Every year, I wonder whether or not the next WWE release will measure up to the high bar that was set by WWF No Mercy on the Nintendo 64 – a title which is still widely-considered to be the greatest wrestling game ever made. And it isn’t just rose-tinted memories, as even now it’s a whole lot of fun to play. But of course the game is limited – it doesn’t boast the breadth of options that we see in the current WWE games, the variety of match types or the up-to-date roster.
That is why, every year, I hope that one of the new titles can match up the best of both worlds: the solid grappling engine and gameplay of No Mercy, with the versatility of the Yuke’s games. With a new publisher in the mix – as 2K Games have stepped into the void left by THQ – will this mark a new era or a new direction for WWE games? With the first game in this new pairing, the answer is a fairly resounding no – but a large part of that is because WWE 2K14 revels in the fact that it is looking back, rather than forward.
The core gameplay will be very familiar to gamers who have played the last few Smackdown or WWE console releases. Action is fast-paced, over-the-top and slightly arcade-like; a far cry from the slow, measured pace of the Nintendo 64 classics. There have been a number of additions or improvements made to the standard two button attack and grapple gameplay that we have all become accustomed to in WWE 2K14, including an even quicker overall pace (which can now be adjusted pre-match if it is a little too fast or slow for your liking).
Striking moves are thrown faster than ever, meaning there is a real weigh-up between quickly getting in a strike or choosing to grapple – which is obviously slower and takes longer and therefore effects ring tactics more than ever before. On top of these changes, run cycles take a bit longer to execute, meaning that sneaky players can no longer run away at the first sign of danger, or fly around the ring with running attacks. The adrenaline bar also means that players can’t run forever – they now have to conserve energy for when they really need a burst of speed.
The reversals system has been tightened up a bit, too. Fans of the old Smackdown games may well remember that if two players both have good reversal timing, they can get forever caught in a loop of reversal after reversal, going on for far too long in a very unrealistic manner. Now, however, the majority of reversals will flow right into an offensive manoeuvre (aside from strike reversals), so we don’t see nearly as many tugs of war, which is a very welcome change. The pitfall system also seems to have been tightened up, and the timing required to kick out correctly is much more nerve-jangling than the simple button mashing that we saw in the past. There are even OMG moments added into the mix: special environment-specific attacks that must be sought out, and which deal heavy damage whilst also looking pretty spectacular.
By adding extra tension and tactics into the mix, these new tweaks and changes do allow the game to come closer to the real sport than it has for some time, but the problems of old also continue to raise their ugly heads. By focusing on speed and action, the game always feels a bit too light. By sticking to the arcade style, the moves simply feel thrown around and don’t possess that bone-crunching feeling that you want from a wrestling title.
Character animations don’t help the atmosphere or sense of weight, as animation cycles can be interrupted awkwardly mid-action, making characters flap around strangely when they can’t complete their cycle as intended. After being hit with moves, the character models also display exaggerated ragdoll effects that once again look unrealistic, with limbs flailing too wildly after big hits, for example. And – as has been the bugbear of WWE games for quite some time – there are a lot of collision issues where fighters will get stuck on nothing, get hit by moves that are nowhere near them, or become trapped in animation cycles that you can’t get them out of.
The game looks much the same as it has for the last few years, and unfortunately some of the wrestler likenesses actually look less accurate than they did in the past. This is further hurt by the fact that classic wrestlers have obviously not been subject to full head and body scans like most of the current roster, giving them a slightly caricature and over-the-top look when compared to the modern-day superstars. Many of these issues have been such long-running problems in the series, it is a shame that they remain present after so long.
WWE 2K14 does deliver once again in the options department, however. There is, of course, almost every variety of match-up imaginable, waiting to be tried: ladder matches, table matches, Inferno matches and 30-man Royal Rumbles. One to four players can take part in offline match ups, and up to six can participate online. You can also modify rules, settings and sliders to customise the matches as you please – down to the little details such as the arena it is fought in and which HUD elements will appear on-screen.
The game revels further in customisation in the Create mode, which is deeper than ever and allows for player-created wrestlers, arenas, entrances, title belts and more that can be used online or offline, or uploaded and shared with users around the world. The community aspect is something that the developers have tried to take further through sharing options and a good variety of online modes – and this could become quite a long-term online experience if you found a good group of wrestling fans to go up against. Sadly, a full 30-man Royal Rumble is still missing from the online matches, something that could be a fantastic experience with a single player controlling each of the 30 men.
I could go on and on about the modes, such as the returning WWE Universe where you can schedule your own shows week by week, or the new Streak mode where you try to defend or end the 21-match Wrestlemania winning streak held by The Undertaker. But it’s the 30 Years of WrestleMania mode that really captures the imagination unlike other wrestling games in the past. In this mode, you work your way through five chapters, each a defining era in WWE history, while re-enacting classic matches from Wrestlemania. In this single player mode, there are over forty-five matches, in which you get to see the backstory made up of WWE film clips, and then try to re-create the events of the real matches – with older matches presented with grainy video effects to make them seem aged.
Each match has a set of objectives – both clear ones and hidden ones which will reveal themselves as you play. These can be simple, such as Irish whip your opponent out of the ring, or more complex such as deliver your finisher to all three opponents in a four-way match – some even consist of short QTE sequences, where a cutscene plays out a famous event and you have to trigger the action by pressing the correct buttons at the right time. Complete them all to unlock Achievements and a host of new playable legends and alternate costumes.
The use of these historical events and objectives actually adds a lot of excitement to the matches, as well as tickling your nostalgia bone. Successfully recreating the moment that Hulk Hogan body-slammed Andre the Giant makes you feel elated, and following that up with a trademark big boot and leg drop feels really satisfying – much more so than in a regular match. Grapplers even have fully authentic outfits and hairstyles from one year to the next – and all can be unlocked for use in-game. These old match-ups may not hold as much value to newer fans, but the way in which they are played out really draws you in and makes you feel a lot more involved in the story.
Yukes’ latest sadly doesn’t re-invent the wheel in terms of wrestling games – but it actually takes us on a trip back in time to show us why we loved the sport in the first place. Maybe too much of the success of the game relies on our warm feelings of nostalgia – but the 30 Years of Wrestlemania mode is so good that it could have almost been a game in itself. Perhaps it relies a little too heavily on this new mode, simply because the remaining choices just don’t match up in terms of tension and excitement. But despite that, the title remains as deep with options and customisation modes as it has ever been – more so even – and all of the audio-visual bells and whistles are on display in an attempt to make it as close to the television experience as it can get.
VERDICT: WWE 2K14 lacks the kind of measured, patient gameplay that made classic wrestling games so great to play, and sticks to its arcade guns and goes for fun, rather than simulation. This is especially true in the multiplayer, free-for-all matches, where the arcade style leads to all sorts of craziness and over-the-top action in the ring. There’s a fair smattering of niggling issues that hold it back from being universally enjoyable but, while it may not quite possess the “Excellence of Execution” like Bret Hart, it does have the show-stopping power of Shawn Michaels – and both are definitely welcome.
VERY GOOD. An 8/10 is only awarded to a game we consider truly worthy of your hard-earned cash. This game is only held back by a smattering of minor or middling issues and comes highly recommended.