With professional wrestling fans being amongst the most vocal and critical in the world, the developers of the WWE 2K series find themselves in an unenviable position. With an annualised super-franchise in their hands, how do they create a product that differentiates itself enough from previous entries to sell mass quantities, without alienating their core audience in the process?
It’s a question many triple-A studios grapple with, and none more so than WWE 2K17’s curators 2K Games. Recent attempts at innovation – such as the introduction of a new submissions system – have been met with backlash from sports entertainment fans, while regurgitating a vastly similar product on a yearly basis has similarly been rightfully condemned.
It’s likely no secret to our regular readers that we at Power Up Gaming are lifelong pro wrestling fans. Over the past few years, it’s fair to say that the constant parade of WWE 2K titles with little in the way of apparent improvement has wearied us on the series somewhat. For that reason, we elected to pass on WWE 2K16 – the first main series game we’d failed to purchase since 2002’s SmackDown! Shut Your Mouth. But just like when we miss a few months of its TV product, it wasn’t long before we were longing for a slice of the action once again.
Despite our reservations, having had the opportunity to try before we buy by getting hands-on time with WWE 2K17 at this past weekend’s EGX 2016, we came away with a renewed sense of optimism. Although initial signs, such as the exclusion of the game’s popular 2K Showcase in favour of revamped MyCareer (see below) and Universe modes, weren’t overly positive, we came away largely impressed with what was on offer.
Pitting NXT sensation and series newcomer Shinsuke Nakamura against Seth Rollins in our demo match, the in-ring action and core gameplay felt much more fluid than recent entries have provided, with the much-maligned stamina system not having as much a detriment on putting together an entertaining match-up as has previously been the case.
Ultimately, after around 15 minutes of high-octane action and several dramatic signature and finishing move reversals, Nakamura got the pinfall after the Kinshasha to the skull of Rollins. In the process, we took away a lot from the title’s core gameplay mechanics and how matches may play out this time around.
Major and minor reversals, first introduced in WWE 2K16, have received a significant overhaul, with many more opportunities to carry out counters to your opponent’s more powerful moves and create some awesome, match-defining moments in the process. Furthermore, superstars’ signature taunts can now be performed in a variety of locations, with different taunts having different attribute-boosting qualities for the first time.
As we alluded to earlier, WWE 2K16’s submission system was polarising amongst fans of the series. In a lot of ways emulating the cat-and-mouse mini-game first seen in the likes of the now-defunct THQ’s UFC series, many felt the system felt slippery and failed to reward player skill. Thankfully, 2K17 addresses these concerns admirably, firstly with minor tweaks that tighten it considerably, as well as the introduction of an optional second mechanism, which effectively reinstates the button-mashing Breaking Point scheme found in earlier entries.
It’s refreshing to see that developer Yuke’s isn’t too proud to return to features that have previously been phased out of the series, and this trend continues with the reintroduction of the ever-popular backstage and in-crowd brawls. Allowing players to spontaneously take their no-disqualification match to the stands or bowels of the arena, the developer provides a destructible environment full of hazards and improvised weapons for superstars to settle their grudge in, in a satisfyingly violent manner.
While the EGX 2016 demo consisted of a limited roster including AJ Styles, the now-deposed Alberto Del Rio, Dean Ambrose, Finn Balor and Kevin Owens – as well as the aforementioned Rollins and Nakumura – the full game will boast the largest selection of superstars ever featured in a WWE title, with 156 playable characters (including 25 women) available after all DLC is taken into account.
On the basis of our limited time with the game, WWE 2K17 is shaping up to be the biggest, and hopefully most enjoyable, main series entry in a number of years. It releases on October 11 for both current and last-gen consoles, with a PC release set to follow.