The long-running WWE series from 2K Sports had one of the more disastrous debuts on the Xbox One. While the game looked much better than older iterations of the series on the Xbox 360, tons of customization content and gameplay modes were cut from the preceding year’s game. And some changes to the gameplay that slowed it down like “chain wrestling” turned off many long-time fans of the series. To make matters even worse, 2K let John Cena pick the game’s menu soundtrack, and the alleged rapper’s musical tastes are… lacking, to say the least.
Thankfully, 2K seems to have learned from its mistakes, and with a little more development time, WWE 2K16 is much more in line with the better games in the series, but it still has some problems that hold it back from championship gold.
The fundamentals of the WWE 2K series have always been sound. You use a variety of grapples and strikes to eventually gain enough momentum to hit your finishing move and get the pin (or maybe put your opponent through a table). This is still the core gameplay in 2K16, and if you’ve enjoyed it in years past, you’ll have a lot of fun this year too.
The major gameplay change is a new submission system that initiates a mini-game. When you put your opponent in a submission hold, you use the right stick to chase his blue bar around a circle with your red bar. Keep him in the red long enough, and he gives up. Frankly I didn’t find this system terribly intuitive, which led to me accidentally submitting a couple minutes into a match more often than not. Most of the time I just wished for the button-mashing system of old.
WWE 2K16 also features the return of the controversial chain wrestling mechanic that debuted last year. The system works the same as before, with you moving the right stick around a circle to find the right spot to “win” a match-up and move your opponent into the next hold. It’s an OK addition to the WWE games. It seems like AI opponents can find the right spot to win at chain wrestling way too easily though while you’ll be fumbling around for it. Thankfully, chain wrestling events seem to happen much less frequently than in last year’s game, so maybe that’s a sign that the divisive feature is on it’s way out.
There are three main modes to play in 2K16: WWE Universe, MyCareer, and the Showcase mode, which features the career of Stone Cold Steve Austin this year.
The endless WWE Universe mode is as fun as ever. It’s now a little bit easier to arrange the matches that you want by booking wrestlers on multiple shows, and it seems like unpredictable cut scenes that trigger storylines feature more regularly than in the past couple of years. There are still some silly restrictions like only being able to fight for belts at pay per views, but it’s still the best way to play the game, and if you really get into customizing your Universe, it will easily keep you occupied until WWE 2K17 releases.
MyCareer is more of a mixed bag. The basic idea of making your own wrestler and working your way from the bottom of NXT to the WWE Championship is good, but it just takes way too long to develop. It’s really silly that Yuke’s makes you start your career with a weak wrestler with terrible stats who can barely run across the ring or climb the turnbuckles without getting winded, but if you play any other mode with that same create-a-wrestler, he’s on par with the rest of the roster. MyCareer could be great in a few years, but right now it needs a lot of work.
Finally, there’s the 2K Showcase featuring Stone Cold Steve Austin. Following the career of one wrestler instead of one long rivalry like last year’s Showcase is a huge improvement so you’re not just pitting the same two guys against each other over and over again in what ‘s effectively the same match. But just focusing on Stone Cold means you also have to enjoy playing as him quite a bit. I found myself taking breaks and checking out other modes pretty regularly just so I could play as other wrestlers. Next year, a Showcase that focuses on just one era, like WWE ’13’s Attitude Era-focused story mode, would be a welcome addition.
The WWE is known for it’s high value video productions though, and the 2K Showcase is no exception. There’s a lot of video of old matches here, and it’s all put together in a great package that re-tells Austin’s career. There are some odd changes though. Apparently the WWE and 2K didn’t want to pay Mike Tyson to appear in the game again like they did for WWE ’13, so in the Showcase mode, Austin’s first WWE Championship win at WrestleMania XIV isn’t thanks to Iron Mike. Instead, some random white guy nicknamed “The Enforcer” helps Austin win the title. I understand why this change had to be made, but it’s still silly.
But ultimately “The Enforcer” is a good example of what you’re getting with WWE 2K16. The fundamentals of a great game are here, and if you’re a WWE fan you’ll have fun, but there are just a lot of odd design choices and just plain laziness on the part of the developers that hold it back from being the definitive wrestling game.
WWE 2K16 is simultaneously one of the best looking sports games on the Xbox One and one of the most disappointing. If you’re picking two of the WWE’s biggest stars to go at it, like John Cena and Brock Lesnar, you’re in for a match that almost looks as good as what you’ll see on Raw every week. If you pick a lesser known wrestler or a Diva, the graphics are almost PS2-quality. The Divas in particular look horrible, like Yuke’s let a bunch of interns put them into the game and no one checked their work. Most players are probably sticking to the most popular male wrestlers so it’s somewhat understandable that that’s where the developers are going to put more work, but it’s still disappointing how little effort was put into some facets of the game.
That unevenness is present in the arenas as well. While every wrestler on the roster as his or her signature entrance and the rings look exactly like they do on each pay per view or weekly show, the crowd lacks detail. It’s like Yuke’s just put some animatronic mannequins behind the safety barriers and called it a day. You might be able to get away with that in a football or soccer game where the crowd is further away from the action and no one pays any attention to them, but in a pro wrestling game where fighting outside of the ring is a huge part of action, the developer really should put more effort into a realistic-looking crowd.
How much you love pro wrestling theme songs will determine how much you like the soundtrack of WWE 2K16. But at least every theme comes across in CD-quality sound, and kudos to Yuke’s for including each specific theme that a wrestler used at a pay per view in the Stone Cold Showcase mode, no matter how obscure that theme may be (like Austin’s original Ringmaster theme).
Punches and slams sound like they do when you’re watching a match on TV, so nothing outstanding, but they’re not distracting either, which is a plus. Some wrestlers like Daniel Bryan have appropriate soundbites you can trigger with during matches, such as Bryan’s famous “Yes!’ chant. That’s a nice change from the completely silent grapplers of older games. The commentary from Jim Ross, Jerry Lawler, Michael Cole and John “Bradshaw” Layfield is well done, but unfortunately still gets too repetitive. Occasionally they’ll even repeat themselves twice in a row. How that issue hasn’t been fixed in more than a dozen years of WWE games I’ll never understand.
Finally, the menu music, which was not picked by John Cena this year, features a variety of artists like Marilyn Manson, Run-DMC and Billy Idol is a huge improvement over last year’s ear-gratingly bad rap music.
With more than 120 playable wrestlers included in the main game, a lengthy 2K Showcase, and a WWE Universe mode that lasts however long you want it to, you can play WWE 2K16 for a very, very long time if you enjoy the gameplay. And if you get tired of what’s here, you can create your own wrestlers, arenas, and storylines, or download the creations of other gamers.
Reviewed by Chris Freiberg