Professional wrestling is a ridiculous cultural phenomenon and I love it dearly. I also happen to think it's blend of theatre, physical performance and interactive storytelling is ideally suited to gaming. It's a weird and wonderful world that offers all manner of opportunities for interactive storytelling, from heroic fights against the odds to villainous victories and roster management.
Wrestling, eh? If you have an interest in professional wrestling, the words below will tell you just about everything you ever wanted to know about a WWE game. If you're not, you might simply want to know if WWE 2K15 is a good fighting game. No. It isn't. But is it a good wrestling game? I don't think so but the answer is complicated and even if you didn't care about wrestling before, you might understand why I do if you read on.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways to make a game about professional wrestling. One involves abiding by kayfabe, the pretence that wrestlers are the characters they play, and that events within the ring are not rehearsed and predetermined. A kayfabe wrestling game is a beat 'em up with a very particular theme and set of characters.
The alternate approach involves pulling back the curtain and showing the workings of a promotion, from the booking of cards to the engineering of feuds designed to draw top dollar and strong audience reactions. In a game of that type, the player could perform the role of a booker, working with the talent at their disposal to create great matches and compelling storylines, or as a performer, navigating an industry in which losing a match can be a career highlight if the timing is right.
WWE 2K15 tantalises with a glimpse of what that second game might look like. In the Career mode, your customised wannabe superstar starts out at the WWE Performance Centre in Orlando, aiming to impress and to make your way onto the developmental NXT roster, and from there to regular television time, championship belts, the main event of Wrestlemania and Hall of Fame status. It's exactly what I want from a WWE career mode but, as is the case with almost every aspect of the game, the implementation is poor.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the in-ring action, the roster and the various modes, it's important to explore those earliest moments of an in-game career. Right at the opening, WWE 2K15 displays a certain confusion about which of the two types of wrestling game it wants to be. You're told, during the pseudo-tutorial of the training section, that it's important to keep the crowd excited by varying the moves you use and by allowing the momentum of a match to swing back and forth. Kick out of a pinning predicament on a two count and your match rating will rise – dominate an opponent by spamming a single move and you'll head for a one star rating.
It's an acknowledgement of the “Entertainment” in Sports Entertainment, and seems like an admission that your character exists to perform for a crowd rather than to win every fight. Sadly, that idea withers on the vine. There's no way to read the crowd during matches, reacting to their obvious boredom or displeasure – every match is overhyped and meets with ecstatic (and agonisingly repetitive) commentary.
You're not going to get yanked out of a major feud, or pulled from TV for a couple of weeks, if you turn in bad matches, because the game is more concerned with the wish fulfillment of clobbering your way directly to the top than an actual attempt to simulate a wrestling career. It's such a shame that there's no integration between the Career mode and the Universe mode's tracking of ongoing feuds, team-ups and championships.
As it is, those two modes, which are the game's core, are both half-baked. Career mode doesn't attempt to make your character feel like part of an ongoing world, which is an essential part of professional wrestling's appeal. It can be exciting to challenge for a title but how much more appealing it would all be if you could carve out a niche for yourself as a type of wrestler – a mid-card monster or charismatic leader of a stable of heels – rather than simply pushing for main event success from day one.
Universe mode lets you play out all of those ideas though, right? Not really. It should be the game's strongest feature - a fully customisable simulation of WWE programming that allows you to create weekly shows with their own rosters, belts and feuds – but it's barely improved from last year's disappointment. The commentators (grimace-inducing Jerry Lawler and a functional Michael Cole) repeatedly mention that “anything is possible in the WWE” but Universe mode makes liars of them.
Occasionally tag team partners will have a falling out, or a manager or other ringside ally will provoke an opponent allowing a cheap shot from behind, but the build-up and blow-off of feuds is tame. Left to its own devices, the Universe modes AI booking ignores the basics of the wrestling industry manual, often pitting challenger against champion every week in the build to a PPV title match. Not only does that make for tedious play/spectating (you can simulate matches, pick a competitor to play as or watch the AI duke it out), it also makes the in-game Universe far less credible. Keeping the competitors apart to build anticipation for their eventual meeting is one of the first rules in the booker's book.
There's plenty of entertainment value in Universe mode but you have to be willing to put in the work. The tools are there to recreate the Attitude Era or create an alternate present day company in which Daniel Bryan is healthy and happy, and Sami Zayn rules over all – you'll often feel as if you're carrying a heavier load than the game though, tweaking wrestlers' standings and modifying everything from individual match stipulations to entire PPV cards.
It's more like playing with a bunch of action figures than enjoying a simulated digital world.
The selection of action figures is decent. Not great, mind. No roster without a single iteration of Mick Foley can be considered great. It's not as good as the collections in the two previous version of the game, which included a better range of wrestlers from decades past thanks to their 30 Years Of Wrestlemania and Attitude Era modes. Although many have to be unlocked by playing through career and Showcase modes covering historical real life feuds, 2K15 does have a handful of WCW and NXT characters, but there's one enormous and frustrating gap.
The women's division in the current WWE is poor due to inconsistent, shoddy writing and short matches, which hold back even the most talented wrestlers. NXT's division is excellent, however. WWE 2K15 doesn't really bother having a women's division at all. There's no option to create custom female characters for use in career mode or elsewhere, and there are only nine women included. Not enough to make the division worthwhile and as much of a slap in the face to women's wrestling as the dire Lawler commentary (in real life and in the game) that treats divas, to give them their daft official title, as pinups rather than athletes. Pinups is too kind, actually - Lawler sounds like a man who can barely restrain himself from having a wank whenever a woman enters the room.
OK. All that talk about modes and rosters, but how's the actual wrestling? It might seem odd to write a thousand words before talking about how the fighting in what is (I guess) a fighting game actually works, but just as professional wrestling is about what happens outside of the ring as well as what happens in it, a WWE game is reliant on strong modes to sell its grapplefests.
It's fine, bugs and all. Nothing groundbreaking, nothing particularly challenging and nothing with any depth, but fine. In the tradition of modern WWE games, the counter system is the heart of it all and even though it's simple, it portrays the shifting momentum of real matches fairly well. The pace is slow and you'll spend most of your time either pounding your opponent to charge your signature move and finisher meter, or trying to hit the reversal button during the small windows of opportunity that pop up while you're being attacked. Chain wrestling is a new addition from last year's console-only offering - pushing the left stick into a hotspot to shift a locked up opponent into position. It interrupts the flow of matches rather than helping it, but it isn't a disastrous tweak.
You can clamber to the top rope if you have the right skillset, slide out of the ring and retrieve kendo sticks and sledgehammers handily stored underneath, or strip the announce table of monitors to transform it into the ultimate weapon. There are ladder matches and royal rumble matches, as well as less exciting stipulations such as extreme rules and falls count anywhere. Throughout all of it, the AI often struggles, particularly when tag teams are involved and partners interminably interfere to break up pinfalls, but everything hangs together. Barely at times. As with the rest of the game, you'll have to do a lot of the work yourself and forgive its foibles and deeper flaws.
When all of the DLC is available (it's all coming to PC at some point, except ace UK wrestler Paige), the extra characters and Accelerator that allows modification of wrestlers' attributes will make Universe mode more enjoyable, but it will still be an odd package. The games are already out of date when they release on console every year, containing the roster as it existed after Wrestlemania. With the delayed PC release, that means the previous Wrestlemania, so CM Punk is still around, The Shield are still a unit, and Sheamus doesn't have his nifty new look.
It's a disappointing game. Aside from anything else, despite the occasionally perfect rendition of a favourite move, all of the wrestlers feel like different versions of a few basic archetypes. Brock Lesnar is the closest thing the real world has to an end-level boss, yet here, he's just another large man (albeit with a superb line of German suplexes). There's a lack of personality, which is such a vital part of professional wrestling, and nothing to take the place of promos or backstage scenarios to liven up the journey from one predictable match to the next.
Despite all of that, I'll continue with my Universe. There are other frustrations that would justify condemnation, particularly the limits on downloadable contents and created characters, but professional wrestling is so well-suited to gaming that I'm willing to grimace through it all, even if I don't forgive any of it.
Perhaps foolishly, I'll hope for better in the next release, when we might see a PC version on day one, with improved facility and capacity for modding, and a deeper, more satisfying career mode. Promising big and delivering small is all par for the course in wrestling's world of overblown theatrical self-promotion, so maybe it's best not to hope for too much at all.
Or maybe I should place my hopes elsewhere. WWE 2K15 is a lot like the WWE itself - burying its female performers, mishandling its roster, screwing up its own booking and failing to establish characters. I say that as a fan. But maybe if we want a daring, innovative wrestling game, we'll need to wait for somebody else to jump into the market. NJPW 2016, maybe, or a Lucha Underground or Shimmer game. That'd be the day.
WWE 2K15 is available now. I played with a controller - the alternative is cumbersome.