As the first WWE title to fall under the 2k banner, you would be forgiven for thinking that WWE 2K14 would mark a radical departure from the norm for the series. Do a little digging though, and you’ll find that while the publisher may have changed, and the title may have changed, Yukes is still the horsepower behind bringing the WWE to (virtual) life. In some ways that’s a good thing. Their trademark suite of incredible customization options is still present and expanded beyond any past option. In other ways, though, WWE 2K14 makes it increasingly clear that for the WWE franchise to take the next step toward greatness, it may be time for another developer to try their hand.
Even with the addition of multiple new animations and moves, this year’s game plays very much like last year. It’s still very strike and reversal heavy, although the latter functions more like the reversal system of old. Reversing a move now performs an immediate counter rather than transferring into a grapple. This makes the flow of the match move at a much quicker pace. Counters tend to be performed much more heavily against grapple moves than strikes by the AI, which negatively effects game play at the lower difficulty levels. Matches for me on normal tended to devolve quickly into punch-punch-punch-strong punch-stomp on the ground ad nausea until my signature move and/or finisher became available.
This series badly needs a complete overhaul from a game play perspective. Some people may enjoy the style of the series, but after so many years and different iterations of the same grapple system and the need to progressively ramp up the offense to build toward a finisher, the formula is getting stale. A nice way to do this might be some sort of meter on mix of attack that prevents cheesing the strike button and taunts to immediately store a finishing move, perhaps requiring a certain combination of strikes and grapples to build that meter up then not activating the finisher option until a wrestler has taken a certain amount of damage. These moves should feel like a big deal and kicking out of one should be a big deal too. Some may say “play on a higher difficulty”. While that’s certainly an option (and one that I took advantage of) I found that the only thing that really changed for me was my opponent’s aggression level and the frequency of their counters.
While that sounds a bit harsh, it’s not to say there is no fun to be had here. If players make a conscious effort to avoid “cheesing” the game, characters can put together some pretty great matches. I found that most of my enjoyment in the ring came during the 30 Years of Wrestlemania mode when I was forced to complete certain objectives before finishing the match in order to unlock the multitude of hidden superstars, costumes, belts, and so forth. Those objectives did a great job of creating matches the flowed realistically against the AI, mostly because they had real, tightly choreographed contests to build off of.
Speaking of 30 Years of Wrestlemania it, like last year’s Attitude Era mode, is the game’s best feature. It recreates major matches from each of the last 29 editions of the biggest stage in professional wrestling. I found that most of the matches included were good decisions, although there were some I’d have love to seen (a necessary evil due to conflicts with former wrestlers no doubt). While I had a great time playing the mode to completion I wasn’t as engaged as I was with last year’s romp through the Monday Night Wars. Part of that is personal preference (as I loved that particular era more than any proceeding or following it), but some of the fault lies with the set-up of each match.
Because the mode is focused solely on Wrestlemania, players get no matches that play out ahead of time to set the tone. One of the best things about the Attitude mode is I generally got to play through several matches in a rivalry, making the blow-off match feel special. If players don’t have a wealth of experience or back story for the events leading up to each Wrestlemania, a great deal of these matches may come off a bit flat. Some matches (the Mega-Powers explosion at WM 5 for example) are preceded by in-engine remakes of famous vignettes, but these are criminally underused with only a couple actually making an appearance. There are also some nice video recaps before matches but again these aren’t consistent.
I found that while the AI in this mode was improved over last year’s often brain-dead offering, it may have featured a bit of an over-correction. One of the challenges last year was that the AI seemed deadest against cooperating with players as it relates to completing required objectives. This year’s game fixes that problem by making computer opponents basically do everything but push the button to initiate the objective. I prefer this to last year, though, because I didn’t once feel like the game was actively fighting against me in 2K14. That’s not to say the AI is perfect, there are still some legacy issues with computer controlled characters getting hung up on geometry and performing questionable actions (for example a computer controlled manager who was supposed to be on my side kept removing a table that I had set up in the ring before I could put my opponent through it. Every time I set it back up and went to grapple the other wrestler, my manager grabbed the table and threw it from the ring). Another challenge with doing a historical retrospective of this type is that the matches that this engine generates don’t exactly mesh well with the reality of professional wrestling in the 80’s. Two great examples of this are matches involving the late, great, Andre the Giant. The very first match of the mode is the Body Slam Challenge at Wrestlemania 1. The big build up to this match was that Big John Studd had never been body-slammed, and he was willing to put up $15k against Andre’s career that the Eighth Wonder of the World couldn’t do it either. Of course, the real match ends with the Giant dramatically slamming Studd and throwing money to the crowd. What players won’t see on the real tape is Andre flapjacking Studd 10 feet into the air after a counter. That type of move kills the drama behind the final slam.
A worse example happened later on, during one of the most famous matches in wrestling history, the Wrestlemania 3 showdown between Hulk Hogan and Andre. Anyone who has even a tangential connection to the WWF in the 80’s knows how this one ends. The dramatic body-slam on the Giant who had barely ever left his feet, Hogan clutching at his back selling the debilitating toll even lifting the man had on his body, leg-drop, pin, euphoria. What players probably don’t remember is how 5 minutes before Hogan had to summon every ounce of will in every fiber of muscle in his body to lift Andre, he had him up on his shoulders in a Torture Rack submission like a ragdoll. That kills all the tension the real match has, and turns it from an exciting recreation of drama involved in one of most famous moments in sports entertainment history into a paint by numbers match that also happens to have a body-slam at the end. The team being WWE 2K14 should have adjusted the game play system for these matches to disallow certain moves.
For next year’s game, I would love to see them focus the mode around famous feuds and rivalries across all the promotions whose material the big dog in Stamford, CT now owns. Imagine playing out the Sting/Hollywood Hogan rivalry. How about Tommy Dreamer and Raven’s on again off again feud/partnership in ECW (although the latter’s recent lawsuit against the WWE might put a damper on that)? Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes, now that’s hard times, daddy.
As previously mentioned, the customization options in the game live up to the lofty expectations for the series with more freedom than ever before. Players can even edit Superstar outfits now, although they are limited to color changes only. They can also use Superstar heads to completely alter their appearance from scratch, and even save these changes as alternate outfits. Other popular customization options like move sets, entrances, finishers, belts, arenas, and logos also make a reappearance with more options than last year’s game. If players are the type of person that get lost in these modes for hours on end they’ll have plenty to keep them busy here.
Also returning is the very popular WWE Universe mode. This “season” style mode allows players to customize entire brands, set up rivalries, play through matches if chosen or simulate if players would rather not. The mode has been expanded to include more options for customization than ever before. For those unfamiliar with the Universe, think of it like the Franchise mode in many other sports games. Want to bring back a dead promotion and give them a prime TV slot? Do it. Want to move Superstars from show to show? Make it happen. Players can even create storylines and weave them through custom rivalries. These rivalries play out in an interesting way. Similar to real life, they very often ebb and flow from competitive matches, to mutual respect, to teaming up, to the dramatic break-up and subsequent bad blood. I had a blast with Universe mode and can certainly see it sucking up countless hours of time.
Visually the game is a mixed bag. Some character models look fantastic (Goldberg’s model for example is a real standout) while others seem like they belong in a different game altogether. The animations are mostly quite solid and I could tell that they’ve added some new ones. The game still has that disjointed snap to completion issue with some moves where wrestlers will quickly float across the ring to complete an aerial move like a cross body block or flying shoulder tackle.
WWE 2K14 is a very strange game to review. The in-ring game play for me is tired and in need of a major overhaul. That being said, it is technically quite proficient. I rarely felt like the game didn’t do something I asked it to or cost me a match due to poor control. 30 Years of Wrestlemania isn’t as engaging for me as last year’s offering, but I still had a great deal of fun playing my way through it. I think the biggest issue for me with the game is that I can see the potential the series has. I can see how far they’ve come as it relates to game modes and customization.
To close it out with a squared circle analogy, 2K14 is like Hulk Hogan when he first got to WCW. He was coming off insane levels of popularity from his time in the WWF and was still a draw, but his act was getting very tired. The business was changing, and without an adjustment he was going to be left behind. It took a complete reinvention of his character into “Hollywood” to reignite his career and extend his longevity into a new generation. The WWE series is ready for its major heel turn, here’s hoping that a new publishing home and a new generation of consoles will give it the shot in the arm it needs.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.