With the death of THQ earlier in the year, ownership of the WWE license was transferred to 2K, a company with much practise in the development of sports games. With a new publisher, there is the opportunity of a new ethic to be introduced into the series, but that was never going to occur in the first iteration while sticking to an annual release schedule. The last iteration of this series that I played was Smackdown Vs Raw 2007, and although much has changed in the intervening years, the fundamentals remain very similar. Is this because those underlying elements are so finely tuned that improvement is nigh impossible? Or is it a case of risk aversion? And what does this 2K14 iteration offer taken on its own merit?
The primary campaign of WWE 2K14 is a celebration of the past. Titled ’30 Years of Wrestlemania’, it highlights and allows players to participate in many of the matches that have elevated the annual event to the biggest spectacle on the sports entertainment calendar. As the name implies, it spans the entire history of the event featuring 46 matches from five distinct “eras” within WWE. As such, there isn’t a storyline, per se, but anyone who has ever been a fan of WWE will find something in this mode to jangle their memory. The brilliant thing about this mode is the way that each match includes a set of optional Historical Stipulations. Most of these objectives are fairly straightforward. You’ll be tasked with beating opponents within a certain span of time, or getting them to a certain damage level (which usually results in the activation of a cutscene that replicates big moments), so there is nothing terribly exciting about them. There are also the Wrestlemania Moments, which incorporate quick-time events to make you feel as though you are still a part of the action in those cutscenes, but this feels rather hackneyed and inexpertly handled.
Progression through the mode doesn’t hinge on fulfilling these objectives, but doing so unlocks additional characters, skins and arenas to play with in Exhibition Mode. The rewards may not be all that inspired, and I personally would have loved for the unlocks to include the video footage of the matches that I was playing, but they do give a valid reason to put effort into the matches. To be completely honest, this mode is more intriguing than good. By putting players into the shoes of a different superstar with every match it creates a disjointed feeling that fails to provide the sense of satisfaction that a player receives from learning the ins-and-outs of a single character’s repertoire. For fans, though, it should be a worthwhile nostalgia trip.
In concert with this main campaign, 30 Years of Wrestlemania also includes a mode titled The Streak, which celebrates The Undertaker’s 21-0 record at the show. You are given the option of defending or defeating it. The former of these is a completely uninspired Slobberknocker match. Playing as The Undertaker, your goal is to last as long as possible against an endless gauntlet. The latter allows you to play as any character that has ever faced off against The Phenom at Wrestlemania and attempt to defeat him. The trick of it is that the difficulty is removed from your choice and ramped up to a level that is truly sadistic. Both of them feature more unlockable content, but the reality is that this mode doesn’t really do enough with the ideas that it has to be entirely justifiable.
The other mode that is likely to draw on the time of single players is WWE Universe. In some ways this is more akin to a traditional narrative-driven campaign, but it also doubles as a kind of show management sim. On its most basic level, it automatically sets the schedule for each show on the calendar, incorporating regular matches, rivalries and certain story beats. It allows you to tailor certain elements of the shows to your liking, including setting up custom rivalries, creating tag teams and setting up special shows, and while all of this has the potential to be deep, involving and truly attention-grabbing, there seems to be a lack of tactility to it all. You are supposed to feel as though you are taking an active role in shaping the future of the WWE, but the reality is that the decisions that you make don’t really have all that much of an impact.
On the plus side, it offers an alternative to the Exhibition matches for those who want to feel as though they are making some form of progress within the game. Match-ups are automatically determined. Some of them further the ongoing rivalries, while others are basically filler. In terms of your role, you can either actively participate as one of the contestants, or simulate the results. This latter option can be applied not only to individual matches, but to entire shows, and indeed weeks worth of content with no penalty whatsoever. Thankfully, the system automatically tracks the progress of rivalries and championship changes, meaning that you can get a glimpse at what is going on with incredible ease. All things considered, it is a more attractive option than playing endless numbers of exhibition matches, but it feels as though the mode wants to be more complex. As intriguing as it is, it never feels like more than a stripped-down version of the General Manager mode from earlier games.
If there is one part of the game that acts as a counterpoint to that feeling, it is in the creation suite. Put simply, this is utterly peerless. There are no other games that can match the sheer number of options that one finds in WWE 2K14, to say nothing of the depth of it. You can create a superstar completely from scratch, or alter an existing one. Tailor their entrance animation and even determine an offensive moveset entirely from scratch. There are areas where all of this can feel too fiddly, or overwhelming, but most of the time it feels like a joy to lose yourself in this meticulous process.
In games of this ilk, however, all of this may drive you to spend more time playing, but your involvement hinges on the core gameplay. The in-ring action is entirely competent, suitably complex and always involving. Have no doubts about any of that, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t niggles that detract from the experience as a whole. Among these is that there is a decided lack of dynamism in the matches. A large part of this is the fact that the contests consist of little more than a series of canned animations. To be fair, it is difficult to imagine a game that relies so heavily on grappling mechanics and predetermined outcomes to use a simulated physics system, but the one in place is simply too rigid. A very similar feel is found within that grappling system, even though the options that it presents are varied indeed. Once the initial hold is locked in, movement of the left stick determines the attack used, while the right stick allows you to change position. Further to this, you can use the limb targeting system to deal damage to a particular point on your adversary’s body or apply a submission hold. Despite all of these options, you never really get the sense that you are in complete control and this is a massive shortcoming when compared to fighters and brawlers that adopt arcade design ethics.
Similarly, movement speed seems to be too slow to replicate the agility of the real-life wrestlers in several cases, which further detracts from the authenticity of the experience. Despite this, it is clear that the developers have attempted to speed up the pace of matches through the reversal system, which almost always results in a counter-offensive maneuver. It is a success, though it must be noted that you almost need to have precognition to be able to hit the reversal button in the brief window of time that you can use it. These two factors combine to prompt you to go on the offensive regularly and can cause frustration when forced into defence, particularly on the higher difficulty settings. At Normal, and even Hard difficulty, things are fair enough, but switching to Legendary makes it so that enemies both absorb and deal considerably more damage, while also being able to reverse attacks with almost indecent ease.
For all of this though, WWE 2K14 offers a fairly faithful approximation of the television programming. It might be rigid, but that same complaint can be levelled against the scripted battles that take place on Raw and Smackdown every week. If you’re looking for a brawler or fighter, this isn’t going to scratch that itch, but if you want something that feels a bit more choreographed then this is a perfect fit.
However, you will need to come to grips with the godawful audio. The soundtrack consists almost exclusively of the entrance music of the WWE roster and it is a mixed batch. Some of them are surprisingly good, but the majority are simply average. It is something of a relief, then, to discover that custom soundtracks are supported. Unfortunately, the music only plays over the menus, with matches being accompanied by the commentary of Jerry “The King” Lawler and Michael Cole. What is said is usually relevant to what is happening in the ring at any given moment, but it is prone to being nothing more than repetitive soundbites that come to grate very quickly. Though the sound effects are nothing to write home about, it would hardly be right to call them bad outright. It all just lacks any real impact.
The graphics are not much better. Although the playable characters are all recreated quite faithfully, there is a disturbing lack of detail and granularity in the stadiums and objects. Most distracting is the crowd, which consists primarily of regularly placed polygonal models that would not seem out of place in a early-era PS2 game. The mid-match image is clean, with a UI only appearing when context-sensitive events are occurring on screen. In general, the menus are clean and straightforward. In short, WWE 2K14 offers an average technical presentation that does nothing to stand out.
And that is the overwhelming impression that one receives from the game as a whole. It is entirely competent, and will certainly appeal to its core audience, but for my money it comes across as a phoned-in effort that doesn’t offer enough in its WWE Universe mode to keep a player coming back once the 30 Years of Wrestlemania is complete. With mechanics that feel stiff and archaic, perhaps the shift in publisher is exactly what the brand needed. It is just unfortunate that fans will have to wait another year to see whether 2K Games will give it the creative boost that it needs to shine, hopefully aided by a presence of the next generation consoles.
(Reviewed on PS3. Review code supplied on behalf of 2K Games. Thank you.)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – N/A
Gameplay/Design – 6.5/10
Visuals – 5/10
Sound – 4/10
Lasting Appeal – 7.5/10
Overall – 6.5/10
(Not an average)
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360
Developer: Yuke’s/Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Sports
Ratings: T ESRB, 16 PEGI, M ACB