Growing up, the Ultimate Warrior was one of the first wrestlers I ever gravitated toward. I came in to the WWF's '80s boom a bit late, so by the time I was watching with any regularity, the Warrior had already arrived on the scene and begun ascending toward the federation's upper echelon. I loved the character for his insane, nonsensical promos, which often sounded more like the threatening ramblings of a genuine psychopath than a wrestling promo. In the ring, he was fast, absurdly powerful, and wildly unconventional. For a hyperactive 10-year-old kid, he was basically the best thing.
Flash forward 21 years, and I'm standing in a hotel conference room in New York City, watching a demonstration of WWE 2K14, the latest game in what used to be THQ's long-standing wrestling game franchise, and the first under the banner of new publisher 2K Games. Before the demo, we were told that the Warrior would be making an appearance both in the game--a first for this particular lineage of games--and in the room. The Warrior's history since that period between the '80s and early '90s is a murky and often troubled one, marked largely by spats with WWE and WCW management, as well as some controversial comments out of the ring. I didn't really know what to expect when presented with the man I briefly idolized as a kid, who was now in his early 50s and long removed from any interest in the wrestling industry. When he did finally make his way into the room to say a few scattered words thanking the developers--as well as us writers for "doing what we do"--I was confronted with both a decidedly less imposing image of a man neither as large nor as threatening as the screaming, wild-haired creature portrayed in the video game, and the still-intimidating presence of a man who may have been the most intense personality I've ever found myself sitting across from for any length of time.
If I'm harping on the Warrior aspect of 2K's first showing of WWE 2K14, that's because he was by far the most central element of the presentation. The demo we were allowed to have hands-on time with featured only a couple of match types and seven wrestlers (which also included Stone Cold Steve Austin, "Macho Man" Randy Savage, and the game's cover athlete, the Rock). Longtime series head Cory Ledesma walked us through some of the new mechanics and tweaks featured in 2K14. Among them, animations have been changed to make character movement look decidedly less robotic when walking and running; the OMG! moments--finisher-type environmental moves that debuted last year--have been expanded upon to add several more, including a few character-specific ones, such as Ryback performing the Shell Shocked on two opponents at the same time; lifting finishers have been added for a variety of different wrestlers, meaning you can now toss opponents into the air and land an Attitude Adjustment, or Rock Bottom, or Sweet Chin Music with even more fanciness; and reversals, which could often devolve into long strings of repeated grapple moves in last year's game, have been fixed to allow for better in-game pacing.
Those changes are all good ones, by the way, especially the reversals. Now when reversing a move, you have the option to go into another grapple position, as you could before, or just hit a quick move like an arm drag or Russian leg sweep. "Real" WWE matches don't tend to get bogged down with people switching positions constantly, and this new system allows for a quicker pace more befitting of the televised product. Strikes have also been sped up, making them more difficult to reverse effectively. If anything, they were maybe a bit too fast in the early build I got to play, but not unbearably so.
But while each of those changes does something to noticeably build off last year's game--which was the best in the series in quite some time--none of what was shown yesterday offered up an all-encompassing, immediately exciting talking point like WWE 13's Attitude Era tributes. Granted, 2K's team is a ways away from showing off everything the game has to offer, and many more wrestlers and modes have yet to debut. Plus, you have to consider the turmoil the developers and producers of the game went through earlier this year, as the license (and related employment) was handed between their bankrupt former publisher and their new home at 2K. For their part, both Ledesma and senior game designer Bryan Williams seemed pretty excited about where they ended up. Both remarked that really none of what was planned for 2K14 prior to the changeover had to be adjusted to changed. "I was technically 'out of work' for like a week," said Williams. "It slowed things, but once we were back on the horse, and built that momentum back up that we had before the work stoppage, it's been full-go ever since."
The WWE games have featured plenty of classic wrestlers before, but outside of an appearance in WWE All-Stars, Warrior has never been in anything modern.That's certainly encouraging news for fans who worried the changeover might have negatively impacted the positive momentum the series has enjoyed in the last couple of installments. And in playing 2K14, it's safe to say that those who enjoyed last year's gameplay will like the changes made here. But again, the demo was scant in features, and in absence of a big, marquee feature to show, the load was put on the debut of the Warrior. The WWE games have featured plenty of classic wrestlers before, but outside of an appearance in WWE All-Stars, Warrior has never been in anything modern. So of course 2K would want to trumpet the man's arrival, even if by doing so, they left themselves in the awkward position of having video game writers try to ask questions of a man who neither cares much for video games (he very quickly noted in his brief speech that he'd never played a single one), nor seemed particularly interested in talking about wrestling. My attempt to interview him (which you can listen to here) resulted in 10 minutes of rambling, occasionally wistful, and periodically hostile answers that lived up to the man's post-'90s reputation.
It was a strange juxtaposition, playing the fully formed character in the game, then proceeding to talk to the man who embodied him, who couldn't have seemed more removed from that persona he actively referred to as a "character" and "intellectual property." Most wrestlers, even later in life, like to continue playing up their in-ring personalities and previous feuds as if they were still ongoing. By contrast, Ultimate Warrior, despite having legally changed his name to Warrior some years back, seemed to treat his wrestling years with a mixture of mild fondness and moderate exasperation. When I asked him about career highlights, he began rattling off names of guys who had treated him well during his time in the business (Andre the Giant, "Ravishing" Rick Rude, and the Undertaker, among them) and touched on a few moments like his championship win against Hulk Hogan, before just kind of trailing off. He came off like a man who pursued pro wrestling as an interesting challenge, but refused to let it be the defining element of his life.
So, you know, maybe he's not the best ambassador for sports entertainment, nor the video games based on them. Still, I enjoyed playing as Warrior in WWE 2K14, because I enjoy playing these games in general. What little we were shown of 2K14 looked like a natural extension of what WWE 13 offered, and in seeing the tasseled, neon-colored Warrior return to the ring in digital form, I definitely found myself feeling nostalgic for the days when I watched him pummel Hogan, and send Randy Savage packing in a career-ending match at Wrestlemania VII. It's a strong realization of Wrestlemania VI-era Warrior, even if his hair might seem a bit more hilariously huge than was ever accurate (or humanly possible). I made the mistake of briefly joking about that during our interview, to which Warrior replied, "Are you playing a game for the f*****g hair?" before telling me not to nitpick like an Internet commenter.
As much as these games may be about the modern WWE product, they're also effective nostalgia delivery systems, and WWE 2K14's roster is shaping up to be as good a nostalgia machine as any of the other recent sequels in the series. The representatives at 2K seemed certain that more on the game would be revealed around SummerSlam, which arrives on pay-per-view next month. I expect we'll hear more then about whatever 2K14's next story mode and other assorted features will entail.
Until then, rest comfortably in the knowledge that 2K is evidently treating the developers of WWE 2K14 well, and the work that was put into the game prior to the THQ changeover was not lost. 2K is treating this like a fully formed sequel, and not a transition year marred by inter-publisher dealings. We haven't seen much yet, but what I did see at least gives me some hope that that's the truth.
As for the Warrior? When I got up to exit my interview with him, he turned to me and very excitedly exclaimed, "Make sure you put it in your write-up that to get me, they gotta do the preorder. All right?" This, after 10 minutes of mostly evading or half-answering what questions I had. This was the thing he was energized to talk about. Though I realize this was probably the one point he was told to emphasize by 2K's media team, as I walked out of the room, all I could see in my head was Warrior, in full regalia, standing in the middle of the ring, hissing the words "Preorder me, warriors!" into a microphone. At that moment, I think a little Warrior-sized chunk of my childhood finally died. Maybe it's for the best.'