The latest iteration of WWE’s flagship arcade brawler/professional wrestling simulator – the renamed and rebooted WWE 2K14 – sees players able to step back in time and relive thirty years of the greatest and most famous moments in Wrestlemania history. It’s not the only aspect of the franchise that seems to have gone back to the future – but this particular act of recidivism by new publishers 2K Sports may be the most welcome feature of all.
I have fond but distant memories of my brother and I taking turns to play WWF Superstars on the Nintendo Game Boy, way back when; blessed with a whole five playable characters to choose from, the game rewarded the persistent player (it took about 30 minutes to complete as I recall) with a pixelly picture of their victorious Superstar. Things are a little different these days, and whilst the content of WWE television may seem apt for a younger audience, the content (downloadable and otherwise) of its games often appeal to long-term older fans, like myself. The history of this particular franchise begins with various incarnations of WWF Smackdown! (2000), followed up by the WWE Smackdown! vs. RAW (2004) series. Most recently, publishers THQ dropped the Smackdown association in favour of a simpler (and perhaps more legitimate-sounding) yearly update, starting with the poorly received WWE ’12. THQ’s last wrestling game WWE ’13 was also one of its last major “hits” in the industry – by late 2012 the company had filed for bankruptcy.
THQ may have been able to take credit for contributing to the development of a successful and anticipated franchise, after finding myself totally addicted to the original Smackdown! games (hard to believe almost thirteen years old) – daft physics, silly storylines, the spirit of all-round lunacy of pro wrestling in its heyday captured quite uniquely – by the time later versions of the Smackdown! vs RAW rolled around, the franchise felt stale to me, with many people feeling a little short-changed by the inclusion/exclusion of popular hidden characters or game aspects. On top of that, by the time WWE ’12 fell into a gamer’s’ laps, the throwaway fun of the earlier games was all but lost, in favour of a more technical simulation, harder to master but also frustrating. Button-mashing and reversal after reversal after reversal left the player feeling utterly bored, and playing the game to completion felt like a chore. In this regard, WWE 2K14 is vastly improved on its predecessors. Gone is the flawed reversal system in favour of an easier, one-touch system that allows the player to hit their opponent in quick succession, lending the matches a slicker, more coherent feel – not quite what you’d see on TV perhaps, but getting there. Two-counts are much closer, requiring the player to really work to kick out of a finishing move. The user interface is simplified and given a minimalistic look – two wrestlers, a ring, a crowd and a twitter hashtag for whatever show you’ve decided to set as the stage for your epic encounter gives the most “realistic” feel to a simulated match that simulates a simulated match that there ever was. Bit meta, come to think of it…
For the casual player (like myself) the level of customisation is simply overwhelming, and whilst I will admit to an attempt at making myself in the game, no, you can’t see it. Just imagine a snowman-shaped humanoid with a tan wearing a singlet with a load of rubbish tattoos. So not totally dissimilar to most professional wrestlers, actually. The “WWE Universe” creation mode returns, totally revamped, again, overwhelming for the casual player. In this mode, it’s possible to build your own storylines, using your own wrestlers, as well as creating your own episodes of WWE weekly TV shows, controlling every aspect, right down to the speech and the camera angles. It’s an impressive and immersive mode, and taking into account the level of visual detail that has gone into perfecting the look of each playable wrestler, would’ve likely saved my mum a LOT of money on wrestling figures back in the early 90s, not to mention a few bumps and bruises for my brother and I as we threw each other around the living room and over the sofa whilst imitating the latest episode of American Ab-ballet. But everyone… everyone did that, right? Right?
Speaking of unfeasible silly side-effects (bad segue alert!), the glitches that plagued previous versions seem to have (largely) disappeared, and movement around the ring and its exterior feels a lot more fluid than before. Matches can flow and feel as fun and over-the-top and even dramatic as professional wrestling still occasionally can do. The centrepiece of the game is no doubt the “30 Years of Wrestlemania” mode, a nostalgia-packed trip down memory lane (with added flashbacks), starting with the glory days of Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior and Macho Man Randy Savage-driven Wrestlemania, all the way to Bret Hart vs Stone Cold at ‘Mania 13 to CM Punk vs. The Undertaker from last years event. A combination of those cool hype videos WWE does so well, original footage and famous moments identically reproduced in-game, “30 Years of Wrestlemania” may not take long to complete but is a great deal of fun along the way. Again, casual players will likely find the most fun here, as well as the ever popular multiplayer modes – it will never not be fun to hit a friend with a steel chair (this is possibly the over-riding appeal of all multiplayer wrestling sims) whilst, for players planning on investing a lot of time into it, WWE 2K14 would appear to offer not only the largest roster ever, but also the most customisation options and the most appealing story mode for those perhaps less familiar with the current product. The stripped down feel of the game, along with its good-quality nostalgia-driven story mode, appear to take the franchise back to its originally intended purpose: arcade brawling for those who want it, custom storylines and individually tailored gameplay for those who need it.
Without doubt, WWE 2K14 is one of the better WWE games out there, (yes, better than No Mercy N64…) perhaps not the best there ever was, but hopefully not the best there ever will be, either. (and hopefully that terrible pun is not the bottom line of this review… ooohhh, yeahhh!)
(A side note – all five of the playable characters in WWF Superstars (Game Boy) are here as unlockable extras. We’ve sure come a long way… brother.)