Annual sports game refreshes all tend to get a little stale over time, but few have had such a fall from grace as we saw out of 2K Games’ WWE line of games back with WWE2K20. The shift from Japanese developer, Yukes, to US Studio, Visual Concepts, led to one of the absolute worst AAA sports games releases in years, and arguably ever.
This wasn’t a huge surprise in some ways; I’ve argued in the Dee Dee Zine previously that Japanese developers really “got” the fundamental performance aspect of pro wrestling in a way that western developers pretty much always failed at. Switching from a veteran team of Japanese developers out to a more broadly sports-centric team – Visual Concepts has in its time time handled NFL and NBA games as well – wasn’t likely to end well. If you want a good laugh, there’s still plenty of WWE2K20 glitch videos out there to find.
But that was then and this is now, and while it took a break for a year to hang its virtual studio head in shame, Visual Concepts is now back on track with its pro wrestling engine, delivering WWE2K23, one of the best WWE games for quite some time.
As much as I do like what Yukes did with grappling mechanics and the overall feel of some of its wrestling games, the practical reality is that even before WWE2K20, the series was feeling rather stale. When the most loved title in your lineup was 2003’s WWE Smackdown! Here Comes The Pain, with diminishing returns thereafter, there was something of a problem.
Last year’s WWE2K22 was a solid enough game, but it felt a little bland and definitely as though Visual Concepts was really just trying not to deliver WWE2K20 all over again. With WWE2K23, it’s taken a few more bold steps to deliver a more satisfying presentation of the world’s most popular performance sport. Yes, it’s fake, that’s the point, it leads to more interesting in-ring engagements that way… although probably no fewer concussions. To quote the great Jim Ross, how do you learn to fall off a twenty-foot ladder, anyway?
This year, character models have mostly been upgraded with better lighting, improved facial animation and mostly smoother transitions between moves, delivering a more lifelike representation of life inside the squared circle. I say mostly, because there’s still one area where Visual Concepts needs to put work in, and it’s the hair.
Any character with long hair – which is 90 per cent of the women’s roster and a smaller percentage of the men – still have these weird straw-like wigs on their skulls that move and shift around as though they’re also half-filled with hair gel. It’s super distracting in any match, especially when it clips clothing, ring ropes and sometimes opponent limbs. Worst off in this regard is current Women’s Champion Bianca Belair. A big part of her gimmick is her very long braid, and it’s present… if you can call the string of sausages that appears to now be her hair “present”.
Those who like home-grown talent will appreciate that Aussie Rhea Ripley doesn’t have this problem – but then she’s got short, slicked-back hair anyway.
WWE games have long used the company’s immense footage library to provide showcases of specific wrestlers. This year it’s John Cena’s turn, with the interesting twist that all the matches showcased – which you play through in a generally-good mix of in-game engine that flows into real footage – are ones that he lost. Cena’s famous for not losing all that much – I mean, there’s a meme associated with the idea – so it’s in some ways a smart play not to simply present an elongated series of Cena squash matches.
Victory here unlocks a variety of wrestlers, as well as alternate attires for the likes of Hulk Hogan, The Undertaker and especially John Cena himself, from his early “Ruthless Aggression” days through the “Doctor of Thuganomics” look and into his later “Never Give Up” stretch. The one pity here is that the Firefly Funhouse match from Wrestlemania 36, which played directly into all of these looks as he took on Bray Wyatt/The Fiend isn’t present. Sure, it’s a head trip of a match, but that’s just what would make it ideal video game fodder, really.
Outside showcase mode, WWE2K23 provides your usual assortment of up to six-person matches, with the new inclusion this year being the War Games match. This throws two rings into the mix, surrounded by a steel cage for either a 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 endurance fest. It’s chaotic and quite a lot of silly arcade fun. Especially if you do as I’ve done, and realised that all those unlocked John Cenas can form teams against each other for the ultimate 3-on-3 Cena fight. That’s also stupid and confusing, but it’s superb if only to see just how convoluted the commentary becomes. Good luck figuring out which jorts-wearing grappler is your Cena, too.
The roster is quite wide and (for once) there’s not even too many folks in the game who aren’t still employed by WWE in some capacity. If your favourite wrestler isn’t present, the game’s creation mode allows for a lot of scope to recreate them, or even just to make your own fictional grappler. You’ll need to do that to take on the game’s MyRise campaign mode, which has a nice degree of depth to it. If you just want matches, there’s the WWE Universe mode that lets you book the shows, or the MyGM mode if you’re more the management type.
Online play is also supported, as is online creation sharing. This has been a staple of the series for years, and it allows the roster to be essentially endless. Want to grab all of AEW, New Japan Pro Wrestling or Impact’s roster into the game? Most of them are there, although the online searching interface is slow, clunky and very poorly built. Maybe that’s to shield 2K Games from the copyright nightmare that allowing gamers to build everyone from Kenny Omega to, well, Batman into the game entails.
There’s also (sigh) an IAP-led virtual cards mode called My Faction, because of course there is – I blame FIFA’s Ultimate Team mode for making EA ALL THE MONEY, basically – with random cards unlocking different wrestler looks and rewards. Words do not yet exist in English (or any other language I’ve checked) to convey just how much I hate full-priced games with virtual card pack gambling built-in. Bad Visual Concepts. Go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done. No, you cannot take the big pile of money you’ll no doubt make from this nonsense with you. I don’t care that EA did it first, it’s still an awful way to treat the audience.
There is, ultimately, a lot to do in WWE2K23 and while not all of it is perhaps as polished as EA Sports’ general efforts, if you’re a fan of pro wrestling, it’s at least pleasing to see Visual Concepts getting back on track with delivering decent quality games. It’s to be hoped that the competition from the upcoming AEW Fight Forever – if that ever sees an actual release date – will spur on more competition in this gaming space.
I don’t watch traditional sports to speak of, but I do watch a lot of pro wrestling, precisely because it’s staged and allows for stronger narratives than you can get out of a simple sports match. Getting all of that into a video game is a tall order, and WWE 2K23 comes very close in most respects to making that happen. It’s fun, mostly fluid and packed with content… as long as you ignore the money-making My Faction mode entirely.