Like a John Cena comeback victory, there are few things in the wrestling world as predictable as another installment in the annual WWE 2K series.
2K's WWE franchise actually began its life 15 years ago, under the WWF Smackdown! banner from the defunct THQ, and every fall since then, wrestling fans have rushed out on day one to see all of the improvements (and sometimes glaring omissions) that the company put into the latest version.
Like the Madden series has done for gridiron gaming, there are certain years when the latest entry into WWE's digital legacy never reaches main event status — all you have to do is look at the robust WWE 13 compared with the bare bones WWE 2K15 to see why annual franchises are so up and down.
Thankfully, 2K fixed many of the mistakes from last year by bringing rich customization, impeccable presentation and deep gameplay mechanics back for what is the best wrestling experience in years.
2K16 might look and feel familiar at first, but the folks behind the game littered the mat wrestling mechanics with so many small tweaks that it plays almost completely different from past installments.
The biggest, and most welcome, change is the new reversal system. In the past, reversals could be done on anyone at any time with just the press of a button — this led to many matches just being pure counter-hold marathons that dragged and dragged seemingly forever. That's all different this year, because now each player has a reversal meter that limits how many they can perform each match. The meter drains with each one and slowly refills during the match.
Now, reversals are less frequent but more potent. There are two types of reversals you can use: minor reversals, which take up a small amount of the meter and do little damage; and major reversals, which use up more of the meter but can completely incapacitate a foe. Instead of just mindlessly tapping away at the reversal button, now there's actual strategy involved.
The submission system was also overhauled this year, but this change doesn't fare as well. Instead of the tug-of-war system from years past, 2K16 introduces a herky-jerky minigame that involves joystick movement, glowing orbs and speed boosts. It's incredibly convoluted and difficult to get a grasp of, and, frankly, it just doesn't work that well.
You'll find yourself tapping out to more than a few basic submissions holds at first, simply because the mechanic never feels natural. Depending on how you play (and who you play with), this is a pretty big issue for certain submissions specialists.
Outside of that, though, WWE 2K16 plays like any wrestling junkie's dream. The matches all have a realistic flow to them, as opposed to the fast-paced, arcade style of previous years. There's real weight behind these bouts, and the longer they drag on, the more the pain and fatigue set in. Toward the end of a match, your wrestler will literally need to use the ropes for assistance just to stand up.
This direction toward simulation gameplay means a match between Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair will actually feel like one of their old NWA clashes, complete with in-ring psychology and strategy, instead of button-mashing and cheap shots.
Still, though, the action isn't so far removed from last year that it will take long to learn for fans, but rest assured, the small tweaks go a long way toward complete grappling immersion.
That being said, this is still a WWE 2K game, so there are plenty of small bugs to deal with. I've had wrestlers warp to different sides of the ring, superplex an opponent out of thin air and completely disappear while trying to attack an opponent during their entrance.
These are small annoyances, but with in-ring action this authentic, a small glitch can take you completely out of the experience.
Look, the WWE series is never going to be the most visually-striking franchise on the market. It seems like 2K is still working off an advanced version of the graphics engine the series had since the PS2 days, which is an unfortunate reality for yearly franchises. However, while it doesn't have the lighting effects or jaw-dropping textures of other sports games on the market, 2K does have an unrivaled presentation.
Every current WWE Superstar is crafted down to their most minute feature. Small touches, from all of Bray Wyatt's signature tattoos to Randy Orton's viperous scowl, are crafted with digital expertise. The team at 2K has spoken at length about the process of doing full-body scans for many of the Superstars in the game, and it shows in the detail for these models.
Unfortunately, it shows almost too well, as deceased legends, created Superstars and other characters that never got the full body scan from 2K don't quite reach that level of digital fidelity ... and therein lies the problem with the game's graphics: once you get away from the current roster of wrestlers, the drop-off is bad to the point of distraction.
Macho Man's character model, in particular, almost looks like something you could whip up in the game's Create-a-Character mode. Announcers and fans also leave a lot to be desired when compared to the visual superiority of the likes of Randy Orton and John Cena. When a mode like MyCareer hinges on you creating your own wrestler, the difference is too stark to be ignored.
All you have to do is look at the cover of WWE 2K16 to know what the centerpiece of the game is: "Stone Cold" Steven Austin. In this year's Showcase mode, you journey through the career of the Texas Rattlesnake, from his time in WCW as "Stunning" Steve, all the way through the birth of Austin 3:16 and his eventual retirement.
Each classic moment is fully recreated in the game, with 2K going as far as to splice in real promo dialog and even slight tweaks in costumes. For any WWE history buff, it's a dream mode. Taking control of Austin to do battle with Ricky Steamboat, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels and a murderer's row of other legends is not only a fine piece of nostalgia for older fans, it's like taking a college course in the Attitude Era for younger ones. It's hard not to get a little sentimental when you hear Good Ol' JR blurt out "Stone Cold, Stone Cold, Stone Cold!" when Austin finally wins the WWE Title at WrestleMania 14.
If the Austin Showcase mode is all about the past, 2K's MyCareer mode places its bet on the future. In this mode, you first have to create your own Superstar, then bring him through the NXT ranks and make a name for yourself.
Along the way, you can veer off-course, become a good guy or a bad guy and start rivalries with fellow wrestlers. This year, the mode takes you from NXT through your eventual spot in the WWE Hall of Fame … if you should be so lucky.
The only issue with the mode is that it takes too many pages from the Theodore Long school of booking by continuously placing you in tag team matches. Tag mechanics in wrestling games have never been great, and that becomes more noticeable after a half dozen or so, within the first few hours.
Still, it's a huge step in the right direction compared with previous years as it's obvious the 2K team is building up MyCareer to compete with the NBA 2K franchise's utterly addictive career mode.
WWE 2K16 is not without its flaws. The visuals are a little out of date, there are more than a few glitches to be found, and while Showcase and MyCareer are great concepts, the mission objectives can be a little repetitive.
Still, the presentation, attention to detail and in-ring action are better than they've ever been. If annual franchises are supposed to improve each year, the difference between 2K15 to 2K16 is like comparing Dink to Doink.
- Strong wrestling gameplay
- Incredible attention to detail
- Showcase mode is a feast for longtime fans
- Presentation feels like a TV/PPV broadcast
- Some muddy character models
- Broken submission system
- Repetitive gameplay in MyCareer and Showcase modes