Ever since THQ released WWF No Mercy and WWF Wrestlemania 2000 for Nintendo 64, fans of “sports entertainment” (or professional wrestling, to the uninitiated) have been crying out for a game that emulates the exciting, epic battles that take place inside the squared circle. Unfortunately, despite some half-decent efforts, that hasn’t actually occurred. Developers have generally thrown together a standard fighting game mechanic that fails to capture the drama of the real-life events, focusing solely on characters beating each other down until their energy bars were drained enough for them to be pinned or for them to submit. You never saw any big comebacks or fighters pulling wins out of the bag when they looked to be beaten.
In WWE 2k15, the same approach has been taken, but some tweaks have ensured that some of the shocks and surprises of real-life wrestling now make an appearance. The addition of a stamina bar to the standard energy and damage indicators is the cause, and it initially gives the game something of a new feel. You can beat your opponent to a pulp but even when their last smidgen of energy has all but drained away, running out of stamina because you’re constantly running or attacking can create enough of a gap for them to find a way to force a comeback due to your movement slowing down. When your stamina is low, reversing moves is harder, some attacks are slower, and you can’t use signature moves or finishers. So an opponent who has been beaten up but who hasn’t expended much energy can reverse a move and get back into the fight. For example, if your opponent looks out for the count and you go to climb the turnbuckle to land a high-flying move without having much in the stamina tank, the climbing is laboured and slow. In the time it takes you to climb, they could recover to the point that they can stand and push you off the top rope, buying themselves a bit more time to recover even further as you’re now injured outside the ring. That can be enough to swing a match around and even though it’s frustrating when the AI turns the tables on you, it’s a lot of fun, not to mention being an extra challenge. You can’t just do the same move over and over in order to walk your way to victory anymore.
The problem is that while the stamina system does very much count as an improvement to the game, despite other minor fixes being made, a lot of the engine feels dated, buggy, and clumsy. Every year, we’re told that the game has been redeveloped from the ground up and every year you can tell that isn’t the case. This year is no different, even with the inclusion of the skill-based "Chain Wrestling" feature that is completely inconsequential with regards to how a match will turn out. Problems that existed in versions of the game from almost a decade ago are still on show. Moves are essentially canned animations, so entering the command to hit an opponent with a Superkick whilst stood next to him sees you – in the blink of an eye - float back across the ring unrealistically until you’re far enough away, before performing the move. You can perform a straight punch, clearly hitting the other guy square on the chin, but because he performed a straight punch slightly before you did, you get knocked back and take damage while he gets away without the contact being registered. Or how about being counted out because the game has decided that the command for getting back into the ring isn’t going to work this time? That one happens more than it should. Or the few times in each match when the reversal prompt simply doesn’t appear? This one is more annoying than others, as it means that you have no chance of reversing a move as you don’t know the timing for when you’re supposed to press the button. Somehow though, despite all the in-ring problems that can annoy, WWE 2k15 does present a very playable wrestling game once you step through the ropes.
Outside of those ropes though, the package is a bit hit and miss. The “Showcase” mode, which presents two real-life wrestling storylines (John Cena vs. CM Punk, and Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H) that take place over a number of matches, is addictive and fun, if not a little bit strange. The Cena/Punk line runs across 19 matches in total, taking in major events from the two fighters' battle for the title. Some matches are presented impeccably, with video from WWE’s shows leading into the fight. You’ll also get matches where performing certain moves at certain times will trigger sequences of real-life events. When Mr. McMahon and John Laurinaitis wander down to ringside to try and screw CM Punk out of the WWE title as they did in real life, the audio from that real life event plays over the top of McMahon’s animation. That’s absolutely stellar stuff. Then you get the other matches, which are presented with still images of the two fighters, and a line or two of text, and you get the feeling that those have been rushed into the equation. Also, there’s the fact that you’re never really sure who you’re supposed to be until the match starts. In one match you’re CM Punk, then in the next, you’re John Cena. At one point, you’re playing as both of them in a tag team, before having to beat the hell out of one or the other in the next match. The Michaels/HHH line has much the same problem. With that said, there’s a fair few hours of gameplay here for ardent WWE fans, and it’s enjoyable enough for us to say that the £19.99 Season Pass – which will provide three more Showcase storylines by April 2015 – may well be worth the investment, depending on how interested you are in the planned content, and how it is presented.
The big new addition this year though, is “MyCareer.” Here, you take a rookie wrestler (created by yourself via the torturously slow creation system) through the ranks from your initial tryout at the WWE Performance Center, all the way through the WWE’s real shows. You’ll play through a tour of NXT, Superstars, Main Event, Smackdown, and Raw, before headlining the industry’s biggest pay-per-views, such as Wrestlemania and SummerSlam. You start as a low-rated jobber, and build up your attributes and skills by taking part in matches.
Where to begin? Well, in the early matches, your character will face off against developer-created fighters in the NXT division. By the time we had won the NXT title after eight matches, we had fought a total of two different wrestlers. The same characters come up again and again, and every match seems to feature the same stipulations, in that there are none. It’s straight match after straight match. By the time you gain enough “Social Media Followers” (urgh) to be promoted to the company’s Superstars show, you’ll probably also be taking part in your first PPV. Win here, and you’ve all but completed the game, as you get a reward that allows you to raise all your stats to the point that you could probably beat The Rock, Triple H, and John Cena at the same time with one hand tied behind your back. In being so desperate as to make every Superstar capable of winning any match, the developers have once again decided to use a rating system that runs from around 87 to 94 out of 100 for all fighters. So, you start out with your 65-rated fighter getting whupped, grind your way up to about a 72, and then get a win at a PPV that pushes you up to 90 and makes it so that you're able to win everything. Of course, this is generally followed up by the game nonsensically pitting you against one of your former NXT rivals time and time again, who you're able to beat easily - sometimes without them being able to get a single move or punch in.
The fact that this is something of a blessing shows how interesting the MyCareer mode actually is. After five hours of play, we had barely seen any match variation. That is, aside from a small three-match story featuring William Regal, where we took part in two Tag Team matches. Outside of that, every single one of our thirty-four bouts were standard one-on-one fights. Even when we were asked which PPVs we wanted to take part in and we rushed to pick Hell in a Cell and Extreme Rules in the hope of there being some variation, we only got standard fights.
Add that to the fact that the Regal storyline – which was just “will you be my tag partner?” twice and then “will you face me in my last ever match?” – was the only storyline we’d seen up to that point, and you’ve got a problem. Fighting someone for a title and winning, only to then get Vickie Guerrero saying “We’ve got nothing planned for you this week. Choose one of these two [utterly inconsequential] matches” over and over again is nothing short of boring. Randomly getting title shots out of nowhere when there’s no way that you’re the number one contender and you aren’t in a rivalry against a champion, is also something that destroys the flow of the game.
Away from MyCareer, you can still play as match booker and chairman in the game’s WWE Universe mode – as you could before – creating rivalries, making entirely new shows, and simulating or playing in matches as you see fit. Whether you’ll get a kick out of this is entirely up to how interested you are in the premise, since the game seems to do a poor job of automatically setting up rivalries and storylines that make sense. Plus, you just get thrown into the mode and presented with the waves of menu options without so much as a hint of a tutorial, meaning that new players will probably be fumbling around for a fair old while, trying to work out what does what.
The step up to the current generation of consoles means that everything looks crisper, sharper, and more realistic, with some of the big name stars being a highlight. It’s been well publicised that the developers used facial tracking to really transport each character’s likeness into the game and while that has worked, the stars that haven’t been created in that manner look horrendous. That means that pretty much the entire Divas division is the stuff of nightmares, and looks like something you could do a better job of creating in the game’s Create-A-Wrestler mode. If you could create Divas in that mode, which you can't, for some inexplicable reason. Sorry, ladies. Some of the non-facially-scanned fighters look downright scary, and quite why Mr McMahon (one of the most recognisable and important people in the entire industry) is as badly rendered as he is, is up for discussion. Fortunately, you’ll find that players will generally pick bigger stars to play as, so online play isn’t hindered by this problem. The reason that’s fortunate is because big-time fans will be liable to find that online play is what will keep them hooked, given the fact that it works nicely.
It should also be noted that there’s a nasty bug that will prevent you from starting your career in the MyCareer mode if your Xbox One is connected to the internet. Sigh. To get around it, the official suggestion from 2k is to disconnect from the “Network” section of the Xbox One’s Settings app, start your career and then play at least one match. Then you can turn your network connection back on and never have any other problems. 2k is working on a fix, but one was not available by the time this review went live.
WWE 2k15 is a very mixed bag. Wrestling superfans will get more out of the game than others, obviously, as the true-to-life presentation is pretty nice, with all the logos, arenas, music, and wrestlers that you could hope for. However, there’s a distinct feeling that the game was rushed to meet a deadline – something that’s only backed up by the two-week delay from which the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions of the game suffered. The Showcase mode provides a good amount of fun, as does online play, but the career mode is half-baked at best and while promising, the fighting engine still isn’t quite there yet. There’s enjoyment to be had, but plenty of frustration to be found - mainly from the amount of times you'll be thinking "well, why isn't this finished?" or "why on earth have the developers done that?"