds some of the showmanship involved in actual WWE events.

Last year's unpopular submission system has regrettably returned. Holding the submission button near a downed opponent starts a submission attack, as do some other moves. At that point, a circle pops up. The attacker rotates a tiny red slider around the circle in an attempt to catch and overlap the defender's larger blue slider for a short period of time. Not intuitive or fun.

Submissions were already tough to win last year, but now they're even harder because the timing window has been shortened. It literally took me almost an hour to win one while going after the associated Achievement. On the plus side, you can now switch the submission minigame to the older system in which players rapidly hit specific buttons instead of wrestle with sliders. But the AI is far too good at the button version, so it's still very hard to win a submission against it.

Greater authenticity outside the ring

WWE 2K17 Promo

Three big gameplay additions capture even more of the WWE feel. Run-ins allow AI opponents to interrupt matches during entrances, mid-match, and post-match. The frequency of these can be adjusted or turned off. And players themselves can interrupt entrances or 'break away' post-match to deliver one last beating.

Speaking of dynamism, Superstars are no longer limited to wrestling in and around the ring. You can now step out (or throw someone) into the crowd. From there, it's a short run to the hallway and offices of the backstage area, complete with wieldable objects and NPC members of the McMahon family. You can even specifically limit matches to the backstage by selecting the Backstage Brawl game type.

Finally, this year marks the introduction of interactive promos and interviews. During these segments, your wrestler takes to the mic and boasts about his or her agenda. This plays out in a branching conversation system. You'll select from four brief choices and watch as the wrestler delivers a paragraph of dialog. If the choices you make suit your wrestler's face or heel status, you'll earn points for it.

Sometimes opponents butt into the promo, in which case each side takes turns trying to outdo the other. Whoever scores the highest wins the verbal battle. The promo system is a fantastic concept, but (as with Fallout 4) it's often difficult to tell whether your selections will tend towards face or heel. The morality of each choice should be indicated before we pick it.

Creations

WWE 2K17 custom wrestler face photo

Last year's Create a Wrestler mode was quite impressive, and this year's doubly so. The excessive load times of 2K16's editor are gone with much faster menus. Wrestlers can be edited to a greater level of detail than ever before, and custom images (called logos) can now be stamped multiple times without counting against the layer limit. You can even map a facial photo directly onto your wrestler and tweak it as needed, putting yourself right into the game.

I only have a few issues with the wrestler editor.You can't resize objects that go on the head, limiting some of the creations that can be made. No tiny horns for Daredevil, although a different set of horns is perfect for making Batman's ears. More importantly, directions for importing your own photos and images are way too hard to find in-game. One must enter the Logo Manager and hit the Instructions button (View/Back on Xbox One) to find directions. I suspect many players will overlook that option and search the web instead.

Players can also create custom entrances, championships, arenas, Titantron videos, and both solo and team victory celebrations. The all-around level of customization is remarkable. And it's super easy to share and download creations. If you missed previous WWE 2K games, you'll be amazed at the selection of custom wrestlers. Real-life wrestlers, superheroes, videogame characters – they're all just a quick download away.

MyCareer and WWE Universe

WWE 2K17 MyCareer Daredevil

WWE Showcase, the campaign-style mode that followed a real Superstar's career like an interactive documentary, is missing from WWE 2K17. That leaves MyCareer and WWE Universe to pick up the single-player slack. Both modes have a lot to offer – here's a brief rundown:

MyCareer is the meat of the game, following any created wrestler through an entire wrestling career, starting with NX tryouts and then progressing through televised matches, promos, and events. VC Points earned here and elsewhere can be spent to improve your wrestler, hire managers, and more. Your trainer and Paul Haymen are fully voiced, making the occasional story segments more exciting. However, figuring out how to actually progress through championships is an exercise in frustration. Play normally and you'll never get anywhere. MyCareer mode is in desperate need of tuning.

WWE Universe is the season mode. Players can simulate or engage in all of the nightly matches and pay-per-view events that make up a real year's worth of WWE programming, from Monday Night Raw all the way to Wrestlemania. If you just want to play the big events, you can jump straight to them. Every wrestler, show, and championship can be edited to your liking. The real-life shows and events even begin with genuine TV intros this year.

Multiplayer

WWE 2K17 Dolph Ziggler online practice

WWE 2K17 supports six-player local player in a variety of game types, as well as six player online matches. None of the online modes allow local guests to join in, unfortunately.

This year's primary online mode is the completely revamped 2K Tonight. The new 2K Tonight is an online tournament mode of sorts in which the player progresses unlocks a series of five match types by beating the preceding matches. Lose and the game automatically looks for another match in the current type. Winners can gain victory and winning streak bonuses, too. And to make the tournament fair, nobody can use customized characters.

2K Tonight provides a strong incentive for player to keep on battling online rather than playing a single match and then heading offline. Win or lose, you're automatically matches against the next available opponent, unless you choose to quit or move to the next tier or matches. All non-private matches contribute to the player's online level, as well as awarding VC Points.

Other online modes include:

  • WWE Live: Single battles can be played through the matchmaking queues ranging from one-on-one to a six-man melee.
  • Team Up: Three-players team up to battle opponents. Whether those opponents are other players or AI enemies, I couldn't tell you. Team Up requires a team of three players (invited from your friends list) and doesn't support matchmaking.
  • Private: Play any game type privately with friends. Entrances and custom shows are now supported in private matches.

Counting all five 2K Tonight match types, 2K17 has a total of 11 online matchmaking queues – one less than last year's whopping 12 queues. 11 queues is still a big stretch for all but the largest online games. You might want to play Triple Threat, only to find that nobody else is joining that queue. In the end, I predict the 2K Tonight types will be decently populated while the WWE Live queues mostly host tumbleweeds.

Joining any queue (including 2K Tonight) automatically pits you against an AI opponent, which is better than staring at an empty lobby or matchmaking screen. Still, 2K and Yuke's should add a way for players to join any open game, rather than having to pick only a specific queue. Then you'd practically never have trouble finding a match.

Achievements

WWE 2K17 divas

WWE 2K17 has 58 Achievements worth a total of 1,000 Gamerscore. Setting up and playing the numerous situations and matches that have their own Achievements will keep players busy for quite a while – I'm quite enjoying it.

The most time-consuming Achievements involve winning the various Championships in MyCareer mode. Others include winning 50 matches in WWE Universe, playing as 50 different Superstars, and performing 200 Reversals as Brock Lesnar. There are also five online Achievements; the one for winning a Team Up match will require the help of friends or boosting. Our comprehensive WWE 2K17 Achievement Guide offers strategies for earning every single Achievement, so don't miss it!

Overall Impression

WWE 2K17 Royal Rumble

Cutting the beloved Showcase mode from WWE 2K17 must have been a tough call, but it turns out to have been the right one. The game has improved in so many ways over last year's, adding promos, backstage fighting, run-ins, better customization, and much more. MyCareer, WWE Universe, and multiplayer make for a robust package all on their own.

The WWE 2K series needs a comprehensive tutorial more than anything. Hopefully that's on the agenda for next year's game. WWE 2K17 has all the authenticity a wrestling fan could want – I just wish it would ease new players into the gameplay better.

Pros:

  • More wrestlers and places to battle.
  • Vastly improved menus
  • 2K Tonight is a compelling online tournament mode.

Cons:

  • No Showcase mode for story fans
  • Progress in MyCareer mode is frustratingly slow and opaque.
  • Still no proper tutorial and lack of in-game instructions
  • Submissions continue to suck.

Good

3.5/5

See on the Xbox Store

Xbox One review copy provided by the publisher.