It's still real to me. As real as it was 12 years ago, when WWE SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain came out. That was the last time I was truly, unashamedly happy with a wrestling game based on old man Vince McMahon's traveling circus of grappling men and women of superhero proportions and soap opera storylines.
With WWE 2K16, even though its makers have gone down the route of making every 30-something in the world happy by centering the game on Stone Cold Steve Austin, another year passes without that same joy returning. And it hurts, it really does. Because for all of its scripted falls and backstage histrionics, this wrestling world is real to me, and it deserves a video game that reflects how WWE has evolved in the years since Here Comes the Pain.
Last year's game was, if we're honest, 2K's first real stab at the WWE license. It had released 2K14, but that was for all intents and purposes a THQ (RIP) product. Alas, 2K15 was one of the worst pieces of shit I've ever played, and I've been playing games for a long time. Which makes this year's entry the grand hope, the shot at redemption and reinvention, from the studio that brought us the ludicrously good NBA 2K series.
This third collaboration between Japanese studio Yuke's and Californian developers Visual Concepts is essentially being sold as "year one" for 2K's WWE series. But with that sales pitch comes expectations built upon years of disappointments, the sort of anticipation that no entirely new game will ever be released into. And there's good news: WWE 2K16 is a lot better than last year's game. Unfortunately, it doesn't do enough to make me, a wrestling fan through and through, completely happy (reading on, that may be an understatement), and nor can I honestly recommend it to other followers of all things wrasslin', at least not at full price. Find this in a half-decent sale? Well, it's your money.
The actual in-the-ring (and beyond) action is much improved on what's come before—everything is smoother than it's ever been, and while there's still some total bullshit on show, like the opening chain wrestling exchange. I mean, I get it, and it's sort of how it happens in real life; but fuck me if it isn't tedious to begin every bout with a game of rock-paper-scissors and some god-awful stick twiddling. Who the fuck would want to actually do that? An idiot, that's who. Get beyond that, though, and generally speaking you can see where things have been fixed and tweaked over last 2014's cruddy effort.
There are times when you can have a lot of fun with 2K16. It plays a lot more like wrestling is on TV, with unavoidable distractions, cheating heels, hot tags, and other elements we've either not seen or seen very little of in a game, in the past. And that's all very welcome.
But it's not long before issues you'd have thought—you'd have rightly hoped—would have been fixed by now pop up, and a feeling of resignation washes over you, and all of a sudden all you can do to ease the situation is open another beer. "Hey, at least I'm playing it like Stone Cold would want me to," your brain thinks, but you put an end to that thought because for fuck's sake there's an air of shoddiness about 2K16 that becomes hard to ignore.
Charlotte is the WWE's women's ("Divas") champion at the time of writing. So obviously you can expect to be able to play as her in 2K16. Obviously. Only, wait. No, you can't. Can you imagine a WWE game not having the reigning men's champion in it? Of course not, because that would be fucking stupid. So there's no Charlotte here, but do you know who is? The Terminator. Twice.
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I'm not even kidding. 2K has devoted resources to creating Terminator characters based on the first and second movies, available as DLC, rather than bothering to make one of the WWE's major champions. Because of course. I don't want to dwell too much on Arnie's turn in the game, as he looks like a shitty create-a-wrestler any asshole could make (and it's not restricted to him), and... Just, for fuck's sake, they haven't even bothered, nor are they bothering, with the actual women's champion. Nonsense.
This attitude bleeds in elsewhere, too. On the surface, everything looks fine—brilliant, at times, especially when the likes of Finn Balor and the Vaudevillains are making their entrances. But then you see more glitches, standard moves that entirely fuck up animations, and hilarious failings in 2K16's front-of-the-cover mode, and you realize that maybe not everything under the hood has been worked on as hard as those superficial, draw-in-the-unthinking-masses elements.
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But then, who cares that ground grapples are more or less broken, because 2K16 has Savio Vega in it. What does it matter that the AI balancing is off, resulting in reversals about 75 percent of the time, because you can upload your face to the game. Never mind that the create-a-wrestler system no longer allows "live" previews of hair, clothes, and other elements you're adding to your creation, instead requiring you to select them and sit through a ton of loading before you can see what they look like on your crafted wrestle-person—it has lots of videos of Stone Cold Steve Austin on the disc to make you forget about actually playing it.
I don't hate WWE 2K16 anywhere near as much as I did 2K15. But it's not worth any more of my time beyond what I've already spent to produce these words; it's not worth your time, unless it's cheap and you're desperate, as you're not even being paid to play it (probably); and it's absolutely not the best thing 2K could have put out there. Let's see how it ends up next year, because right now I'm left with only Here Comes the Pain (and No Mercy for that matter) as evidence that wrestling can translate to video games in a way that doesn't have fans of either wondering what the fuck went wrong.
WWE 2K16 is out now for PlayStation 3 and 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One.
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