As concrete jungle fan Alicia Keys is always so determined to remind us, there’s nothing you can’t do while in New Yo-orrrrk. This weekend that extended to playing WWE 2K17 for the first time, at a media event two nights ahead of Summerslam. GamesRadar+ was able to go hands-on with a version of the game featuring seven wrestlers, including NXT Edition DLC character Shinsuke Nakamura, and dig deeper into new features such as the ability to cut promos (i.e. record backstage interviews dissing your opponent, for those unaware of wrestling parlance) in the process. Here, then, are 11 things I learned across an evening spent sampling the PS4 version of 2K’s latest grappler, and speaking to executive producer Mark Little, and wrestlers Sasha Banks and Kevin Owens.
Oh yeah, I went there. WWE 2K16 made gigantic strides when it came to a game trying to emulate what goes on in a real wrestling ring – yet some fans trotted out the same old ‘don’t like it because it’s not No Mercy’ cliche. It’s time that stopped. No Mercy was a good fighter for its time, ‘fighter’ being the key word; it fell short of the eye for detail 2K has when it comes to replicating the worked nature of a wrestling match. Last year, that meant elements such as a downed foe subtly repositioning himself to take a top-rope move as you ascended the turnbuckles. In WWE 2K17, it’s details like a wrestler taking a large bump in a triple threat match, then rolling out of the ring to rest, which have you nodding in admiration. That truly is like the real (choreographed) thing.
Be warned that if WWE 2K16 wasn’t your jam, 2K17 is unlikely to drag you back in. There’s an immediate familiarity to this year’s game – something I maintain is a positive – with overused elements such as chain wrestling dialled back, and a ton of new tweaks freshening up the in-ring product. Examples: you can taunt while on the second turnbuckle, have two different types of reversal (normal and strong) at your disposal, and the submission wheel is much more forgiving (for both you and AI; I had great difficulty escaping Alberto Del Rio’s various armbars despite clocking up 1500 matches in last year’s game). If you loved WWE 2K16 edition, as I did – hooooboy is this going to keep you hooked through WrestleMania 33 and beyond.
Those paying attention to our WWE 2K17 roster gallery will have noticed that I mentioned Alberto Del Rio above, despite him never having been officially announced. Consider him in, then. His likeness is uncannily lifelike – save for it coming without a 'suspended for thirty days' option – and he’s kitted out in the black-and-gold gear he wore regularly as a League Of Nations member. (I hereby promise to never mention that waste of a faction again.)
Also in are WWE Champion Dean Ambrose, whose character model looks much like last year's (albeit with more noticeable stains on his jeans), and a much-improved recreation of Kevin Owens. He sports this ‘Prizefighter’ T-shirt, and looks excellent.
"I was pleased with my model last year," Owens tells GamesRadar+, "but by the time 2K16 came out I was on the main roster but (my in-game character) had the NXT look. Now it’s updated and has the main roster gear, and that’s cool to see. They did a great job."
No need to go into further detail on this one – just look at the pic. Impressive, huh?
In previous editions, signatures and finisher moves were handled clumsily when outside of the ring; for instance, if your wrestler’s climactic move(s) required you to be in the corner to trigger them, you simply couldn’t use it/them once you’d leapt down from the apron. That’s finally been fixed. Now, in addition to two in-ring signatures and finishers, you get two ringside signatures and finishers too. For example, Nakamura has different variations of the Kinshasa you can unleash on the ring floor, while Del Rio’s running enziguri in the corner is replaced with a second armbar. Phew.
One more major note on finishers: Seth Rollins’ curbstomp is still in the game, despite it being banned in actual WWE. (To the point that the company no longer broadcasts the move when referring back to his first WWE Championship win, at WrestleMania 32.)
Digging through the menus I spotted a handful of new abilities, most of which pertain to backstage brawls, and two new skills: 'Brawl' and 'Stare Down'. (AJ Styles, for instance, is set to Level 3 for Brawl, and Level 2 for Stare Down). These are notable because they relate to 2K17’s new ‘promos’ feature, touched on in my intro paragraph. Mark Little says he can’t elaborate on that feature for now – although it was covered briefly in a recent official website post – so instead I’ll share the exact in-game descriptions of what these skills do:
BRAWL: 'Attack the opponent during a promo and transition into Brawl'.
STARE DOWN: 'Temporarily reduce the amount of points the opponent can earn during the next node. This can be used one time per promo. The opponent’s score for the next node will be reduced to 85%'.
'Node' is not a word 2K has discussed before. Despite its ongoing silence, what we can extrapolate from the above is that you’ll be able to have back-and-forth arguments with rival wrestlers, where some kind of scoring system defines who’s winning - perhaps with a tangible benefit, such as a buff for your next match, if you come out on top. Little insists more details of this feature, which should transform WWE Universe for the better, are coming soon.
CAW makers will be delighted with this one: the wrestler select screen, and loading screens, use close-ups of the wrestlers’ in-game likenesses now, rather than real-life renders. This is important because in previous years there’s been an obvious quality difference when pitting a CAW against an on-disc guy – Braun Strowman vs Dolph Ziggler last year, for instance.
"One of the things we’ve been working towards is to make the characters look so good that there’s no need to have photos," explains Little. "I think we’re approaching that point. And another reason we wanted to push in this direction is for your created superstar. We want them to look just like everybody else [on the roster]."
This also affects the in-match HUD for the better. Where previously your reversal and momentum bars were accompanied by a small image of the wrestler’s face, the latter has now been replaced with a figure which shows off limb, body and head damage – a longstanding element of the series, but one that only flashed up briefly in WWE 2K16. (For instance when you transitioned an arm from ‘yellow’ damage to ‘orange’.)
In another cool touch, Lilian Garcia announces your wrestler’s name when you choose them in the character select screen. Returning comms men Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler also discuss the upcoming match while the game is loading, with specific lines relating to each wrestler – although it should be noted that there aren’t any included for Nakamura at this stage. (Likely due to his DLC status.)
And it’s his default top rope move, even though (to my knowledge) he's yet to perform it in WWE. That, again, is stupendous attention to detail. If you don’t get why this is a big deal, have a watch:
Breakouts, where you could interrupt an opponent’s entrance (or indeed your own) in order to attack them before a match had started were one of WWE 2K16’s greatest innovations; and now they’ve been expanded for use after a bout has finished.
So after defeating Del Rio with Styles, I tap X and am able continue to pound on him even with the post-match replays long over. He makes no attempt to recover, and I’m able to nail him with a Pele kick (fantastically animated, by the way) and second Styles Clash before the action cuts away to the crowd and the ‘Quit to Main menu’ screen appears.
Whereas pre-match attacks had the tangible gameplay effect of weakening your opponent – or getting the match called off, if you loitered outside for too long – this appears to be a mainly aesthetic inclusion, aimed at expanding upon the storyline you’re choosing to tell. Little confirms as much: “In Universe mode, if you’re trying to have a hot feud with someone, that’s a way that you can express how frustrated you might be with this rival."
Not the most profound of features, then, but still one which brings the game closer to what you see on Raw, Smackdown or pay-per-view.
“Gosh, it’s been a long time coming,” the reigning Women’s Champion tells GamesRadar+ about finally making her videogame debut – 12 months late, in the eyes of most fans. “I was waiting for that last year… had to call [2K] up, Boss them out – now I am in the game, and it’s truly incredible. Legit, a dream come true."
"I got to see a video of myself in the game and man, it’s awesome. I can’t wait to actually play as myself.” (Banks is a devoted gamer who often appears on Xavier Woods’ UpUpDownDown Youtube channel.) “There’s so many dream matches,” she says when I ask whether she’s excited about fantasy bouts against Lita, Trish Stratus and Alundra Blayze. “That’s why you have to get the game. I can’t wait.”
One of most revered features of the series in its Smackdown days was being able to fight backstage – and it was best handled way back in Here Comes The Pain for PS2, where you could move through doors into various rooms, and interact with the objects found within. [Rock voice] Finally, this mode has come back to where it belongs. [/Rock voice.]
For now you can only select Backstage Brawl from the main menu, but Little explains that in certain matches (those without count outs, I would wager) you’ll also be able to head up the ramp and through the curtain, appearing (with your opponent) in what’s known as the gorilla position. From here you can march and grapple up and down the hallways, using weapons such as trash cans and a stack of shelves to inflict damage. At one stage of an Owens vs Styles slugfest I get so close to Dean Ambrose cutting an interview that he and the host both run away. (Low-key lighting means I can’t tell at this stage if the person speaking with him is Renee Young, but that would make sense - she performed a similar role in WWE 2K16's career mode.)
I slam Owens into The Authority’s office (or, as it says on the door, Authroity – that definitely needs fixing prior to release) where Triple H stands with his arms folded as we crash into walls and generally make a mess of the place. When I step out of the room, the screen splits in two, Lego-games style, so I can keep track of both characters' whereabouts while moving around. Smart.
Moving down the hallway, I open the locker room door by tapping L1 (an alternative to slinging your opponent into a location) and wait for Styles to join me. Here the brawl becomes even more bruising; I slam him into a locker, than crash him spine-first into a TV screen – which shatters explosively on impact. One pop-up powerbomb later, the fight is over – Owens named the victor by KO, appropriately.
I absolutely love this element of the game. Its locations – gorilla position, hallway, locker room, and Authority office – may come to feel limited over a year's play, but its clear 2K is looking at the bigger picture here, and perhaps in WWE 2K18 we’ll get a car park or loading area added to the mix. For now, this reintroduction of one of the series' most popular classic features gets a Big Show-sized thumbs up.
One quick note: I’m told you won’t be able to play as female wrestlers in backstage brawls, as at the current time they’re rarely involved in such match types on WWE TV. (Which is true.)
I’ve only had chance to briefly glimpse at him while suited and booted as part of a backstage brawl – see above – but the King Of Kings' character model is one Little singles out as the game’s most authentic. “He’s one of the ones that constantly stands out. I’ve met Triple H a few times and I can tell you it looks just like him. And Bubba Ray, as you’ve said earlier, everyone agrees. He looks amazing.”
WWE 2K17 is released for PS4, PS3, Xbox One and Xbox 360 on 11 October.