For years the WWE 2K series has been barrelling down an increasingly divergent path to the very company it represents.
World Wrestling Entertainment has spent much of the last decade reshaping itself into a Disney-esque family entertainment empire, engineered to help anyone jump on board and understand the product with ease.
The games, meanwhile, pushed further with each annual release into becoming complex fight simulators that made little attempt to appeal to anybody outside their existing audience.
The disconnect has long been weirdly jarring.
Even before WWE 2K20 landed upon fans about as horrifically as Mick Foley off the Hell in a Cell, the series had been widely regarded as having grown stagnant under the mandated annual release cycle.
After a change in development studio and an almost two and a half year break, does WWE 2K22 truly ‘hit different’? Yes!
Ruthless Aggression meets the PG era
WWE 2K22 presents players with an excellently paced tutorial system right up front. The basics of how to brutalise, counter, and pin your opponent are taught step-by-step. More advanced techniques are taught contextually as they arise during your first few hours of play.
This offers a simple but clever system that will hopefully help new players from being too overwhelmed out of the gate. The fact that it’s all presented in character by “wrestler’s wrestler” Drew Gulak is a delightful touch for fans.
On an absolute base level, 2K22 is an enormous step up from its predecessors in terms of simply being something a newcomer to the series could pick up and play. This fundamental shift in design philosophy goes a big way to bringing the series more in line with the all-audiences branding of modern WWE. The fact that these changes don’t push so far as to alienate existing 2K fans or do any damage to the skill ceiling is quite an achievement.
The fundamentals of WWE 2K’s brawling system have been re-worked so as to be much more rhythmically familiar to anyone who has played a more traditional fighting game. There’s a notable degree of improved fluidity in how light and heavy strikes can combo and flow into a grapple, and pulling off a sequence of attacks such as this no longer makes you feel like you're pushing your character through a river of sludge.
Options for countering enemy offense have been improved with the ability to block, dodge-roll, and even break your opponents combos through a well-timed, or just lucky, matching strike of your own now existing as effective options.
Similarly, breaking out of a pin or submission hold no longer requires mastery of needlessly punishing minigames either and are now just based on good old fashioned button mashing.
WWE Superstars on the whole maneuver and collide with one another in a much more natural fashion. Mercifully, they no longer act like marionette robots thanks to significant improvements in response timing and animation.
War Paint On
The game's visuals have thankfully received a significant upgrade. None of the talent have that creepy half-melted Action Man feel anymore, though everyone's hair does still look like it’s made of crepe paper.
Some of the specific subtleties of Superstar’s body language have been impressively translated. I popped massively when I saw the digital Rhea Ripley pretty perfectly do the smug little grin and head wiggle thing she does in real life before she climbs into the ring.
MyGM, the hugely anticipated return of a ‘General Manager’ mode, largely underwhelms. It’s… fine? MyGM has successfully pulled me into a few spells of ‘just one more turn’, but even during those periods I couldn’t help but feel like the whole thing lacked some of the depth and detail I wanted.
If MyGM isn’t your particular bit of the fantasy booking bubbly then Universe mode returns much the same as every year for all your Vince McMahon simulator desires.
As well as the traditional sandbox mode, Universe now features the option to play through your own hand-crafted WWE programming as a Superstar of your choice, which is nice for those looking for something of a meta wrestler roleplaying experience.
The eye-watering number of recently fired talent in WWE 2K22’s roster makes fantasy booking into a pretty depressing affair however. Watching the games AI put on a banger of an all-Australian women's tag match between The IIconics and the team of Toni Storm and Rhea Ripley frankly just made me sad for how three quarters of them were left to rot in catering for weeks before being released.
This unfortunately highlights an issue that WWE games have had since the beginning – they always feel dated upon release. AAA games take a long time to make and need to lock down their content as early in the process as possible. WWE, meanwhile, has been infamous for years for changing their creative decisions on such a whim they could rewrite an entire show while live crowds are pouring into the arena. The sheer volume of talent firings throughout the pandemic has just made this rift more miserably stark than ever before.
The challenge towers of past games have now been rolled under the new ‘MyFACTION’ mode, an always online collectable card game that features four currency systems and a pile of DLC card packs for players to throw their real-world dollars at.
It’s hard to not just view the whole thing cynically as being a publisher-mandated money printing feature, especially as it feels so massively out of sync with the rest of the game. Its inclusion is frankly a bummer, but at least it keeps the obligatory microtransactions largely sectioned off away from the core game.
Thankfully this year’s Showcase and the new ‘MyRISE’ story modes are truly excellent.
The way Showcase spins the tale of Rey Mysterio’s 25+ year WCW - WWE career through interweaving narration, footage from the WWE archives and player recreation of match spots has been done before in WWE games, but never this powerfully.
The whole saga begins with his legendary matches with the late Eddie Guerrero and ends with his son Dominick beginning to bloom on today’s WWE roster. It delivers a wonderful, emotional ride that blends the fantasy of wrestling with the truth of the people involved in a pitch perfect representation of what modern WWE tries so hard to be.
The story mode has been completely re-designed from the ground up and now features two totally different and entirely separate adventures through the women’s and men’s divisions respectively.
Character development has been streamlined on the skills and statistics fronts, but branching narrative pathways have been deepened which makes your wrestler's growth feel much more satisfyingly organic and personal.
The vocal performances of the WWE talent featured throughout is much improved too and tends to have much less of a ‘we could only get X wrestler on the phone for 20 minutes to record dozens of lines’ feel.
Look, deep down it’s still a WWE 2K game and anyone clamoring for a total top-to-bottom redesign may be disappointed. 2K22 hasn’t aimed to reinvent the series, but it has done an impressive job at making me realize that the bones weren’t broken anyway.
The game leaps impressively forward in enough areas that tired fans and curious newcomers alike should absolutely give it a look. It’s the first WWE 2K game in a long time that I can honestly and easily say is ‘fun’, and the significant improvements in removing barriers to entry make it a much easier sell to the casual wrestling fan gamers in my life.
It really does feel like the team at Visual Concepts used the extra time afforded them to take a thorough look at both the legacy of the series as well as its path ahead.
It’s the first WWE video game in many years that doesn’t feel like it exists solely as merchandising obligation rushed out the door by people who either don’t ‘get’ WWE or who simply weren’t granted the time to make something that feels tonally in sync with it.
Now that I’ve seen how good a WWE game can be when given a sensible amount of time to develop, it makes me sincerely hope 2K Games and WWE will shift the series permanently to a biennial schedule.
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