Many fans argue that it’s impossible to have a five-star wrestling match; the same could be said of a five-star wrestling game. That’s partly because they want an experience which feels like wrestling, but plays like a competitive fighter – a false hope given that in reality combatants work to put on the best show, rather than win. Even so, WWE 2K17 tries its best to concoct this impossible blend, and does more good than bad. Fully develop a few undernourished ideas and there’s every chance it gets that apparently unattainable score next year.
The level of fan service on offer is staggering, and extends to taking matches and feuds beyond the ring, to the point of being able to cut promos – talk smack, basically – towards opponents, fans, and nefarious ownership duo The Authority (Triple H and Stephanie McMahon). That idea, in itself, is an outstanding one – but its delivery doesn’t match up.
Promos come in six types: ‘self promotion’, ‘call out’, ‘turn face’, ‘turn heel’, ‘form tag-team’ and ‘break-up tag-team’. On your turn to speak, you select one of four dialogue options, prompting your character to deliver a text-based rant or insult or plea to the crowd. If your promo involves a rival, they do the same, and so on until one of you delivers ‘the last word’, and a winner is declared. It’s a simple system, deserving of credit because no major wrestling game has tried it before, but falls shorts of its ambitions simply because its dialogue is, in too many places, please-slam-me-into-the-nearest-ringpost bad.
I’ve had Brock Lesnar complaining about a bad smell backstage. John Cena calling AJ Styles a rooster and telling him to “coo-coo baby”. And, on multiple occasions, been presented with the option to tell an opponent he has a “malodorous mouthpiece”. I’ve no doubt scripting wrestling promos is hard – you only need watch Raw to know this – and don’t want to be overly harsh on a feature that adds more than it subtracts. But the verbiage needs lots of work for it to be truly be described as ‘good’.
Thankfully, the other new, beyond-the-ring elements are fantastic. Fighting at ringside feels fresh thanks to new TV-aping camera angles, and tiny details you only usually notice when watching in an arena – such as spotlights tracking each wrestler. From here, brawling into the crowd is a treat: there’s an area north-west of the announce desks loaded with weapons, where you and your opponent can re-enact ECW’s greatest hits with glee. And backstage battles are the best of the lot. You can free-roam around the gorilla position, dressing room, and Authority office, whacking your opponent every way from Sunday, and pulling off brutal ‘OMG’ finishers such as a powerbomb into an oak table. (Please, do not try this in IKEA.)
Not that WWE 2K17 needs gimmicks to make you enjoy the actual wrestling element. Those looking for a pure fighter with a ‘rasslin tinge should stick with R Mika and Zangief; anyone seeking a close approximation of what happens in a real ring will be in their element. Much like last year, gauges for stamina, momentum and reversals deliver a satisfying ebb-and-flow to each match, with attributes driving the feel of each bout. Bulky, tortoise-slow Braun Strowman against turbo-soled cruiserweight Sin Cara has an entirely different dynamic to all-rounder AJ Styles battling strong-but-pedestrian John Cena. And the feel of characters matches their attributes – you really sense the weightiness of Strowman, the daintiness of Summer Rae, and all variations in between.
The minority braying for a complete revision of last year’s engine are likely to be disappointed, and will continue to be so until a No Mercy remake is commissioned. For everyone else, a few smart in-ring tweaks are included. Targeting is easier and much, much better: simply tap R3 to switch focus to a different grappler. Reversals are more nuanced, too, coming in two flavours: minor and major. Successfully nail the latter and you lose two reversal slots, but temporarily weaken your opponent. Like most elements of the in-ring action, it means you’re constantly engaging both reactions and brain – something true of too few wrestling games over the past three decades.
The star rating awarded for each match – a feature of career mode last year, now expanded to include all matches in all modes – is another superb inclusion… in theory. You can raise it from one all the way up to five by, for instance, using a variety of moves, hitting signatures and finishers, and ‘heightening drama’, but that isn’t a collective ‘you’. Nothing the AI does counts. That old adage of a five-star match being impossible? Definitely accurate if only one of the combatants is being graded.
With Showcase mode thankfully tombstoned into oblivion, there are two long-haul offerings included here. One is a spectacular waste of time. Thankfully, the other is so good as to render the first redundant.
Let’s start with the bad: MyCareer. And when I say start with the bad, I mean in every possible sense: the opening hours of this create-a-manager mode saddle you with an entirely inept fictional tag partner. Mine is called Lance Xander; it might as well be Johnny Cellophane. Before you can do anything meaningful (or even fun), you need to win the tag titles with this chump, a task made impossible by a. his absolute lack of in-ring presence and b. a ranking system which makes no sense. At one point we were 4th in line for the titles, and defeated the 3rd-ranked Wyatt Family two weeks in a row. Result: a fall down the rankings, to 5th. Just… what?
Grind for five hours or so and you eventually get to the cool stuff, such as working with (and being hilariously put down by) legendary manager Paul Heyman, but the mode will have eaten your soul long before then. Five. Hours. For me, the lowest low was a tag match where I hit my ninth – ninth! – finisher, and Xander still did nothing when D-Von Dudley jumped into the ring to break up my pin on partner Bubba. “How many times is this guy going to use his finisher?” spat commentator Jerry Lawler. “It might be time to audible that game plan a bit.” I did audible my game plan. To RKOing the entire TV set off the wall.
Mercifully, Universe mode is everything MyCareer isn’t. Offering total customisation of your own shows, pay-per-views, feuds, storylines, rosters and so much more, it’s absolutely comprehensive in scope, and mostly excellent in execution. And yes, you can – nay, should – have Bret Hart as your champion forever. Corny dialogue and all, promos do add a new wrinkle to this mode in its seventh (and best) year, and smartly break up the succession of identical matches which made it hit-and-miss in previous editions.
Storylines are more varied, too; I’ve had fun in-game months where AJ Styles and John Cena, and Alexa Bliss and Becky Lynch, have seen rivalries escalated by a variety of run-ins, distractions and other chicanery of the type you see on WWE TV, with little repetition thus far. Let’s hope that remains the same after months of sustained play.
It’s the customisation options which bring Universe mode – and the game itself – into its own. There are three separate save slots, so you could have, say, three Universes on the go from different eras, and when I say you can customise shows, that extends not only to match cards, but every presentation element imaginable.
For the first time, each show in Universe begins with a wonderfully authentic TV-style introduction, followed by fireworks and a brief welcome from Michael Cole. Don’t like the Raw video package and/or theme? Change either, or both, to one of the many intros and audio samples supplied, which includes wrestler themes. I have a retro show that kicks off with a WWE Live 91 sting, soundtracked by Big Boss Man’s Hard Times. I don’t want to call it everything I’ve ever wanted from a wrestling game, but it’s close.
Across the game, those focuses on customisation and fan service intertwine perfectly. On the subject of music, for instance, you can use an in-game equivalent of Audacity to splice entrance themes together. Want a wrestler’s tune to seamlessly switch from Stone Cold’s legendary glass smashing to Zack Ryder’s ‘oh radio, tell me everything you know’ kick? Doable in seconds. And the swathe of editing suite options extend to applying any outfit to any other wrestler of the same sex. The Shield reformed in Big Boss Man garb? Doable in seconds. Dana Brooke reinvented as a Trish Stratus clone, in the same manner as kickstarted Mickie James’ career? Doable in seconds.
I could spend another four paragraphs further elaborating on the whole ‘fan service’ point – you can now save two attires to a single create-a-character slot, and there are ten different types of referee you can select for any match, and I really must stop there so as to avoid spoiling all of the numerous surprises on offer here. WWE 2K17’s new features don’t all succeed on first try, yet in many areas it delivers way beyond expectations. And, in terms of building for the future, it’s put foundations in place which are solid as The Rock.