Pro wrestling is an astonishingly barmy thing. It’s a soap opera clad in bright coloured spandex and punctuated with pre-determined fights. Many laugh it off, but take it as entertainment rather than sport and it’s a hell of a spectacle – and not nearly as “fake” as some may have you believe.
For many the WWE – or WWF to those with a pre-panda knowledge – holds a special place in their hearts. It takes them back to their childhoods, to a simpler time when we bought into the drama, cheered our heroes and daydreamed of the villains getting smashed over the head with steel chairs.
Likewise, the games too reek of nostalgia. Whether it’s ‘Super Wrestlemania’ on the SNES, ‘No Mercy’ on the N64 or ‘Here Comes The Pain’ on PS2 – a lot of gamer’s have fond memories of a wrestling game. Over the years the games have changed a lot, and in recent years they’ve struggled to find their feet.
There hasn’t been a classic to match the three I mentioned, but the game has still enjoyed its ups and downs. This year has been a turbulent one for developers Yukes, whose old bosses THQ went under earlier this year. It was unlikely the successful title would skip a year, so when someone (Take Two) inevitably grabbed the license in February the team was set back to work.
With new people in charge and new consoles to get familiar with ahead of a next-gen debut in a year’s time, it would be understandable if this year’s iteration was less innovative than we’ve come to expect.
In a preview like this that sentence would usually set up a contrary point, however that’s not the case. Quite simply nobody has come to expect huge amounts of innovation from Yukes, and this year is no different. Put this year’s game next to last year’s and only the most eagle eyed fans would be able to spot any major differences on the surface.
On a mechanical level however a major change has been made, but it’s less an innovation than a victory for common sense. In WWE 13 reversing your opponent was easy, with most able to pick it up quickly and the best players able to do it in their sleep. This led to endless reversal battles with neither player able to gain an advantage.
To emphatically put a stop to it, the majority of reversals now result in counter moves, laying an opponent out with a throw or hitting them with a strike that can’t itself be countered. Perhaps allowing for a handful of successive reversals, with say the third or fourth resulting in a counter move, would have been a better solution, but this is still a sensible change to make.
Beyond that there was talk, from the developers in attendance, of improved wrestler movement, but it was hard to spot.
The problems for the game’s core mechanics are the same problems that have been around for years now. There is still a disconnect between the game’s superstars and their environment save for pre-animated sequences, and the transition between animations is clunky at best.
The graphical difference between the WWE games and the likes of EA Sports’ Fight Night series and the phenomenal UFC games also developed at Yukes also verges on laughable. The character models range from poor to passable, making WWE 2K14 look like it should be WWE 2K09.
There is still plenty to like about the game however, despite the kind of flaws that should have been ironed out long ago. It works, it’s fun, but it has barely moved on from the Smackdown Vs. Raw days and after so many years developing the game, Yukes really shouldn’t be celebrated for making just a passable wrestling game. There needs to be more.
Last year, “more” came in the form of the ‘Attitude Era’ mode that ended up being WWE 13’s key selling point. To follow that up Yukes have decided to celebrate three decades of Wrestlemania ahead of the 30th show next April.
’30 Years of Wrestlemania’ recreates at least one, sometimes two, classic ‘Mania matches from each of the shows so far – each with historical objectives to complete for unlockable arenas, attires and wrestlers.
It’s a neat addition and selling point that presents a good challenge and does well celebrating the show of shows. With visual filters for earlier events and the correct sets in place for each encounter there’s a historical accuracy that brings weight to what otherwise would have been a simple series of matches.
The quest for accuracy only goes so far however, many of the show’s take place in identical stadia or arenas with the correct sets plopped in. For example the actual Wrestlemania 24 took place in the expansive, open air Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida, but in the game the set – minus ring-covering canopy – is in a basic stadium with a roof.
When you’re done recreating Mania moments there is an additional mode, one that celebrates arguably WWE’s most prized possession right now – The Streak. An undefeated streak in wrestling shouldn’t be anything impressive given the nature of the beast, but when that streak takes place across the 20+ year career of a single man, it’s suddenly quite impressive indeed.
The Undertaker has only missed one Wrestlemania since his debut at Wrestlemania 7, and now defending his undefeated streak at the event is the only thing he does. He wrestles rarely, and his health often throws Mania appearances into doubt, but every year he’s there and even though him losing is always very unlikely – there are few fans who don’t buy into the drama when his opponent goes for the three count.
It’s all down the Phenom himself, and this mode celebrates him with two challenges. Defeat The Streak pits you as a chosen star against a ‘Taker whose A.I. is tailored to be hard as nails. He earns finishers quicker than you, he won’t hesitate to deal them out once he has them and he wears down much slower.
The Undertaker can also lock in his Hell’s Gate submission move at any given moment and, when pinning him, a roll of the die decides whether the pin fails and the lights go out. When the lights come back ‘Taker is stood directly behind you – and he has a finisher ready for you. Overcome all this and your score, judged on speed and flair, will go up to an online leaderboard.
‘Defend The Streak’ puts you in the Undertaker’s shoes against a steady stream of opponents. It’s their version of a hoard mode, and it works! Defeat 22 or more opponents (thereby extending the streak beyond its real world equivalent) and you’ll unlock the Slobber Knocker match type in exhibition mode, allowing you to face the hoard as anyone you want.
As good as these new features are, they’re just bells on whistles on a game that, despite a big and much-needed change to its fundamental mechanics, hasn’t changed much elsewhere over last year’s outing.
The decision to not go next-gen this year was likely to buy the developer’s time with that tech ahead of the presumed series début in 2014. Hopefully, with this extra time, Yukes can develop a brand new engine and make WWE 2K15 the reinvention of the series that it desperately needs to be.
Right now, however, they are about to release a game that’s fine, passable, another entry in the series. Whether it’s for you depends on your love of wrestling games, your love of wrestling and – let’s be honest – whether you bought it last year. If you didn’t, go nuts. If you did… err… flip a coin?