While the popularity of professional wrestling has largely fluctuated over the last 10-15 years, there are names of certain performers that are still burned into the minds of the public at-large: Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, Andre the Giant, and the Ultimate Warrior are just a few examples. More recently, The Rock has carved his place as a legend within the industry.
Perhaps there’s no greater story of stratospheric pro wrestling popularity than Stone Cold Steve Austin’s. Maybe that’s why the “Texas Rattlesnake” is on the cover of the WWE’s latest video game effort, even when his last match took place over 12 years ago. Trust me, I know! I was there!
WWE 2K16 is the latest pro wrestling simulator game from developers Yuke’s and Visual Concepts, and published by 2K Sports. Last year’s game was the first new-gen effort on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and though it innovated some promising elements to the presentation and gameplay, it was a largely disappointing outing that removed a lot of well-liked features from prior years’ games, while putting too much emphasis on elements of WWE history that are more footnotes than big events.
This year, the game aims to take fans back to the height of the WWE’s “Attitude Era” of the late '90’s and early 2000’s, when Austin, The Rock, Mankind, the Undertaker, and the evil Mr. McMahon ruled the airwaves on Monday and Thursday nights. Beyond that, the game has some of last year’s technical shortcomings to overcome. So, does it succeed?
Let’s take a look.
Presentation and Design
One of the things that made last year’s game clearly a new-gen affair was the emphasis it put on the visual look of the game. By bringing in studio Visual Concepts – those responsible for the eerie realism of the 2K NBA Series – the visual and audio fidelity of real arena experiences at WWE live events was replicated very effectively. With the visual element being the best part of last year’s game, it’s little-to-no surprise that this year’s effort is just as impressive. Unlike last year, there’s a greater emphasis on authenticity.
Compared with previous WWE games that have depicted the bygone eras of pro wrestling, WWE 2K16 seems to have the most focus on replicating even the most minute details in differences between character attire and arena sets between events. When playing the 2K Showcase mode focusing on the career of Stone Cold, it’s common to unlock a wealth of period arenas along with even the most minimal costume differences that Austin and his various opponents had based on the specific event. If you’re a wrestling fan with an eye for detail, then you’ll no doubt appreciate the effort that went into recreating the Attitude Era here.
The detail extends to the commentary for matches which, unlike the last couple of years, has received a noticeable and positive overhaul. While last year’s game featured sound clips that were almost 10 years old by that point, the vast majority of commentary in WWE 2K16 seems to be all-new. Michael Cole and JBL are the major voices for the current era, while good ol’ Jim Ross returns with Jerry “The King” Lawler for the historical sequences.
The same level of detail has also been applied to the modern roster, as well. Everyone is effectively represented, from current WWE World Heavyweight Champion Seth Rollins, to the Suplex Machine Brock Lesnar and Paige the dominant Diva. Entrances and variations in music are also taken into account, with this game featuring an impressive variety of options with both pre-existing characters, as well as options for a created wrestler. In short, WWE 2K16 has improved noticeably on the already strong visuals of last year’s effort.
What about the elements that had problems, though? Thankfully, this year’s game is an improvement on last year’s in more ways than one.
Single Player Mode
Last year’s “2K Showcase” mode makes a return, with the stock story focusing on the now-legendary career of Stone Cold Steve Austin. Starting with Austin’s first major appearances as Stone Cold, the mode takes you from his first career-making rivalry with Bret “The Hitman” Hart, going on to chronicle his attainment of the WWF Championship, as well as his long battle with Vince McMahon, the chairman and CEO of the then-World Wrestling Federation. It also picks up after Austin’s return from neck surgery, extending from his run as a heel throughout 2001 up to and including his final match with The Rock at WrestleMania XIX in Seattle in 2003.
From a narrative and gameplay perspective, this mode is definitely the successor to the story sections of previous games. Playing each match gives you a certain set of eligibility requirements you have to complete in order to make it to the next one, and between a few matches you can see specially created video vignettes of actual footage of Austin’s rivalries from when they originally took place. The major difference between this year’s single player mode and last year’s is that this year’s has far more personality. By centering on Austin, the mode can prove to be either a walk down memory lane for a longtime fan, or an interesting introduction into what made the Attitude Era so compelling if you’re more familiar with the name “Roman Reigns” than you are with Dude Love.
The single player “MyCareer” mode also returns with a notable expansion compared with last year, now giving you the chance to create a more expansive WWE career, even giving you a shot at making it into the coveted WWE Hall of Fame. All in all, the single player offerings this year feel both more robust and more prestigious, recreating a very solid period in WWE history, while also allowing you to carve your own path to legendary status with the company’s major stars of today.
One of the major criticisms people had about last year’s game was its new mechanical elements that severely hampered the pacing of matches you would play. It introduced a new “chain grappling” system. Much like a real WWE match, most starting moves in a match will begin with a basic collar-and-elbow tie-up. Pressing one of the face buttons on your controller moves the tie-up into a move like a side headlock, and then a new mini-game starts: you have to move your right thumbstick in the direction of the “hot spot.” Once you find it, hold it there until the circular indicator fills up with red. If the aggressor fills the hot spot first, then they get to keep things going in their favor. If the receiver fills up the indicator first, they can then turn the tables on their aggressor and take the fight more directly to them.
This element returns in WWE 2K16, adding a bit more fluidity and a few more noticeable perks to succeeding. The biggest new addition to the gameplay elements, though, are the additions and refinements made to the reversal system. In wrestling games, the act of reversing a move is important, and can help turn the tide against an opponent by either dodging, or redirecting the force of one of your opponent’s moves back at them. In WWE 2K16, reversals are actually turned into a limited resource, forcing you to think a little bit more strategically about when exactly you use them, and how often you employ them. They regenerate over time, but it adds another layer of depth to the gameplay that wasn’t present before, and makes the game more competitive against human players in particular. Overall, it’s a welcome addition to the existing dynamic.
The momentum, health, and stamina meters added last year also return, but stamina doesn’t seem to run out nearly as fast as it did last year. All of this combines into perhaps the most strategically-oriented game in the series when directly compared with the last-gen counterparts, which shows that the series is making solid progress with this successive release. While locomotion has some minor issues and some mini-games are hard to get the hang of at first, many of these problems melt away by spending a little more time getting used to new mechanics, making for a pretty adaptive – yet still nicely challenging – experience.
Another problem with last year’s game was the relatively low amount of match types that you could play in. While more variety has returned in WWE 2K16, it still has a way to go before it reaches the options we saw in WWE 2K14 and years prior. One area that WWE 2K16 far and away outdoes all of its predecessors, though, is in the size of the roster. There are over 120 wrestlers to choose from, ranging from stars of yesterday and today, as well as perhaps the future of WWE with the inclusion of up-and-comers in the NXT program. If you want to face '80’s and '90’s star Bam Bam Bigelow off against NXT’s Finn Balor, for instance, you can do it.
All of these things help to make WWE 2K16 the closest the series has ever gotten to being the most well-rounded wrestling simulator and fantasy game ever produced. The combination of stars, arenas, and moves from multiple eras really make the sandbox possibilities very strong.
As an ongoing fan of pro wrestling games, WWE 2K16 really feels like it was made for those who revere the past while appreciating the present. By making Stone Cold Steve Austin the centerpiece of this year’s game and by expanding the roster to the largest that the series has ever seen, it feels like a great deal of service is being paid to what made the Attitude Era WWF product so compelling and popular, and what helps to keep the current WWE product interesting.
Enhancements to the mechanics help make the game more satisfying than it’s been in years from a technical perspective, and the visual presentation builds upon the solid foundations laid down in last year’s game to make for the closest total package wrestling game fans have gotten in a long time.
The next year’s game is likely already being worked on, but unlike last year, it doesn’t feel like we need to wait until next year to get a perfected and more satisfying experience. WWE 2K16 helps to set a very solid benchmark for where the series should continue to go on this new generation of consoles, and it doesn’t hurt to have the ability to go down memory lane and absorb some of the best moments of one of pro wrestling’s most popular eras. In short, WWE 2K16 is a great wrestling game, and if you’re at all interested in stepping through the ropes of the squared circle on an Xbox One or PS4, you can’t go wrong with this game.