This year I was expecting to be disappointed by WWE 2K18 and I wasn't disappointed...
Last year a weird thing happened to me whilst playing WWE 2K17. I booted the game and went through my usual routine of turning most of the audio off (menu music and commentary) and spent a good hour in character creation. After fine tuning my avatar I started the career mode and stared at an updated, yet somehow familiar, interface... and then turned the game off. The UI had told me everything I needed to know about the new and improved career mode; my brain just disengaged. The part of me that loves wrestling enough to endure the soulless and dull story modes tapped out. That same day I returned the game from whence it came.
Over the next year I still felt the twinge. A want to simulate my own existence in the wrestling world kept me interested in the product somehow. Perhaps if I could find the game on the cheap, second hand or discounted I could justify the expenditure, but it was never cheap enough. With the inevitable announcement of 2K18 I knew I had to give the franchise at least another shot.
There are a lot of good things you can say about the WWE 2K series that hold true in 2K18. Firstly the roster gets bigger and better every year. This is perhaps driven by the WWE themselves stripping the indies of their top talent. This is a game where I can pit Hideo Itami (fka KENTA) against the Undertaker... at Wrestlemania, and that is a very cool thing.
The 2K series, and Smackdown vs. Raw before that, have always offered players a breadth of creation options. From custom wrestlers to rings, belts and even arenas; you have all the tools you need to (re)create anything you want. Would you like to ditch RAW and Smackdown from the weekly schedule and instead craft a weekly ROH show? You can do that, and these days you can staff the show with multiple ROH alumni. Everything from the ring design to the belts can be crafted.
You can tell that the reported graphics engine updates have received the lion's share of development's attention. These updates are most apparent in the wrestler entrances where the right combination of predetermined animations and lighting compliment each other. It's genuinely exciting to watch the renderings of your favorite wrestlers' entrances, which is why they feature so heavily in the game's marketing efforts.
Lastly, and slightly tangential, I absolutely love the transitions between the respective Menu Screen Pose options. They're super smooth and often humorous.
Alas, for each plus point of the game, there are at least 2 things undermining them.
Several, nay, most of the Create-A-Wrestler assets are inaccessible at the beginning of the game, locked inside loot crates that can be earned - or bought with paid DLC. As a mechanic this is pretty cynical, compounded by the fact that most of these assets aren't new. A vast majority of these items were freely available in the CAW library in previous games. I may be going out on a limb here, but I'd imagine 95%+ of the WWE 2K18 market has played at least one of the previous games. Locking up these assets leaves a severely bad taste in my mouth and is very poor form.
To be clear, I am yet to form a solid opinion on the great loot crate debate. I don't have an issue with them fundamentally. But wrapping a bunch of old, previously free assets in an MTX wrapper comes across as plain lazy. Stick Oney Lorcan and Pete Dunne in a crate and you can (shut up and) take my money.
The backstage roaming in MyPlayer (career) mode is a frustrating user experience. Everything from the walk animation to badly rendered quest markers (I'm looking at you, Matches Whiteboard) makes this an environment I want out of badly. Fetch quests are my least favourite thing in RPGs and their insertion into this series derides an already lacking game mode. I'm seriously beginning to wonder if any game designers or functionality testers are working on this product!?
All this before I get to the most important component of the game, the actual wrestling. I feel like the series has been dying for a gameplay overhaul for years. And by overhaul, I mean something built from the ground up, by people who actually like computer games. What I don't mean is the arbitrary tweaking of the pin/submission systems (which are still fairly awful), shrinking the reversals window or giving me the option to carry my opponent around the ring. It's in-ring where the visuals fall apart also, the entrances before them exposed as cleverly crafted facades. Whatever the fidelity of the the assets, the animations and overall in-ring experience undo any benefit they may have been given.
Mo Cap or No Cap?
With every iteration of this game, new wrestling holds and manoeuvres are added to the collection. The annual update also sees certain moves getting retired, which is why you'll see a Burning Hammer 2 option but no Burning Hammer 1. Whatever criteria is used to get rid of older moves certainly doesn't seem to be age or animation quality, as there are some shockers still hanging around from the PS1 days. But let's face it, a move being new isn't a guarantee of quality.
I've long thought that motion capture is the wrong way to go with generating the WWE game's move set. I think there is an opportunity to make wrestler trademarks look even more exciting and dangerous by hand keying the impact spots. By motion capturing, these holds are bound by the same confines of reality that the TV product is. Perhaps this is a matter of taste and there is a section of the WWE 2K18 community that prefers the realism of motion capture. For me however, pulling back the curtain on kayfabe by capturing worked manoeuvres dilutes my enjoyment.
I just don't enjoy playing this game. The fleeting moments of fun, where matches feel competitive, are bogged down in dreary, uninspired design. It's clear this franchise isn't loved. Not by the WWE and not by publisher Take-Two. There is no ambition to break out of the core audience of WWE devotees who play wrestling games. I think that is a missed opportunity, I think wrestling games as a genre have an opportunity to appeal to a wider audience. As a teen I remember playing wrestling game stalwarts like WWF No Mercy, WCW Mayhem and the Fire Pro Wrestling series, with friends who had no interest in pro wrestling. I've long believed that the gaming world is crying out for a breakout product to popularise the genre once again.
In a lot of ways, this game perfectly represents my feelings towards the WWE as a whole. As a long-time fan, the deterioration of the product's quality has pushed me away. I still love wrestling and wrestling games, thankfully I have other options to satisfy my needs.
Earl's Pipe Bomb
This little bonus section is less an addition to Dan's review and more of an outlet for me to vent my frustrations with this game. For a little background, I'm a huge WWE fan: I travelled to Florida from my home in Madrid for WrestleMania 24 and have watched every live event within a reasonable distance. I'm a WWE Network subscriber and have bought every WWE game since the 16-bit era. Until WWE 2K15. This Kotaku article does a good of job explaining that the series has essentially failed to change for over a decade. I thought that skipping three years would mean I would notice at least some small iteration, but I was mostly wrong.
David Bixenspan describes additions to the gameplay as "band-aids" rather than changes. I think of them more as tumours. Year over year, tumours are spreading and growing across the gameplay engine, eating away at an old, crumbling foundation. They don't improve the game, they are merely weighing down the weak knees of its PS1 core.
So, the game hasn't improved. It has got worse. But there is one area I really want to focus on, and that's the main single-player experience of the game, MyPlayer. This mode is one of the most embarrassingly broken experiences I've ever seen in a video game. This mode is a huge insult to the players who have spent their money on the game, to WWE fans, and to the studio themselves. I've never felt so disgusted.
From a design standpoint, the mode has no direction. It doesn't know whether to acknowledge the pre-determined nature of the show, or to be a sport. It doesn't know whether to portray wrestlers as performers putting on a character, or real life heroes and villains. Worst of all, it betrays the trust of the player and does a poor job of it. The mode is presented as one of a career in WWE, where one can make decisions such as being on RAW and Smackdown, a "Fan Favourite" or a "Company Man". In reality, the story in the game is completely linear and your decisions are a lie. No matter what you choose when it appears that the story will take a fork in the road, the outcome will be the same.
Then there's the bugs. The mode is broken. Here are some issues I jotted down during the first two hours of gameplay:
- My manager turns into Stretch Armstrong, his limbs flailing all over the place during my ring entrance.
- Animations during conversations will have a wrestler shake his head in disappointment, but the dialogue will say "Great job!"
- A match between Jimmy Uso and Nakamura was announced as being Jason Jordan vs Zack Ryder, complete with graphic.
- Wrestler names are often mixed up in dialogue, leading to a speech where The Rock wishes me luck in a feud against myself.
- Noam Dar wished me good luck in a match I already had.
- I was told that I would have to complete an objective on the next episode of RAW, but I am on Smackdown.
- I had a "Groundhog Day" where after completing a show, it repeated itself identically, as though the previous week hadn't happened at all.
- There are spelling and grammar issues throughout.
I'm done. That's it. I've finally cleansed my soul of this absolutely shameful game. Shame on those who didn't raise the flag before this game was released. Shame on game reviewers who have essentially run down a list of the new features and thrown "7/10" at the bottom, without warning potential buyers of the rot within. Shame on me for thinking things would be better this year.