Annualized sports games have a difficult schedule to keep. On the one hand, players want more than just a roster update to justify the yearly purchase of yet another sports sequel. They expect gameplay refinements, new modes, and maybe performance improvements to boot. But on the other hand, one year of development time simply doesn't leave much room for big changes or fine tuning the changes that do make the cut.
Still, every now and then a publisher manages to pull off a substantially improved entry in a popular yearly series. This year, 2K Sports and Yuke's have done just that with WWE 2K16 for Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The new wrestling game features its largest roster yet, expanded character creation, some reworked gameplay mechanics, and more. Does that all add up to the best wrestling game in years or just more of the same? Read our detailed review with video to find out!
- "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's 2K Showcase is a blast to play and/or watch
- 120 unique wrestlers including my man, Dolph Ziggler
- Powerful creation tools
- Deep MyCareer and WWE Universe Modes
- Easily share and download custom wrestlers
- You can beat up Bo Dallas, Bray Wyatt, and Stardust as much as you want
- Lengthy loading times
- Not enough tutorial or in-game reference information
- Reversal system could be more intuitive
- New submission system crashes and burns
- Online matchmaking system segregates players too much
- Needs a streaming-safe music option
Learning to wrassle
Although I'm a casual WWE fan, this is the first WWE 2K title that I've spent any significant time playing.
Finally I've given the series its due and spent a substantial amount of time with WWE 2K16, completing 2K Showcase mode and dabbling with the other modes.
Starting in on a yearly franchise so late in its lifespan is a curious thing; it definitely makes you feel like an outsider. 2K Sports and Yuke's can safely assume that most WWE 2K16 buyers also picked up last year's edition, and so they already know how to play. I did not know how to play, and the game didn't do much to ease me into it.
The WWE 2K series leans more towards simulation than arcade-style play, which means the gameplay is more complex than I expected. There is no clearly marked tutorial mode, something the game badly needs. Nor is there much in-game reference material.
Of course, you can look up the controls, and you can pause to view each wrestler's three or four Signature and Finishing moves. But if you want to look up how chain wrestling or something works, forget about it. The in-game Help option just unhelpfully pops up a URL for the PDF manual on the WWE website. And even that manual doesn't go into much depth about some of the mechanics.
That said, one of the game's three primary single-player modes does introduce mechanics and ease you into the game more than others: MyCareer. Novice players like me would do well to start there, although I actually played through 2K Showcase first. And if you're new, be sure to turn the difficulty down to Easy if you don't want the computer to curb stomp you Seth Rollins-style.
Working a match
The way matches in WWE 2K16 work, one player tends to dominate the fight at any given time. The key is to land a strike or grapple on your opponent, and then follow up with more attacks before he or she can recover. If you whittle the unlucky performer's health down enough, you should be able to succeed in a pin and win the fight.
Of course, nobody is going to just stand there and take a pounding. Nearly any attack can be interrupted by a well-timed reversal. You'll know the general time to attempt one when the Right Trigger prompt appears above your wrestler's head. If you press it at just the right time, your wrestler will evade the attack and likely strike a counter-blow.
Each wrestler can only perform 3-5 reversals before waiting for them to recharge. This new limitation on reversal frequency comes as a result of fan feedback about last year's game.
Reversals are one of the most important mechanics to master, because they can easily turn the tide during a match. But pulling them off isn't that easy, as the game often judges the button press as too early or too late. I wish the prompt gave more indication about the actual correct moment to press the trigger. As it stands, you have to either learn the timing for reversing the various attacks by experience or just get lucky.
Pinning downed opponents is easy; you just push a button. Escaping from the pin, a bit less so. A pinned player can try to avoid the pin using one of WWE 2K16's new minigames. A golf-style strength meter will pop up, giving that player three chances to stop the meter within the target escape zone. This is the simplest and most intuitive of 2K16's minigames.
WWE 2K16 features two more minigames to considerably less success: chain wrestling and submissions. Chain wrestling occurs when two wrestlers lock arms and try to overcome each other. At that point, each player has to press a different face button to win the rock-paper-scissors-like minigame. Unfortunately, neither the game nor the manual explain how to even initiate chain wrestling, so I hardly ever see it when I play. Update: I'm told that chain wrestling only happens during the first three grapples of a match.
The new submission system is probably 2K16's least intuitive mechanic. Holding A 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. It sounds easier than it is.
In my time with the game, I only won a submission as an attacker once. I just can't get the hang of it, which seems to be a common issue. Luckily, you can largely avoid performing submissions if they don't click with you.
Create a Wrestler
Although 2K Sports boasted about WWE 2K15's create a wrestler feature, the character creation ended up lacking some of the bells and whistles from previous years. Luckily 2K16 gets things mostly back on track, providing a much more robust character creator.
The good stuff from last year like the ability to import photos and map them to your wrestler's face is still here, plus the ability to adjust clothing materials, create Divas (yes!), Arenas, and Championships, and more.
Players have already made some amazing custom characters such as real life wrestlers, celebrities, and comic book and cartoon characters. You can easily browse and download these creations online, and 2K16 even bumps the number of custom wrestler slots up from 25 to 100.
For all its refinements, this year's creation suite suffers from one flaw that makes it a lot less pleasant to use than it should be: loading times. Every transition between one section of the editor and another results in unacceptably long loading. The devs need to do some optimization in next year's game.
Having created or downloaded a custom wrestler, you can then put him or her through 2K16's career mode. Beginners start out in a gym, receiving basic advice from a manager or coach. You'll learn some of the game's mechanics through gym matches, eventually moving on to NXT and then the WWE itself.
A big part of MyCareer mode is improving your wrestler's stats, skills, and abilities. To do this, you'll spend VC points earned from career matches. You can also spend points to hire real WWE managers like Paul Heyman. Your manager will distract opponents and referees during matches.
The various upgrades add a nice RPG-style progression mechanic to MyCareer. 2K Sports also sells a $10 'MyPlayer Kickstart Package' of VC Points. The package is not included with the Season Pass. Since MyCareer is all about building up your wrestler on your own, you really don't need the Kickstart Package unless you're in a hurry to get ahead.
The highlight of WWE 2K16 for me is its story mode, 2K Showcase. This year's showcase follows the career of "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. Players will work through a series of Austin's real-life matches, beginning with his 1996 King of the Ring match against Jake Roberts and ending with his battle against The Rock at Wrestlemania XIX in 2003.
Featured rivalries include Bret Hart, Dude Love, Undertaker, Vince McMahon, and The Rock. Notably absent is Austin's rivalry with Owen Hart (deceased), including any mention of the broken neck Austin suffered at Hart's hands. Nor do Austin's late-career walkouts receive much explanation; they just say he walked out on and move on to another subject.
The 2K Showcase matches work differently than those of other game modes. You're not just trying to beat the other wrestlers as Austin. Rather, you aim to recreate important events from the historical matches. The game always displays an objective in the top-left corner, such as inflicting a certain amount of damage, throwing the opponent out of the ring, performing certain moves, and more.
If you're not sure how to perform the currently required move, you can pause and get instructions from the checklist of the match goals. The checklist is usually very helpful, but occasionally the instructions are too vague – such as the goal of climbing a ladder not explaining how to actually climb the ladder (hit Left Bumper). I also wish the more detailed instructions could be optionally displayed on-screen during gameplay rather than tucked away on the pause screen.
Not only is the goal-oriented nature of 2K Showcase matches quite enjoyable, Showcase mode is just a lot of fun to watch. Most matches begin or end with well-edited historical footage (something the WWE excels at), and the cinematic sequences that happen when you perform mid-match goals look fantastic as well. Plus you get to learn about Steve Austin, a rambunctious fellow Texan with a fondness for flipping double birds and guzzling beer.
If following one wrestler's career doesn't capture your fancy, perhaps managing the entire WWE schedule from month to month will do the trick. Universe lets you simulate or engage in all of the nightly matches and pay-per-view events that make up the 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. The game will take a little while to simulate all the matches along the way, updating you on rivalries and title changes along the way.
WWE Universe is a huge mode that I can hardly do justice in this limited space. One element that impressed me is the ability to edit each Superstar to an incredible degree. You can view or edit their personality stats like Pridefulness and Loyalty, and then those stats will dynamically change based on the wrestler's in-match behavior.
WWE 2K16 supports up to 6-player local and online multiplayer. This year's online matchmaking have been significantly revamped, dividing game types up into four categories: 2K Tonight, WWE Live, Team Up, and Private matches. The latter two game types don't offer matchmaking.
2K Tonight and WWE live each offer several specific game types, for a total of 12 different matchmaking categories. This creates an issue with matchmaking, because there's no way to tell what everyone else is playing. You might pick Triple Threat and discover that nobody else is playing that kind of match. 2K Sports should really narrow things down to a few Halo-style playlists in order to keep the matchmaking queues properly populated.
On the plus side, you can choose to battle against the computer while waiting for an opponent to be found. Besides lessening boredom, these AI fights seem to provide a multiplayer experience bonus based on the length of the wait you endure. Win or lose, all online matches pay out experience that contributes to your multiplayer rank.
WWE 2K16 offers 55 Achievements worth a total of 1,000 Gamerscore. Inexplicably, there is no Achievement for reaching the end of 2K Showcase mode. What game doesn't hand out an Achievement for beating story mode? No, you'll have to fully unlock all cinematic replays within the matches if you actually want Gamerscore recognition of that completion.
Most of the Achievements are spread across MyCareer, WWE Universe, and online multiplayer modes. They tend to require specific matchups or move combinations. You'll pretty much need a guide to keep track of them. On the plus side, turning the difficulty down to Easy doesn't affect Achievements.
With a hot licensed property like WWE, presentation matters. This year's game boasts a whopping 120 unique wrestlers with mostly accurate (and now interruptible) entrances. Some of the individual wrestler models still look off, but most of them hold up quite well. The soundtrack is great too, although you'll need to mute it if capturing videos or streaming (boo!).
WWE 2K16 is built on a foundation of the aging game engine that Yuke's created so long ago. It has problems, whether it's the improved-but-still repetitive announcing or the useless submission system. But lame as it turned out, that submission system at least shows that Yuke's and 2K Sports are actually trying. Other improvements like the roster bump and creation tools fair better.
Rough edges aside, 2K16 packs so many things to see and do. Steve Austin's 2K Showcase mode is fantastic, and reason enough to play the game if you enjoy the storyline aspect of wrestling. After knocking out 2K Showcase, the My Career and WWE Universe modes will easily keep wrestling fans busy until 2K17 comes along. Let's hope next year's game maintains the same momentum and genuine attempts at progress as 2K16.