Like many people, I grew up a professional wrestling fanatic. WWE’s unique blend of sports and entertainment, presented with a grand flair for theatrics, had me well and truly hooked. Early licensed games successfully captured the magic, but, as the mainline series progressed, focus was shifted to a more grounded sports simulation in a presumed effort to match UFC’s more ‘legitimate’ output. This was widely regarded as a mistake, so now, better late than never, 2K have acted on fan feedback and embraced the outlandish elements that set WWE apart, making for a much more enjoyable game on the whole.
Showcase is back and MyCareer has seen an epic overhaul that takes it from boring to brilliant!
Where previous incarnations left players to their own devices, here there’s a real narrative focus, with developed storylines and voiced cutscenes on-par with WWE’s on-screen product. Some of the wrestlers phone their lines in, plus John Cena’s voiced by a truly dreadful impersonator (his fees probably aren’t cheap now that he’s made it in Hollywood), but it’s self aware and just silly enough to get away with it without devolving into ridiculous parody.
As an aside whilst we’re on the topic: commentary is still awful. Lines are often delivered deadpan and endlessly repeated, there are constant stilted cuts, plus moves can be announced despite never having happened. The audio mix could use some work on the whole, in fact, with theme music drowning out voices and echo-y recordings - where we’d assume the dev team struggled to secure touring WWE Superstars for a professional studio visit - lowering the overall level of quality. At least the licensed soundtrack is great.
Familiar audio issues may remain, but this iteration of MyCareer is what fans have been clamouring for. At its core it remains a lengthy pro wrestling roadmap, but it’s told with heart and knowing references that fans will love.
Established fan or not, everyone can appreciate the surprisingly deep RPG systems. Experience and currencies are awarded as you progress - in greater quantities if you engage in optional branching conversations and side matches - allowing for the acquisition of skills, abilities and a range of cosmetics. Even beyond MyCareer, striving to improve your custom wrestler (formally MyPlayer) should keep you coming back for exhibition events well into the future.
That being said, getting your footing and sticking with MyCareer up until that point could prove taxing for some, as the starting attributes aren’t fit for much. Grinding to overcome that starting hump can feel as though you’re being guided towards purchasing the premium KickStart DLC, which is also included in the Season Pass, but it’s perhaps a worthy trade-off if that explains the surprisingly non-monetised Loot Packs. Again, you could probably just drop the difficulty, but that comes with its own issues.
While Showcase and MyCareer have significant legs of their own, WWE 2K19 has plenty more to offer in the returning Universe mode (where you micromanage your own endless programming schedule) and the all-new 2K/MyPlayer Towers. No doubt inspired by Mortal Kombat, Towers task players with running a gauntlet of back-to-back matches, each with their own specific modifiers and stipulations. They’re updated frequently and you should be wary of which you choose to tackle - Towers can be brutally difficult and there’s no prize for failure, however long you might have devoted to climbing them beforehand.
If you’re feeling brave, you might want to attempt the insanely difficult 15-match tower in which you play as cover star (and gaming superfan) AJ Styles. If you manage to beat it, not only will you get an achievement, but you could be on track to face AJ in a WWE 2K19 match worth $1,000,000!
Varied match types - many of which have been tweaked for the better (Cage matches in particular) - help to keep each game mode fresh, as does the ability to play co-op and competitive multiplayer either locally or online. Network bouts suffer with latency, but stability is overall much improved and the Road to Glory online league - in which wins earn rewards for your MyPlayer and points towards qualifying for global online pay-per-view events - offers more specific motivation to test your mettle against human opposition.
There’s absolutely loads to do and it’s all held together by the solid simulation-style gameplay, only with increased scope for the sort of crazy maneuvers that made those old WWE games so appealing. Generally you’ll be performing a wide range of contextualised strikes and grapples, whilst attempting to tactically target limbs, manage stamina consumption and preserve reversal stocks. Advanced players can play to the crowd and taunt opponents to receive different buffs, or those just along for the ride can roam the backstage area and hurl themselves from atop a production truck with nary a care for the unforgiving concrete below.
Payback abilities are a new addition catered towards narrowing the skill gap between those player types, accommodating comebacks and, at their best, edge-of-your-seat contests with that ‘big match’ feel. You’ll choose a Major and a Minor skill, both of which are charged by taking damage, though some are markedly better than others - escaping certain defeat is preferable to delivering a low blow and risking disqualification, for example - so you may well find yourself rigidly sticking with the same loadout instead of switching to counter the opposition.
Former UFC star "Rowdy" Ronda Rousey is a pre-order DLC character, along with luchador Rey Mysterio.
Some will no doubt still pine for the simpler days of No Mercy on the N64, but while WWE 2K19 doesn’t fully re-adopt arcade-y gameplay, it has injected plenty of madcap fun back into the series. There’s a big head mode, 8-bit and cel-shaded screen filters, a zombie Triple H character, MyPlayer abilities that essentially amount to super powers, Wyatt Compound (wrestler Bray Wyatt’s creepy backwoods home) brawls, plus an insanely extensive creation suite that now allows for Minecraft-style block body types.
The creation tools, inclusive of even a video editor, provide everything you could possibly need to create your very own wrestling promotion from the ground up. It’s seriously bonkers and a boon for even the creatively barren, as shared Community Creations can be downloaded and enjoyed free of charge. You can already grab accurate renditions of just about any wrestling or pop culture figure, which makes it a bit of a bummer that you can’t use them for MyCareer, though that would admittedly break the context of the story and wider MyPlayer progression systems.
If you don’t have the means to download Community Creations for whatever reason, the 250+ roster (the series’ biggest yet) should keep you plenty busy anyway. It encompasses a vast majority of the current crop of male and female Superstars across all brands (RAW, SmackDown, NXT and 205 Live), as well as the best of the UK division and a slate of bygone Legends. There’s a character here for everyone, whether they’re a current fan, a lapsed fan, or a casual onlooker.
Having so many playable wrestlers means that character models vary wildly in terms of quality. The game looks middling for the most part, though can veer into striking or hideous territories at the drop of a hat, which is slightly disconcerting as an enhanced game being played on Xbox One X hardware. Presumably the extra horsepower is pumped into maintaining a steady technical performance, which it does, even in frenzied 8-person matches.
WWE 2K19 is easily the best offering since 2K replaced THQ at the helm back in 2014. Using this as an extensive blueprint, if 2K update the ageing game engine and fix a few distracting issues - like clipping, dodgy rope physics, HUD elements occasionally obscuring mini-game prompts, the aforementioned audio issues - they may well re-establish the franchise as the platinum-selling titan it once was.