Wrestling is a pageant. It is a ritualized celebration of athletic excellence, over-the-top characters, and flashy production. Take away any of these elements, and the pageantry suffers. Phenomenal technical or aerial wrestlers like Cesaro or Kofi Kingston have trouble getting over with audiences because they don't have the bombastic personalities to match their enormous in-ring talent. And wrestlers that are all charisma and no technical skill burn out when their gimmick is no longer welcome. The current-gen releases of WWE 2K15 nail the production and athletics of wrestling better than any game in the franchise, but the character-driven, storytelling soul of the WWE is lost in the process.
After scrapping his way up from the WWE's developmental circuit, NXT, the Hollywood Thunder has fought every opponent thrown at him and spent an unprecedented year as the NXT champion as he honed his craft on second-tier programs like Main Event and Superstars. But, it's time. He's been called up to the big dance. He's on Smackdown. It's not quite Raw, but instead of fighting jobbers, Thunder is taking on established names. Now is his chance to prove he belongs in the WWE.
Sadly for the Hollywood Thunder, it turns out that being on Smackdown isn't too different from the years that preceded his promotion. Voluntarily dropping the NXT title so he can challenge for more prestigious belts, he winds up battling in months of filler matches with no story and no context. He's making more money, but he misses the days when each fight meant something… when each fight was a blood feud to keep his belt.
But, one day, apropos of nothing, Daniel Bryan calls him out. One of the most naturally talented superstars of the modern WWE hasn't lost a match in six months, and he appoints the rising Thunder his challenger. How does Thunder respond? He punches the leader of the "Yes!" movement in the family jewels. Thunder's a heel and for the next month, he spends every possible moment sneak-attacking Daniel Bryan in preparation for their big match. And when the PPV finally comes, Thunder knocks out the ref, bludgeons Daniel Bryan with chair shots, and then hits a Curb Stomp for the win. And, afterwards… Daniel Bryan and the Thunder lead the WWE Universe in a friendly "Yes!" chant to celebrate Thunder's victory.
That story evolved from time spent with WWE 2K15's highly touted MyCareer mode. And for those hoping for the tightly crafted narratives of WWE career modes of yesteryear: leave those expectations at the door. After creating a character (provided you don't experience the hard crashes currently plaguing Xbox One users in this mode), you begin as a fresh recruit at the WWE Performance Center in Florida and work your way up the WWE ranks until you can one day be the WWE champion.
And while the mode lays the groundwork for storytelling in the beginning (including fully-voiced cut scenes with actual NXT trainer Bill DeMott), it quickly devolves into an endless series of text-driven messaging. If you're lucky, Vickie Guerrero or William Regal will provide you with short snippets for why you should care about your match, but, more likely, your fight will lack any sort of context and you'll be wrestling purely for the money and upgrade points.
That story with Daniel Bryan occurred after over eight hours in MyCareer mode. And the four weeks spent feuding with the man who stole this year's WrestleMania were the highlight of the mode even if the ending makes no sense considering my custom character's role as a sneaky, vicious heel. Prior to that match, I'd had a couple of social media-driven feuds with over superstars but those only lasted a week or two and they only ever occurred when I was the NXT champ. And after the Bryan feud, it was hours of meaningless fights before another story event occurred. I joined Team Randy Orton (the heel team) for Survivor Series but, like the majority of previous feuds, this was told only through tweets.
With the exception of the short-lived Bryan feud, every element of MyCareer mode (one of the two story-driven modes in WWE 2K15) feels half-baked. You have a face/heel gauge, but opportunities to act as a heel or face are rare. I counted perhaps four moments in my 10 or so hours with MyCareer mode when I was able to make a heel story choice. Mostly, the only way I was able to generate heel heat without sacrificing my momentum as a superstar was to put on a great match and then hit my opponent with a foreign object to get myself disqualified. Upgrading your character is too slow a process at first and then goes far too quickly once you make it to Smackdown. I went from taking months to upgrade key stats to majorly updating multiple stats in weeks. Similarly, you spend your salary on new moves which also goes from torturously slow to overwhelmingly rapid at the flip of a switch.
The other, better campaign mode is the 2K Showcase focusing on two of the biggest rivalries in WWE history: John Cena vs. CM Punk and Shawn Michaels vs. Triple H. It's largely unchanged from the last-gen versions (MyCareer mode being a current-gen exclusive). You fight a series of matches exploring the most dramatic moments in these classic feuds while smart video packages provide context for your bouts. Though, any fight without a video package is immediately recognizable as the filler it is. The Shawn Michaels/Triple H feud, in particular, delivers a rousing arc of friendship, betrayal, and revenge from start to finish.
The 2K Showcase mode also displays a fantastic mechanical wrinkle where in-match objectives add a layer of unpredictability and drama. In the first match of the CM Punk/John Cena feud, you may have an objective to hit Cena with a top-rope signature. And you attempt this but transition to a cut scene where Cena counters with an Attitude Adjustment that you turn into the Go to Sleep which he then turns into the STF which you turn into an Anaconda Vise. Great wrestling matches are full of these shocking back and forth moments, and for those not familiar with the inner workings of all of these classic matches, it constantly keeps you wondering about what will happen next.
For those hoping that the gutted rosters and customization suites that blighted the last-gen versions would be gone for new systems--sorry. Although the last two years of WWE games have seen positively massive rosters and a treasure trove of ways to tweak your WWE experience, 2K15 features the current Raw/Smackdown rosters, a handful of NXT superstars, and a similarly limited selection of classic performers. And entire Create-A-"X" modes have been removed from the game, including Create-A-Diva, Create-A-Storyline, Create-A-Finisher, and more. It's a disappointment for the most dedicated modders out there, and the WWE creative community is usually quite active.
It's a shame that the stories and personalities that keep audiences tuned into wrestling every week (whether that's Stone Cold flipping the bird to Mr. McMahon or, more recently, Rusev's anti-American rampage across the entire WWE roster) are so absent from MyCareer mode because the series has never looked better. New technology and a new console generation have led to night-and-day leaps forward in character capture. Stars like Dolph Ziggler, Randy Orton, Sami Zayn, and many more are stunning, with animations that even manage to capture some of their signature facial tics. I tweeted a still of Dolph Ziggler from the game, and at first a friend thought it was a screencap from television.
It is capable of delivering great in-ring action, and it has the flashy production values that none of Vince McMahon's competitors have ever been able to replicate, but it's hard to care about why any of it is happening beyond the moment-to-moment competition.
Not all of the character models are successes, though. Superstars with pronounced facial features become cartoonish with this new scanning technology. John Cena looks like a jowly, Cro-Magnon bulldog, and any characters with large foreheads seem comically misproportioned in the game. That's nothing compared to characters with large mouths, though, such as The Miz or Summer Rae who become almost monstrous with freaky, distended smiles. They’d look more at home in a Silent Hill game. Characters that weren't scanned at all may lack the body horror of poorly scanned performers, but they're certainly less appealing than the scanned performers.
The in-ring combat has seen nearly as much improvement as the game's visuals. Though the new "collar-and-elbow tie-up" system for the beginning of matches adds an interesting strategic tweak that keeps matches from unrealistically exploding right out of the gate, it's the new stamina and health systems that totally revamped how I played WWE 2K15. For the last couple entries, stamina was relegated to when your character ran. It had little to no interaction with grappling and striking or aerial offense. And, while the health for each body part is still present, a character's health is primarily related to a health bar.
Each character has three stamina bars and three health bars. If you lose a health bar, you drop down to the equivalent stamina bar if you haven't fallen there already. This ensures that if you're at low health, your character is now beat to hell and worn completely out. He can't move as quickly as he did at the beginning of the match. It became my goal to make sure that my character's stamina never dropped below where his health dictated it should be. This slowed my play down significantly, but it made matches more realistic. I wasn't flying full-force at opponents until I squashed them into defeat. I had to think about how I expended my energy. And, if I made tactical errors, it was much easier for AI opponents to turn the table on me than it had been in years past.
Certain wrinkles of combat are still problematic. Counters still refuse to become an intuitive process minus countering strikes. It's too easy to lose all of your first bar of stamina (an important advantage in combat) if you're at the losing end of the rock-paper-scissors element of the collar-and-elbow tie-ups. Tag team partners don't seem to know anymore that, if you've hit your finisher on an opponent and are about to go for the pin, they should enter and stop your opponent's partner from breaking up the pin. And reversals do a disproportionate amount of damage that creates a disincentive to perform many moves in your arsenal.
Furthermore, though they’re much rarer than they were in the last-gen versions, bugs still pop up. In tag matches, it's easy to make your performer's hands vibrate infinitely at super speeds if you're not the one tagged in. During a training match in the performance center, a collar-and-elbow tie-up turned into both wrestlers falling on the ground, and then floating/sliding under the ropes and out of the ring without ever stopping. And, certain finishers just won't connect (not involving a legitimate counter) simply because the game's collision system decides it doesn't want to function.
WWE 2K15 reminds me too much of the modern WWE. It is capable of delivering great in-ring action, and it has the flashy production values that none of Vince McMahon's competitors have ever been able to replicate, but it's hard to care about why any of it is happening beyond the moment-to-moment competition. And while that can provide plenty of entertainment while you're playing/watching Raw, it leaves the sinking feeling that the wrestling you love lacks the spark to be special anymore. At no point does WWE 2K15 gel into something truly special.