The Greatest Royal Rumble?
Just twelve months ago, I wrote right here that I was becoming tired of the 2K Games brand of WWE wrestling games and that they needed to do something new and innovative to shake up the stagnating formula. A dearth of new ideas, long-standing issues and the removal of some of the more popular recent features made WWE 2K18 feel like a disappointing step backwards for the series. But as you are back again this year, reading these words, there is only one question to answer – has WWE 2K19 delivered where is predecessor could not?
A fairly even balance of arcade action and chain wrestling grapples
The answer is a real mixed bag. Let us first look at the basics – apart from some new additions and tweaks, WWE 2K19 plays in an almost identical way to its previous iteration. The grappling action is all controlled in the same way, matches feel very similar and very little has changed in the immediate presentation of the game. The result remains a fairly even balance of arcade action and chain wrestling grapples, which does a pretty decent job of replicating the ebb and flow of real-life bouts.
First-time innovations from 2K18 such as the carry system have been expanded upon, along with limb-specific attacks, allowing you to target different parts of your opponent’s body to focus on. You can still alter all manner of in-game options and sliders to customise the gameplay experience exactly to your liking. There is a choice of different submission styles, depending on if you prefer button-mashing or something a little more precise – meaning you don’t have to stick to a style that you find too tricky. Submission moves in general actually seem a little easier to pull-off than last time out – which when coupled with the limb-targeting attacks, really makes it far simpler to employ whatever style of moves you wish. The pin kick-out system still relies a little too heavily on the player having very good timing, but certain wrestler skills can provide extra lifelines for those moments when you are sure you won’t be able to escape in time.
You can of course also alter the settings for the frequency of reversals – which remain a bit of a bugbear in 2K19. Of course reversals of moves are a big part of any wrestling match, but this latest instalment still tends to degenerate into long chains of back and forth reversing. This is in spite of a new reversal meter, which limits how many reversals can be performed within a certain time-frame, only regenerating with time. In practice, this still allows for too many reversals to take place, too quickly one after another – and especially in multi-player matches, one will often find themselves reversing, reversing, reversing. This is a step in the right direction, but seemingly needs to be refined a little further in future entries. On top of these very useful modifiers, there have been some sillier ones included, purely for the enjoyment of gamers – such as a Bobblehead mode, or a Minecraft-a-like block character mode. You won’t likely use these often, but they do provide a few laughs, especially if used when playing with friends.
The big addition from a in-match perspective this year is the Payback system. Each wrestler has two slots for both a minor and a major Payback move, which can be assigned when selecting a fighter before each match. These are game-changing actions that can be activated in specific situations, which can change the course of a match. These range from being able to make a last-gasp kick-out from a pinfall, no matter how beaten up your grappler is, to being able to activate a stamina and adrenaline boost, by using your Comeback skill. They can even be something more in-your-face (literally) like the option to sneakily spit mist into the face of your opponent, turning the tide of the fight. These obviously take away from the pure competitiveness of the game to some degree, but are actually a welcome addition, feeling completely at home in a sport where it is difficult to rule out anything from the realm of possibility – the surprise of the unexpected is a big draw in wrestling. These also help level the playing field a bit in multi-player, allowing for some interesting Cinderella stories.
2K Games have really thrown a massive variety of match types and game modes into the mix. Almost every type of match you can think of is on offer here, ranging from basic singles and tag matches, to steel cage or Hell in a Cell affairs, and the hugely exciting Royal Rumble or Money in the Bank ladder matches. All of these also allow for a lot of rule customisation, allowing you to specify win conditions, or Championship belts or title contracts to be placed up for grabs for the winners, for instance. Backstage brawls have been expanded with much larger areas to rampage through – including a new Wyatt Compound area, inspired by the Bray Wyatt pre-taped matches that took place last year with Randy Orton and Matt Hardy. Other AI-controlled wrestlers will even randomly appear throughout a variety of different match types to cause distractions or directly interfere with the action – all adding to the feeling that anything could happen.
Online performance is very uneven
Online multiplayer still limits the amount of match types you can choose from however, with Royal Rumbles still off the table – a disappointment that has persisted for many years. Online performance is also very uneven, after experiencing both horribly choppy and pretty solid performance throughout our testing. Like last year’s effort, multi-player match-making still takes altogether too long to complete, only helping to re-affirm my preconceptions that couch multi-player is the way to go, for fun, stability and accessibility.
Taking a leaf out of the book of Mortal Kombat, the brand new Towers mode provides a swathe of challenging Gauntlets to play through, putting your skills to the test. These range from fairly casual and easy ones, where you can complete them in your own time, to difficult timed affairs where you have to fight one opponent after the next, with no breaks and no health regeneration. Some of these will really challenge you, but players will be rewarded with plenty of in-game currency to spend on unlocking hidden content or for levelling up their created characters. On that note, the customisation suite is still slowly getting more and more features too – the newest of which is the ability to design and decorate your own Money in the Bank briefcase for your match-winners to brandish.
Career feels a lot more immersive and engaging
The career mode that really disappointed in many ways in 2K18 has made a lot of positive strides in the time since. The most immediately obvious change – one that 2K Games has lauded quite loudly – is that all characters in-game are now fully-voiced. This covers both your created wrestlers and the real superstars (seemingly all apart from John Cena, who has a pretty bad soundalike instead). This alone makes the whole career feel a lot more immersive and engaging, but that isn’t the only improvement. Where one would previously have to wander aimlessly around bland backstage areas to proceed, now these sections are streamlined and quicker to bypass. Less time is spent between conversations or matches, meaning you waste less time on the boring aspects of menu-navigation and the like. The branching storyline gives you real decisions to make, as you go from being an Indie wrestler, working school gyms, to the bright lights of WWE. This is all better written than it ever has been in the past, with less cringe-worthy lines and more pure fun to be had.
The most welcome new game mode however isn’t an all-new mode at all, but a returning one that was sadly missing last year. The Showcase mode returns, allowing fans to re-live famous events and particular matches from the past. Past years have looked at the careers of John Cena, or Steve Austin, for example, tasking you with playing through their most defining moments. In WWE 2K19 you get to play as Daniel Bryan, charting his unlikely rise from Indie darling to fan-favourite in WWE. Bryan is a massively popular figure to wrestling fans, and provides a fitting David & Goliath tale that suits Showcase mode down to a T. In-match objectives require you to recreate actual moves or actions that happened in the past – with the more successful ones being completed, the more bonuses will be unlocked and virtual currency earned. This is a terrific mode that should never go away again.
WWE 2K19 still doesn’t do everything perfectly by any means. Graphical issues from previous entries persist – such as the clear lines drawn where certain big-name wrestlers receive perfect likenesses and a lot of extra attention, whilst lower-ranking grapplers have clearly had far less time and care lavished on them. On top of that, long hair in the game still looks pretty horrible – flailing wildly like it has a mind of its own. These sort of issues have persisted for many years and surely could have been ironed out by now. But with that said, graphics aren’t the be-all and end-all, and 2K Games have done a lot of things right and corrected a lot of wrongs.