‘WWE 2K16’ Slams its Predecessor, But Is This Wrestling Game Perfection?
With last year's game failing to satisfy wrestling fans, '2K16' has to pull out every signature move in the book to make amends.
Right. If you've not watched SummerSlam 2015 yet and don't want to know (some of) the results, click away now as this is your one and only Spoiler Warning.
Two extremely large men aren't punching each other within a ring that's already seen nine previous bouts of physically intimidating dudes and, ahem, "divas" perform for a sold-out crowd, and said audience is lighting up in electric reverence for them. One man is 50-year-old Mark Calaway, a six-feet-and-ten mountain of taut muscle and somewhat sagging skin from Texas who's better known to viewers here and (the millions) at home, watching on pay-per-view TV, as The Undertaker. The other is the only man alive whose existence lends a sense of realism to the exaggerated frames of Marcus Fenix and his Gears of War squad mates: Brock Lesnar (that's his real name) looks like a video game character, a walking, talking, grunting, roaring avatar comprised of great boulders of flesh, tiny little sparkling eyes and terrifically crap tattoos. His neck is wider than my torso. I suspect he may actually eat the impoverished children of Brooklyn's less-affluent neighbourhoods. He used to fight in the UFC. I am officially afraid of him.
These guys do not like each other – or, at least, that's the story that's playing out, staged, choreographed to inch-precise perfection. Professional wrestling is incredibly weird, and being in the very centre of the whirlwind, near enough ringside at WWE's SummerSlam 2015 event at New York's Barclays Centre, is absolutely fucking amazing. There's no live event atmosphere comparable to this. It's not like a sporting contest, nor a gig or a theatrical show. Yet there are elements of those productions at play, that feed into the charged air, that stir expectations and gossip and hopes – even though everyone here knows perfectly well that results in WWE contests are decided, worked through and painstakingly stage-managed long before the first bell rings.
Fans chant for their favourite wrestlers, but unlike the crowd at a football match, they're not at the throats of rival supporters, as it's their love of this entertainment above anything else, above personal preferences for sweaty people in tight pants, that draws them, like foam-hand-waving-and-beer-swilling moths to an LCD-screens-everywhere flame, in their many thousands. There's a friendly edginess to being amongst these men and women as they exchange chants about whether or not John Cena is any good (he is, but he loses nonetheless) and occasionally erupt as one in reaction to some decidedly spectacular passages of play with an arena-filling chorus of "this is awesome".
Yes, it is.
Yet I'm not here purely for SummerSlam. I feel privileged indeed to have been up close to it, to feel the heat from The Undertaker's introductory flames and smell the sweat soaking Seth Rollins' tight white trousers as he thrusts both the World Heavyweight and United States championship belts aloft having dispatched the crowd-splitting Cena, leaving the latter prone on the canvas (it's okay, he's fine – which he certainly wasn't when Rollins legitimately, accidentally, broke his nose during a match in July). But I'm really amongst these heroes and villains, these superhuman entertainers whose dynamic, breath-taking moves truly shatter the but-it's-all-fake barrier (trust me: seen "for real", some of this action, however practised it is, is mind-blowing), for the game of the game: the imminent WWE 2K16.
The Yuke's-developed and 2K-published wrestling sim series' newest iteration needs to enact some damage repair work after the previous entry, WWE 2K15, limped out of the ring after some savage reviews. Writing for Eurogamer, Ian Dransfield – who's been known to contribute here, too – called the game "a kick in the teeth," concluding: "The series hasn't been good for a long time now, but this year is the first it's been actively bad." At Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Adam Smith was barely any kinder: "It's more like playing with a bunch of action figures than enjoying a simulated digital world."
But aren't these guys, The Undertaker and Lesnar and Rollins and Cena, through to rising female wrestlers like Paige and Sasha Banks and NXT break-out stars like Kevin Owens and Finn Bálor, just that: action figures being manipulated, toyed with, by the powers that be at WWE? You can buy them all in plastic form at any Toys R Us and be Vince McMahon for an afternoon in your own home, deciding who wins and who sweats out two-dozen square meals for no reason other than to be defeated. Wrestling video games are that hands-on role play turned glossier, given the high-production-value presentation you see on TV, likenesses not quite so He-Man-ish as the wildly popular toys. When you play WWE 2K16, you're pulling strings, setting up falls, developing your own rivalries and seeing storylines through to explosive conclusions. At least, you will be if you're any good at it.
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I'm not very good at WWE 2K16. I actually score a couple of victories over another journalist at a preview/launch event held a few nights ahead of SummerSlam, but my wins feel hollow, meaningless: neither of us really know what we're doing, and if he'd gone for a pin before I did, he'd have won as even after several more matches I've still not worked out how to successfully kick out of that three-and-you're-out situation. It involves a quick-time-event-like mini-game of overlapping colours, red and blue, and the need to whack a particular button at just the right time. Possibly. Honestly, the flow of any WWE 2K16 match moves so fast that the on-screen instructions disappear in a blur, leaving idiots like me mindlessly tapping instructions for my chosen superstar to follow. I feel bad for Bálor, seeing him pinned so easily when I'm up against the PS4-controlled Cesaro. Sorry Finn. I'll get better, maybe.
What's important to understand here is that the WWE 2K series is not your average fighting game where two or more characters smash each other around until health bars drop to zero and combatants collapse. This isn't the same breed of wrestling game I knackered a succession of Competition Pro joysticks enjoying on the Amiga in the early 1990s. WWE 2K16 is complex, detailed, thorough – and somewhat intimidating if you're unfamiliar with how these bouts are "supposed" to play out, with ebb and flow that will see every competitor have their moment (or more) to dominate. Eventually someone will weaken enough to be pinned, but that might not be the end of it. A kick-out, a shift in the match, and suddenly the down-and-out is on top. It's a strange game (type) where you can take a kicking for minutes at a time and end up winning, or out-perform your opponent from the start only to be undone by a well-timed and wholly energy-sapping signature move.
The very first match I participate in sees the two wrestlers grapple in a collar and elbow hold, and up pops an information window instructing me what to do. It's essentially rock, paper, scissors, using three of the PS4 pad's face buttons, and I lose, and I'm immediately on the back foot. Reading your opponent is vital here, too – a quick press of R2 to interrupt a move turns the tide and puts your character on the offensive. Unfortunately, this is a very hit-and-miss mechanic to begin with, as prompts ultimately come too late to instigate a reversal; it's up to the player to learn each opponent's tells and jab that shoulder button before the console realises what's coming.
WWE 2K16 isn't a game that will click easily with beginners, then – and multiplayer fun will be compromised unless everyone knows (roughly) what they're supposed to be doing. Sometimes spectacular manoeuvres are possible using the bare minimum of inputs, such as the moments when a signature move is charged and executable by simply pressing the triangle button, or Y on an Xbox pad. I see this when playing as Titus O'Neil, grabbing my opponent and slamming him to the deck in some kind of a powerbomb. But often it can dizzy with its range of possibilities, its buffet of bombastically aggressive offensive actions. I felt, several times, that I really had no idea how I pulled off any particular move, save for the basic kicks and punches which, appropriately, are as weightless as they are in real life, there for show more than effect.
"It seems so real now that it blows my mind," a man who chooses to call himself Dolph Ziggler tells me at the preview event, referring to how WWE 2K16 looks and plays. He's one of several WWE stars charged with hyping up both the game and themselves, ahead of SummerSlam. At the Barclays Centre, Ziggler – real name Nick Nemeth – draws his bout with the Bulgarian Rusev in a double count-out, and he's as animated outside of competition as he is in (and around) the ring, gesticulating wildly as he recalls his own past playing wrestling games. "Before you could create your own wrestler I'd usually pick 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin or Billy Gunn, but once you got to the point where you could create a wrestler – which was basically only combining different parts of existing wrestlers – I'd basically try to make me, any chance I got." And being in the game now, properly, is to Nemeth "the coolest thing in the world".
It must be weird to see yourself – albeit a very stylised, hyper-real version of yourself – in a game, on toy store shelves, in the hands of children. Nemeth, Ziggler, thinks it's cool, and who am I to doubt him? But the Ohio-born entertainer is as All American as they come – the night before I speak to him he's been in a local dive bar "singing Mötley Crüe at the top of my lungs", and his smile could stall the heartbeat of the most heterosexual man. He could be the result of a character creation tool: winning looks, astounding athleticism, cheeky charm. So I go looking for a more, let's say, grounded take on WWE 2K16 and all things "wrassling", and wind up in conversation with Stuart Bennett, once of Preston, England and now a Florida-residing WWE professional competing as King Barrett.
"This is the sixth game I've been in now," he tells me. "The first time was really weird, but it's got progressively less so – but you'll never quite get used to it. But I think they've got it perfect this year, and this is the best they've ever done, with the graphics. They've even picked up all my wrinkles, unfortunately."
To be fair, Barrett does have his share of facial crevices, albeit mostly around the forehead region. I can relate – we're both 35 and the passage of time does things to any man's looks. Unfortunately, that's probably where the similarities between us end – he's over two metres tall and stood beside him I feel, at a whisker over six feet, like Tyrion Lannister shooting the shit with The Mountain. He has remarkable nipples, too. Seriously, should you ever see him in the flesh, shirted or not, just look at them. Where yours point, his don't. It's incredibly distracting.
"I think we're always looking creatively at things like video games, and Hollywood, and MMA, for different ideas that we can bring into WWE," Barrett says as I ask him whether wrestlers ever look to video games, particularly the traditional fighters with their special moves, for inspiration. "If there's something that we think we can use, and it looks good and is impactful, then we'll definitely use it, and there have been examples of that in the past. Anything we can bring something different into WWE that shocks the fans, or surprises them, that's always a good thing." He mentions fellow British wrestler Neville – real name Benjamin Satterly, a native of Newcastle upon Tyne – whose SummerSlam performance is simply unreal, his spring-heeled energy and gravity-defying leaps looking like Street Fighter-style cartoon athleticism made flesh-and-blood reality.
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But WWE 2K16 isn't Street Fighter. It's not Mortal Kombat, or Killer Instinct. It's a wrestling simulation, a strange hybrid of a game where carefully planned tactics are paramount and quick reactions essential; and yet, its outcomes are not as predetermined as the entertainment, the fiction, it's based on. It is both as real as wrestling video gaming gets, and a lie, a malleable manifestation of a brand that is only ever headed in one direction, be that as good as known to fans or presented as a series of surprise results. But is it better than 2K15? I think so. It has to be, for all involved.
Pre-release, much of this game's coverage has been focused on its impressive roster of playable superstars – it'll be the most comprehensive at launch yet, with more female wrestlers than ever before to choose from (for example, the SummerSlam-victorious Paige, another Brit in WWE, will be playable from purchase, whereas she was DLC only on 2K15), beside contemporary competitors and all-time legends like The Ultimate Warrior and Andre the Giant. Pre-order it and you can play as The Terminator, too. Because video games. In total some 120 wrestlers will be selectable, including cover star "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, who takes to the mic at the preview event to big up the game and, fairly sincerely I feel, recall his surprise at being asked to appear as its face.
It has the names, then. But strip them from the game and what's left? Does the gameplay stand up without the celebrities surrounding it? Again, I think so. It's deep and detailed, not the easiest game to get along with instantly; but I get the impression, after a good clutch of matches, that WWE 2K16 is going to royally reward those who stick with it, who stay committed to exploring its countless fans-servicing features, including an expanded career mode, the return of ladders (!) and the option to create your own arenas as well as wrestlers.
I can't guarantee I'll be one of those people, but that's as much to do with my relationship with wrestling as the game itself. I admire the efforts these professionals put into keeping an ever-growing audience engaged, but as a man in his mid-30s I think the boat that'd have taken me to a lasting appreciation of their weekly exertions has long since sailed. That doesn't make SummerSlam any the less spectacular – I mean, bloody hell. Hands went to mouth several times, I laughed merrily and my fingertips tingled with the infectious buzz of the occasion. Some of what I saw genuinely made me wince, and it isn't even real. At least, that's what I tell myself – but looking at so many around me, willingly losing their shit entirely, for them, this is as real as it gets.
The Undertaker wins. Except, he doesn't. The referee missed his tap-out and let the match continue, after which Lesnar passed out to the Texan's signature Hell's Gate hold. Except he didn't, obviously. He pretended to. Or did he? That blood on his face, that's real, right? That menace in his eyes, surely that can't be faked. Oh hell, don't look into the camera like that, at me, through me. Those tats, man, they're not crap, not at all. Oh shit oh shit oh shit.
WWE 2K16 is released on October 27th in the US, with the EU release following on the 30th. Travel and accommodation for this preview trip was arranged and covered by 2K, likewise attendance of SummerSlam and a few other costs. Thanks in particular, and good luck, to Adam.
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