The road to this year’s WWE 2K19 continues, in usual 2K Games fashion. Each release seems bigger than the last, fueled by well-produced commercials, visual updates, and lavish limited editions. But one thing remains constant: the relatively low quality of the games themselves. It hurts to say that as a fan and someone who really loved WWE 2K14, but that was the last time I truly enjoyed a wrestling game. A combination of sloppy play, glitches, inconsistent content, and conceptual inclusion makes me feel like the current path simply isn’t working. While it’s tough to disrupt the yearly release conceit of a AAA sports game, I think WWE would benefit a lot from taking some time off to try something new.
The first problem is how sloppy these games are. Every year is a new video full of ridiculous glitches and other technical problems. Now, I’m not one of those “lazy devs” kind of jerks who doesn’t understand how game development works. I know it’s hard, and I know a yearly schedule is not conducive to fixing major issues. I also know wrestling itself is a complicated beast to tackle. However, I also know Yukes has been on these games for ages, and fundamental issues have plagued these games for nearly as long. The foundation itself is shaky, and only grows worse as complexity is added on top.
Wrestling games have changed over the years, and currently they’re a bizarre mixture of simulation and fighting game. The problem is that, unlike an EA Sports project in which the developers find ways to separate the two, the WWE 2K series tries to do it all at once. It’s a TV show sim, a promotion creation suite, a multiplayer fighting game, and some kind of attempt at simulating the scripted showmanship of wrestling as well. It’s a mess, and the more it tries to do, the messier it gets. (Just look at the promo mechanics introduced in WWE 2K16!) The whole deal is in need of some serious streamlining and a central vision.
WWE 2K really needs that foundational work. If that can be pulled off, the series will be much more capable of becoming a platform, not unlike the aforementioned EA Sports titles, or even the likes of NBA 2K. The wrestling needs to work, and function as a competition. It’s fine to kayfabe it up, and forego some drama simulation in favor of balanced, playable competition. That’s what players want, and you can trace that back to the older wrestling games that people have a years-long fondness for. Once that foundation is laid, then extra features and modes can be laid down on top of it. Perhaps something inspired by EA’s “Ultimate Team” concept can be used, and the simulation-style affectation could be more carefully added as well. Even in something like Madden, there are lines dividing the gameplay from the sim. Doing both at the same time doesn’t work.
It will also be easier, from that perspective, to take risks that can do something different and actually work. Take a look at the UFC or the NHL series. Those games have side modes that take the core gameplay, then find ways to distinctly modify it to make new versions of the core play for different subsets of players. That includes Knockout mode in UFC, which turns the game into almost a traditional fighting game, and NHL’s Ones and Threes modes that turn the experience more personal or arcade-like. WWE 2K19 is trying something similar with its Towers mode, but it’s going to be slapped on top of that same, shaky foundation that may end up making things like emergent challenges and win conditions way more frustrating than necessary.
I really want to be excited about the yearly WWE 2K release, but it’s always difficult these days. It doesn’t help that the little bit of excitement I felt over last year’s Switch release was fleeting at best. I remember being excited when 2K took over, and WWE 2K15 was supposed to be the next evolutionary step. Instead, it was several steps back, and I don’t think the games have recovered since. I sincerely hope that 2K Games can figure out what the true next step is, and that it comes in a way that makes a statement, and brings the series up to parity with its athletic peers.