Twenty-five years ago my best friend and I set up a wrestling ring in my house — four barstools for the turnbuckles, some old mattresses for the canvas. The actual wrestling we did was hesitant, unplanned and uncompelling. But, man, the stuff we did out of the ring makes me smile to this day.
My facemask was the nylon cover to a bicycle helmet. Richard's walk-in music was "The Final Countdown". Michael, our weird classmate, ended his interviews by spitting a mist of Mountain Dew like the Great Kabuki (leaving a stain on my basement's drop ceiling). All three of us set up a younger kid down the street for a screwjob. We had tag team alliances and betrayals.
After playing WWE 2K14 on the PlayStation 3 I have to wonder what that phase of my adolescence would have been like with that console and the game. It, like the good ol' Basement Wrestling Federation, scratches just about every itch I have to be a pro rassler — which is not so much the need to execute a hurricanrana or a spine buster, but to manipulate and participate in everything leading up to that moment.
Yuke's WWE series — previously published by THQ, now by 2K Sports — has reliably offered the stage management that distinguishes wrestling as "sports entertainment" and not just another combat sport. Unfortunately, the action it delivers inside the ropes is often robbed of impact, much in the same way it is if you knew ahead of time who was going to win.
This year's edition doesn't do much change that formula, even with a thoroughly entertaining "30 Years of Wrestlemania" that comes straight from the 2K Sports playbook, even if it's assumed that mode was planned back when the title was owned by THQ. 30 Years of Wrestlemania (and a mode in which you relive or rewrite the Undertaker's Wrestlemania winning streak) hits all the notes of modes like NBA's Greatest and The Jordan Challenge in 2K's NBA series — throw scads of superstars and moments, both great and small, at the player and wrap it all in a period-perfect broadcast presentation, right down to the stone-age TV graphics. It even serves, somewhat, as a decent tutorial for series newcomers.
Macho Man Randy Savage's unforgettable, They Live-esque throwdown with Ricky The Dragon Steamboat at Wrestlemania III is the fourth event in the mode and it hits every note perfectly. But it also points out where WWE 2K14 succeeds mostly as something other than a fighting game or a sports title, and more of a story simulator. Steamboat beat Savage in that bout for the Intercontinental Championship and you are expected to do so while fulfilling certain in-match goals (some of which are kept hidden until you trigger a cutscene, placing a premium on artificially prolonging the match instead of winning it.) 30 Years of Wrestlemania is a slick, highly enjoyable re-creation of WWE history, but its most visceral experiences will come from a quicktime event or a cutscene, rather than anything you pull off in the moment on your own.
Criticising the combat system of something that is supposed to mimic an event with a predetermined outcome makes my head hurt. On one hand, if you're staging everything surrounding this performance, even a novice needs to feel like he or she can make the intended superstar win. On the other, the highly contextual nature of WWE 2K14's move set will leave you repeating a lot of attacks — some of which would seem to have an enormous energy cost — rather than choreographing the fight, from small strikes and grapples, through a reversal and a suplex on to the big stuff. Signature moves and finishers, of course, must be earned (unless you bestow them to a wrestler in a one-off match, as is your prerogative) but suplexes, DDTs and body slams you won't see twice in a real match are performed repeatedly unless you know where to position yourself.
WWE 2K14's most notable gameplay adjustments address things that bothered people in previous editions. Running attacks have a longer animation and thus are less easy to spam effectively. The window for reversals is shortened noticeably, cutting down on the often comical series of reversals and re-reversals you'd see among two experts fighting online. There's one new move — a launch-and-catch finisher you can pull off if your superstar has a finishing move stored up and lands the proper button sequence after whipping your opponent into the ropes.
But there still is too much conspicuous warping for certain tricks that need a lot of space; kicks and punches — and transitions into kicks and punches — are thrown with eye-twitching speed (and are even harder to counter). And any time there are more than two combatants involved you'll see the limitations of the fighting system. AI fighters still hang around waiting for the user to finish his attack (or finish being attacked) rather than battling each other. I saw most of my tag-team moves on a single foe when I interfered in a one-on-one match, meaning I initiated them by attacking a common opponent rather than having an AI teammate truly help me out.
These sorts of things will begin to matter as you move through WWE Universe, which returns but offers the same barebones support for scripting up to 10 years' worth of rivalries, matches and pay-per-view events. In one bout I took a created Diva in to interfere with a title match, intending to be caught and thrown out, to advance the storyline I'd put in place. Natalya put AJ Lee in a submission hold, scotching that plan. (the only option then was to wake up the ref to count out AJ or attack Natalya.)
Still, the Creation Suite remains the game's strength, as it should. Other sports titles use constructions like fake Twitter feeds and post-game news conferences to stoke an emergent narrative; the WWE series lets you make a run-of-the-mill match into a dastardly screwjob with the game's scene editor. The match itself falls a little flat when you know what's going to happen, of course. But WWE Universe can still offer some spontaneity after a few weeks' worth of events.
Wrestling as Darren Young against Drew McIntyre, I was flattened pre-match by a folding chair sneak attack from Heath Slater, then I rallied to make McIntyre pay. Then, as McIntyre in a four-man free for all with Slater and two others (I guess they pissed off management?) I deliberately took the pin to my real-life tag-team partner to screw the other two faces out of a win. So he's set up as an uber-heel S.O.B. in my universe, because these results will echo into the continuity you create, though inevitably things get hard to track and you'll end up re-setting after a season, if not sooner.
In some regards it's a miracle this game even was published. THQ a year ago was entering bankruptcy proceedings and as of January was completely liquidated. The WWE, however, keeps a closer watch over its licensed games than some other sports leagues. While all the other licensed games THQ made were auctioned off at the courthouse door, the WWE swooped in to strike a deal with an opportunistic 2K Sports, which likewise saw a good chance to make money on a ready-made product.
Still, 30 Years of Wrestlemania notwithstanding, this is the most un-2K of any sports title it's published. It cries out not just for serious attention to longstanding deficiencies in the combat system, but also some kind of templatized career mode, like Road to Wrestlemania, which last appeared in WWE '12 two years ago. Living the life of a WWE superstar could be made a lot easier on fans, and it's a fantasy 2K Sports has served so well through its My Player modes in other series. Yuke's creation toolkit speaks of a feature set provided by a developer with very little focus or guidance from above — we stashed the asset here, now go find it and figure out how to use it.
My hope is 2K Sports will provide more focus in future editions. A caretaker role is fine for this year, but it will need a visible investment from above in 2014.