By Michael Wiseman of BetweenTheRopes.com
It hit me pretty early on that WWE 2K18 is simply not a game I’m supposed to like.
I was sitting at the main screen after the initial game boot when I was presented with a rotating circle that above it had the words “ATTENTION” in all caps along with some other subtext.
“Great,” my classically-conditioned brain signaled, “this means the game is loading.” So I picked up my phone to surf Twitter while the shiny new 2K video game took its time to finish installing all of the shiny new 2K professional wrestler models.
After five minutes of the spinning wheel and hateful Kid Rock music, I thought to myself, Holy Mordecai, this game must be simulating a LOT of sweat and pyro. (Actually, probably just sweat – WWE Network subscriber numbers are down, after all).
Then I finally read that main screen subtext: “Do not turn off or unplug console when you see this loading symbol.”
And right below the loading symbol? “Press ‘A’ to continue.”
The game tricked me. Ick.
I quickly learned that casually perusing Twitter would be an integral part of my WWE 2K18 experience.
Presentation and Graphics
Although I fell off both 2K16 and 2K17 pretty quickly, and haven’t truly mastered a virtual grappling simulator since WWE ‘13, I anticipated jumping into the WWE 2K18 fray with relative ease. I cued up AJ Styles vs Roman Reigns (in NXT, no less) and set my expectations to “not getting my ass kicked.” That was, unfortunately, where my pre-show hype ended.
Hey look, a load screen before the match… that’s normal. Thirty seconds though? Sheesh.
And another load screen after the entrances… Yeah, ok, we’re still doing this after 20 years of pro wrestling games. That’s cool.
The nice thing about 2K18 is it gives you an actual loading progress bar underneath a beautifully-rendered WWE logo so you’ll know exactly how long you have to keep reading those “Yeah, but REAL professional wrestling only happens on the indies. #TOOSWEET!” tweets.
The problem is that you’re going to spend a lot of time looking at this logo. A lot of time. Like, a lot a lot.
But that’s okay, though, right? It’s pulling in all those high-res player models, lifelike arenas, and bona fide superstar entrances. Great things take time.
Except instead of great things, you wind up waiting for player models that run the gamut from pretty, pretty good to JAKKS Pacific bendable action figure quality. Perhaps my favorite example is the witch-like representation of Stephanie McMahon you’ll encounter backstage during career mode. Her hair flows with a life all its own, as though Stephanie is channeling her inner Medusa (think Greek mythology not turncoat ’90s wrestler).
It’s not all bad. Authentic wrestling house show, television, and pay-per-view stages pop to life in an immersive fashion. Crowds move in a way that makes coliseums and stadiums feel more alive than many Monday Night RAW events (just don’t stare too long or you’ll notice the kayfabe-breaking synchronized movements). And the entrances feel as close to being there in person as a fan could ever want. Many kudos to the co-development tag-team of Yukes and Visual Concepts for developing what can be, at times, a beautiful game.
But for every breathtaking moment of realism you’ll encounter weird jaw movements, hung player models, and (like every year) hair that’s ripped straight out of “Smackdown 2: Know Your Role.”
I know 2K Games spent a lot of time hyping new dynamic lighting and more realistic skin, and on certain player models like Randy Orton and Brock Lesnar, the dev team’s hard work paid handsome dividends. But honestly? It ends up making the guys who didn’t get quite the love – say Neville, Rhyno, and even fan favorites/main-eventers like Roman Reigns and Bayley – look twice as bad by proxy. That much-hyped new dynamic lighting system also has a tendency to make character models appear soft at times, which detracts from any lifelike quality earned.
And the game’s announcing is just as awful as it’s ever been. I’d pay handsomely for DLC that replaced Michael Cole and his cronies with the generic “WCW/nWo Revenge” menu midis.
I was, however, excited to kick off 2K18’s myPlayer career mode. Seeing where the game was the last couple of years, and being a total sport/life sim junkie (I still revisit NCAA ‘14 and its amazing Road to Glory mode at least once a football season), I anticipated big things in fighting my way through NXT’s undercard to eventually (hopefully!) main-eventing WrestleMania. The 2K Games marketing department was hitting all of my key phrases: “brand new MYCAREER experience,” “new story,” and “help direct the narrative.”
I should add here, what I want out of a wrestling career mode is relatively straightforward: an ability to take my chosen superstar (the indefatigable Rob Robbins) from chump to champ, while along the way navigating championship reigns, heartbreaking losses, and bitter feuds. That feeling of accomplishment in watching my pixel-perfect contender hold above his head the richest prize in all of Sports Entertainment? There’s nothing like it.
Unfortunately, that expectation is the long-suffering burden of pro wrestling gamers. While early attempts at polygonal wrestling games eschewed never-ending progression for a more traditional fighting-game style ladder, around 1999/2000 developers starting really dialing it in and offering fans two things: a nonlinear path, and choice.
The often overlooked “WrestleMania 2000” let you compete for an entire calendar year in then-WWF on RAW, Sunday Night Heat (yup), and Pay-Per-Views while tracking championship reigns, win/loss records, and various other stats. Occasionally, wrestlers would challenge you or offer to team up. And after one year you could pick up right where you left off and start the Road to WrestleMania over again.
The PS1-era “WWF SmackDown!” games offered a similar system where you would find yourself winning mid-card titles before competing with the big boys. Even though most of the matches meant bunk, you could derive some semblance of storytelling by following a slow, steady ascent to main-event dominance. (Also, SmackDown! 2 had an amazing Create-a-PPV mode, complete with ratings, that I still daydream about.)
Probably the best example of a fully-realized WWE experience, though, was Playstation 2 exclusive “WWE SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain.” Not only was the grappling system dynamic and exciting in a way most of the SmackDown! series games, and now 2K games, never accomplished (more on that later), the season mode saw you pick either RAW or SmackDown! as your home brand, and fight through actual, pro-wrestling-style storylines while moving towards actual, pro-wrestling-style career goals such as winning championships and becoming a fan-favorite. Along the way you were given title opportunities, formed alliances, fought with (or against) the boss, and built a legacy. It was neat.
Yet somewhere along the way, Yukes lost sight of this grand journey. They traded the freedom and choice of true career modes for more controlled, scripted experiences. Eventually, gems like “WWE 13’s” Attitude Era mode and the oddly time-consuming yet ultimately empty WWE Universe Mode came from this path, but for diehard fans, nothing ever replaced those old choose-your-own-adventure WWE games.
But after many years in the wasteland, 2K Games felt like the publisher who could bring it back. The company’s experience building out the genre-defining NBA 2K career mode seemed like a hand-in-glove fit for the professional wrestling arena.
Unfortunately, just a few years after it’s debut, 2K18’s MyCAREER mode is already taking major steps backwards.
First is the addition (why?) of a free-roaming backstage area. You know, that crazy thing “WWF SmackDown! Know Your Role” did back in 2001 before quickly replacing it the next year with more traditional menus? Yeah, it’s back in 2017!
This wouldn’t be so bad as an optional, story-enhancing feature or rarely used gimmick. But to walk down the same hallways, just to have the same conversations, and slowly push forward a simple yet nonsensical storyline (an experience which is always being bookended by the same loading screens) feels like a Vince Russo-inspired circle of hell. It’s one circle above a three-man Booker T commentary team.
And the problem is, truly, you never feel like it’s worth the effort. A five-minute promo or, worse, a brief pre-match run-in doesn’t justify all the work you have to do to get there. Not only that, the objectives are often vague enough to encourage you to take the WRONG action which means – yup – repeating the same process all over again. And again.
There are brief moments of greatness – like when you organically cut a promo that slowly shifts your character from face to heel. But it’s hard to know which choices will take you where you want to go. For example, when cutting a promo, why is it that most of the choices make me sound like a prick, yet some of them still earn me cheers? Or why does my mentor tell me backstage afterwards that I did a great job, even though I did the exact opposite of what he encouraged me to do?
WWE 2K18’s MyCAREER mode is full of these paradoxes. Want to change your moveset? Find the lady sewing tights backstage and engage in an awkward conversation that implies you don’t actually want anything. Ready to leave the arena? Spend five minutes talking to a security dude as you both gesture wildly.
Sure, I’ll forgive the little things like lack of voice acting, static backstage environments, and people warping through doors. However, I simply can’t forgive transgressions like including The Rock, a Superstar best known for his superb mic skills and not so much his mat skills (also, leaving WWE for Hollywood), as a featured NXT trainer. It’s probably because he curated the game’s soundtrack. But also, the game’s soundtrack features Kid Rock?
— Paul Heyman (@HeymanHustle) October 17, 2017
It’s not all Legion of Doom and gloom. WWE Universe mode is back and features the same limitless customization, pseudo-storylines, and menu-driven experiences as years past. I didn’t spend extensive time with it before this review, but I did tool around with it enough to know that Universe Mode purists who build their own territory-based wrestling brands should still have a ball. Tweaks have been made regarding feud continuity and the experience surrounding Money in The Bank, but I doubt most will dig deep enough to notice.
Speaking of custom wrestling brands, Visual Concepts and Yukes have made good on the deep creation suite again. No, they didn’t bring back the custom story designer (so dust off those old composition notebooks), but they have built something customizable enough to let you easily create – or just download from the 2K servers – stars like CM Punk, The Young Bucks, Spider-Man, Jay Briscoe, Glacier, Heidenreich, The Shockmaster, Maven, or whoever else you can imagine.
And fortunately, you won’t have to imagine too much. WWE 2K18 brings the largest, most up-to-date roster a professional wrestling game has ever seen. It’s truly impressive. The major legends are all accounted for, your NXT favorites are featured front-and-center, and if that’s not enough, dozens of superstars have alternate versions (including FOUR distinct Sting characters). I had no idea there was a difference between Ricky Steamboat ‘91 and Ricky Steamboat ‘94, but I guarantee you somebody is geeking out about that inclusion as they read this sentence.
Less fortunately, the grappling system feels mostly unchanged from last year. Listen, I know we won’t ever get back to the arcade-based, yet surprisingly deep, action wrestling of the early aughts, but could we at least trend something that doesn’t feel like I’m wading through molasses when I throw a punch? Also, every single time I hit a reversal it feels like pure luck. Obviously 2K Games, Yukes, and Visual Concepts wanted to stop “reversal spamming” of the last generation, but their replacement system feels poorly-timed and somewhat hostile.
Other things feel broken, too. I often swing weapons wildly before hitting my intended opponent. I was once shown a button prompt on how to lift, carry, and then slam an opponent into the turnbuckle that’s never been shown since (and it’s an action I continue to struggle with). Slowdown and screen tearing, while not frequent, happen enough to be annoying. And why, for the love of all that is good and holy in professional wrestling history (i.e. not much), do all the button prompts seem so hard to hit?
Maybe I’m just bad at pro wrestling games… Or maybe the game is just bad at being played.
This game is undeniably a complete package. That is, it has all of the right checkboxes ticked to make professional wrestling fans happy. However, much like it’s real-life namesake, just having all of the core ingredients accounted for isn’t enough; nowadays, what you do (or don’t do) with those ingredients matter more.
A couple of years ago in my review for WWE 2K16 I said, “I think we’re still one year away from the greatness that 2K is truly capable of. In the meantime, ‘WWE 2K16’ will do a pretty good job of being the No. 1 contender.” Unfortunately, that championship reign never came to fruition.
There are fans out there who will buy this game and get endless hours of entertainment out of it – the same fans who catch every episode of 205 Live, who dream of running their own wrestling organization, and who eat, breathe, (conquer, repeat) and live wrestling online wrestling leagues. Maybe that’s you. Maybe all you want is the latest in a very long lineage of professional wrestling simulators, the ability to build custom superstars and generally cause virtual squared circle carnage. I’d encourage you to check it out… but start with a Redbox rental first.
If you loved every minute of 2K14 – 2K17, nothing here is outright offensive enough to make for a regrettable purchase. Go ahead. Dive right in. A winner is you.
But if you’re somebody like me, somebody who misses the glory days of GM Modes and attitude eras and (yes) WWF No Mercy on the Nintendo 64, WWE 2K18 will likely just leave you nostalgic about the old days.
It’s true. It’s damn true. Unfortunately.
Overall Rating: 6 stars out of 10
Michael Wiseman is the co-host of the weekly BetweenTheRopes podcast, which is available at BlogtalkRadio.com. You can also follow him online at Twitter.com/therealwiseman where you can also find fun photos of his “Bob’s Burgers” inspired Halloween costume.