At this point, even the most ardent WWE 2K fan would be hard pushed to claim that developers Yukes and Visual Concepts, with their brisk annual turnaround of these games, are committed to anything other than refinement when it comes to the popular grappling franchise. All the same, the notion of refinement is no bad thing and as WWE 2K18 proves in earnest, while there is little room for 2K’s wrasslin’ product to evolve significantly further short of a full reboot, this latest entry in the franchise is arguably the best the franchise has been on PS4 in its current form.
The biggest roster and the deepest grappling engine yet
For fans of Vinny Mac’s globe-spanning wrestling promotion, WWE 2K18 arrives at one of the most interesting points in the company’s long history. Arguably, there are few things more interesting about WWE than its roster right now; with the company embracing foreign superstars, indie talent and built from the ground up prospects, WWE 2K18’s roster represents this diverse showcase of superstars that are a world away from the massively muscled and charismatically dull giants that dominated the sport in its earlier days.
By reflecting this, the gargantuan roster that WWE 2K18 boasts is a veritable cornucopia of WWE’s new approach towards wrestling talent. From the lightning fast and athletically gifted members of the cruiserweight division such as Jack Gallagher and Cedric Alexander, through to the endless potential of the latest upcoming talent from NXT like the monstrous duo of the Authors of Pain and the wonderfully unorthodox Kassius Ohno, nobody in their right mind could ever accuse 2K of solely recycling superstars from previous games.
All the same, fans of the superstars that have built WWE into the iconic juggernaut that it is today, will find themselves well served by WWE 2K18, as the game does its best to include all of the favourites from yesteryear, with the likes of The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Goldberg and The Undertaker rubbing shoulders with older legends of the sport such as Andre the Giant, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels to name just few. In short, if there’s a wrestler that you’re fan of, the odds are good that WWE 2K18 has them in its 170-plus strong roster, and even better that if they’re not present in the game, you simply can simply just create them yourself. All in all, this is without a doubt the best and most inclusive roster ever seen in a WWE game.
If the roster in WWE 2K18 is the end result of 2K’s relentless pursuit of refinement, then so too are the myriad of gameplay systems which underpin its furious exchanges of in-ring action. One of the biggest improvements that WWE 2K18 brings over WWE 2K17 in this regard, is that this year’s game now allows players to choose between two different submission systems; either the rotating bar system that featured previously, or, a button pushing system where the correct commands need to be inputted in order for the submission to be pulled off.
Of equal note is the new Carry system, which allows players to freely heft their opponents around in one of four different positions and then execute special environmental attacks from each of those different states. The impact that this has on the in-ring (and out of the ring) action is substantial since a wealth of sadistic and violent possibilities are now open to the player including, but not limited to, powerbombs from the ring to the floor, shoulder slams into the turnbuckle, front slams onto the steel steps and much, much more besides. Furthermore, concerns that the system could unbalance things and be subject to abuse can be allayed; as the individual on the business end of a carry manoeuvre can hammer the circle button quickly in order to escape it, so no worries there.
As for the remainder of the gameplay systems, though 2K has made an array of much smaller and subtle tweaks across its breadth (the new ‘major’ reversals system which now separates finishing move counters into their own category being one such highlight), it’s pretty much business as usual as the striking, grappling and taunt systems return from WWE 2K17 pretty much wholesale and entail that players of last year’s game should be able to jump into a match in WWE 2K18 with ease. As such, the wrestling gameplay in WWE 2K18 is ostensibly the best it has ever been, while also lending credence to the fact that local multiplayer sessions on WWE 2K18 are some of the most fun that you and a bunch of mates can have while huddled around a PS4.
Bursting with new modes and match type variations that vary in calibre
One of the hallmarks of 2K’s WWE licensed offering is that each instalment is absolutely rammed to the Gillbergs with modes and match types for players to get stuck into, and this year’s effort is certainly no different in that regard. In addition to the usual raft of match types such as Hell in the Cell, Iron Man and Submission scenarios, WWE 2K18 also offers some new variations including Triple Threat Falls Count Anywhere, 6-man TLC matches as well as brand new 8-man, Tag, Ladder and Battle Royale matches, too.
When it comes to modes, 2K has continued down the path of set by last year’s game in embracing the WWE Universe and MyCareer modes as the twin cornerstones of WWE 2K18’s single-player offering. Disappointingly, it’s in these two modes that we begin to see a contrast to WWE 2K18’s more progressive strides, as it becomes obvious just how much other elements of the franchise have remained stagnant.
First off, WWE Universe is the mode that has certainly evolved the least and the litany of flaws that have barnacled themselves onto it for the last few years remain frustratingly intact here; with nonsensical rivalries (Sin Cara vs Brock Lesnar, for instance) and tediously limp storylines doing little to accurately mirror the real-life spectacle. Faring a bit better is this year’s take on the MyCareer mode that has been a staple of the last couple of games in the series. As before, players can create their own wrestler and have them follow an abridged version of a wrestler’s career trajectory; starting them off in NXT before upgrading their skills and abilities en route to progressing onto the main roster and then onto the superstardom of Wrestlemania, the biggest event in the WWE pay-per-view calendar.
For this year’s game, 2K and Yukes have added a new wrinkle to the mode in the form of third-person exploration sections where, in-between matches, you’ll get to wander around backstage, chat to other wrestlers, complete side-quests and forge your destiny as either a good guy fan favourite or as a bad guy company man. Though the idea of a RPG-lite style mode in a WWE setting certainly appeals, it just hasn’t been properly executed here. The first issue is that the quality of writing in this mode leaves more than a little to be desired. Indeed, the fact that the dialogue which comes out of the superstars mouths is nothing like their real life counterparts does little to help suspend belief. Having the Beast from Belfast, Killian Dain for example, telling me that “Yeah! You can do it!” with a big cheesy, non-ironic grin on his face is just one of many examples of how badly the developer has missed the mark here.
The other crazy thing about MyCareer is that relationships don’t seem to carry through or really count for much in the long-term. So take Bobby Roode for example; after having a heated rivalry that culminated with me winning the belt from him, just one week later, Roode had me doing a side quest for him to run in on someone else and all of a sudden we were best buddies and proceeded to carry on as if nothing had happened previously. It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense most of the time.
Other issues with MyCareer mode are that there is no way to generate a custom female wrestlers, (a seemingly obvious symptom of the game’s relatively curtailed development cycle), and the fact that it leans on the Promo Engine; the mode from WWE 2K17 which allows the superstars to cut promos and verbal sparring sessions with one another. On that topic, the Promo Engine stuff remains, as in previous years, the most unnecessary part of the whole package, as the player must tonally link together a series of poorly written, text only dialogue sentences and.. that’s pretty much it.
Saving MyCareer mode somewhat is Road to Glory, an online multiplayer component that gives WWE 2K18 a root in contemporary, real-life WWE shenanigans. How this works is that it allows players to take their MyCareer superstar online and pit them against other players creations on real WWE event cards, with the goal being to fight for a main event spot on the more prolific shows in order to earn larger stat and skill awards to improve their character. The fact that this mode effectively parrots the real-life WWE event schedule means that there will always be something for players to look forward to, and as such, helps to elevate MyCareer a little further as a result.
Away from the inconsistent execution of the WWE Universe and MyCareer modes, WWE 2K18 finds familiar and surer footing in its typically overwhelming suite of creation modes. Here, as was the case in previous years, players can thoroughly craft everything from individual moves, to entire rosters of their own wrestlers and even on their own belts, arenas and shows. In short, the legs that these modes afford WWE 2K18 are astoundingly substantial, and long after the other WWE Universe and MyCareer modes have exhausted their appeal, within these creative tools players will find a near endless bounty of possibility that is only limited by their own imaginations.
WWE 2K18 looks better for leaving the last console generation behind
Unshackled from the last gen platforms, WWE 2K18 is free to fully enjoy the benefits of the more powerful PS4 hardware and this naturally brings with it a number visual enhancements over last year’s cross-gen developed title. By far the two biggest of these enhancements are the new lighting system which make the entrances really pop as they do in real-life, and a new level of texture detail that makes each of the superstars look more true to their real life counterparts than ever before (wrestler Dana Brooke in particular now actually looks like Dana Brooke, rather than Zombie Mode Dana Brooke as she looked in last year’s game, for instance).
Visually though the game has undeniably improved over last year’s outing it still falls short in a number of areas. In addition to the usual array of now sadly customary WWE 2K glitches and funky character model freak outs, the game also suffers from the dreaded slowdown during its backstage brawl sections, while the third person roaming about sections of the MyCareer mode also suffer from occasional bouts of screen tearing. Throw in a seeming complete lack of PS4 Pro support (something that might have helped with the aforementioned tearing) and what you’re left with is an attractive though ultimately inconsistent visual package that really, in 2017, should look a touch better than it currently does.
Regardless, aficionados of the squared circle will be pleased to know that many of the entrances for the wrestlers have come on leaps and bounds from last year’s game. Take The King of Strong Style, Shinsuke Nakamura for example; no longer looking like a flailing, coked-up reveller stumbling home after a rave, in WWE 2K18 the developers have managed to convincingly nail his flamboyant swagger and exaggerated, dance-like mannerisms to fashion a near spot-on depiction of the Smackdown superstar.
If it wasn’t already, the clock is ticking on 2K’s WWE franchise. With little room to fashion innovation within the tight constraints of a yearly turnaround and reliance on existing technologies, the series is in desperate need of a rebuild the likes of which a 12 month development cycle cannot presently accommodate.
Simply put, 2K need to take a break for a year or more and really get to the grassroots and reinvent the WWE 2K franchise, because much like legendary WWE stars Chris Jericho and The Undertaker, relevance can only be sustained by reinventing yourself and invariably this is an inconvenient truth that 2K, Yukes and Visual Concepts must confront.
Nonetheless, WWE 2K18 represents the absolute pinnacle of the WWE 2K franchise as it currently exists. Though it sadly inherits the numerous glitches and undercooked elements that the series has encompassed for years, WWE 2K18 ultimately does right by its fanbase in offering the largest roster to date, stellar audiovisual presentation and the most refined grappling gameplay to come out of the franchise in a long time.