When 30 Years of Wrestlemania Come to Life
Giant Bomb's Alex Navarro sees firsthand at SummerSlam what happens when games and real life combine in the world of WWE.
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In recent years, SummerSlam has served a dual purpose for the WWE brand. On top of being one of the biggest pay-per-views in the company's stable of events, it also serves as a key promotional spot for the WWE video games. With said games typically released just a couple of months later, the developers behind the games are often in a perfect position to highlight the key features of their upcoming title in front of press and fans prior to the Sunday show. Maybe a touch awkwardly, this year's key feature refers to another, much bigger event. Previously announced a couple of weeks earlier, the 30 Years of Wrestlemania mode was unveiled as 2K14's story mode. This is to be a massive celebration of the company's equivalent of the Super Bowl, with tons of classic superstars brought back to digitally relive the best, most famous matches from the original Wrestlemania, all the way up to this past April's Wrestlemania XXIX.
In order to hammer home what a big deal this story mode--and, by proxy, this new game--is intended to be, numerous superstars of past and present were brought out this previous Saturday to talk to the press about the game, Wrestlemanias past, and what a "Wrestlemania moment" meant to them. A Wrestlemania mode roster reveal was pegged to the daytime Fan Axxess event outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles, hosted by announcers Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler, as well as current superstar Damien Sandow. Then, a separate party event was held, featuring a panel of major names in professional wrestling, from SummerSlam main eventer Daniel Bryan, to Attitude Era icon Stone Cold Steve Austin, all the way on back to the man himself, the Nature Boy Ric Flair. Even WWE chairman Vince McMahon briefly appeared at the outset to emphasize his elation at the company's partnership with new publisher 2K Games, and somewhat intensely reminded the audience that the WWE is synonymous with the concept of fun.
Even WWE chairman Vince McMahon briefly appeared at the outset to emphasize his elation at the company's partnership with new publisher 2K Games.That appearance alone was perhaps the most emblematic one of the WWE's renewed interest in its video game licensing. While the WWE has always done a good job marketing its video games, the last few years working with THQ had reportedly been less-than-positive. When THQ's eventual bankruptcy came to light, it was revealed that the company owed the WWE millions in unpaid royalties. In talking to developers who had been working on the WWE games under the THQ banner (nearly all of which were picked up by 2K when the license was transferred to them), it became apparent that THQ had mostly pushed the WWE games to the side, treating them as a way to pull in some guaranteed cash, while offering up little in the way of resources to the team. In the last days of the THQ era, it was highly unlikely you'd see any McMahon, let alone Vince, wander up to a podium to speak to press about a licensed video game. And while the boss did so in his traditionally grumpy, stand-offish way, one still got the impression that he meant it when he said the WWE was glad to be working with 2K. Who wouldn't, considering the upgrade in financial resources and marketing prowess they'd just contracted themselves into?
I realize I'm taking a while to get to the game itself here, and there's a reason for that. WWE 2K14, by all means, looks like a completely solid sequel in this long-running franchise. As both series director Cory Ledesma and gameplay designer Bryan Williams have told me while promoting the game, few of the team's original plans for the game had to be changed, thanks to the relatively sparse amount of time they were without an employer. 30 Years of Wrestlemania was always in the cards, and through the WWE and 2K's help, they've been able to acquire not just the usual slate of classic superstars (Austin, Shawn Michaels, The Rock, etc.), but also many names and faces that haven't been traditionally included in the classic portion of the roster. Names like Flair, Ultimate Warrior, Razor Ramon, Goldberg, and even the man who headlined many of the earliest Wrestlemanias, Hulk Hogan. That last one is of some special note, given Hogan's relationship with semi-rival promotion TNA (a Legends contract he signed some years back evidently helped with that situation). Granted, the WWE has never treated TNA as anything but something to be ignored, and it would be tough to properly celebrate Wrestlemania without Hogan's iconic matches against the likes of Warrior, King Kong Bundy, Sgt. Slaughter, and, of course, Andre the Giant.
With all of that said, WWE 2K14 arguably took a backseat to just about everything else going on at the very event aimed at promoting it. Something about the particular mix of iconic wrestlers brought out to talk up the game, the sheer scope of the SummerSlam pay-per-view event itself, and, in at least one particular case, (possible) considerable imbibing of alcohol by a wrestler, combined to make 2K14 seem like a bit of a wallflower at its own party.
This is by no means the fault of the developers, or the game itself. The hands-on time I spent with it at the event certainly reinforced my previous impressions of the gameplay. More importantly, when Ledesma came out to demonstrate the 30 Years of Wrestlemania mode, he effectively ran down the many ways that the team adapted many of the mechanics, interfaces, and video packages of last year's Attitude Era mode into wrestling's biggest annual stage. He kicked things off with perhaps the match most famous for solidifying Wrestlemania as the go-to wrestling event every year, the face-off between Hogan and Andre in front of 90,000 fans at the Pontiac Silverdome at Wrestlemania III. Always sticklers where the technology will allow, the team has recreated nearly every facet of the match in loving detail. The Silverdome arena is rendered in its massive, intimidating glory, with a distinctly '80s grain on the visual presentation. Andre comes out to the ring with legendary manager Bobby "The Brain" Heenan in one of those tiny motorized rings, just as he did in real life. Key moments from the match, including Hogan's crowd-electrifying body slam of the previously unslammable Giant, are set up as quicktime events, much as key moments from Attitude Era matches were in last year's game. Sure, there are small changes, such as a different ref, and unique commentary recorded by Ross and Lawler for each match in the mode, but otherwise, just about every detail jives with what I remember of the event. It's the closest anyone's come to creating an authentic, interactive record of some of the biggest moments in wrestling history.
Always sticklers where the technology will allow, the team has recreated nearly every facet of the match in loving detail.As well, if not better realized than that one was the other match Ledesma showed, the terrific career-ending match between Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania XXIV. That match was marked by Michaels' reluctance to end the career of a man he expressed great admiration for, and featured multiple great storytelling moments throughout the contest. These included Michaels all but refusing to pin a clearly beaten, but still defiant Flair, to Flair's breakdown into tears in the ring following his defeat. 2K14 captures those moments wonderfully, giving the player just enough control over the key events, while scripting the most poignant moments terrifically. Even in polygonal form, seeing Flair red-eyed and despondent at the perceived "end" of his career was a real tearjerker. Of course, we know that Flair eventually went on to wrestle many more matches in various promotions over the years, but even with that knowledge, the game still managed to tug many of the same heartstrings fans felt when watching that match for the first time.
There are more than 45 of these matches, covering all 29 of the previous events. Savage vs. Steamboat, Hogan vs. Warrior, Michaels vs. Razor, Rock vs. Austin, Undertaker vs. just about everyone, they're all there. There are certainly some omissions--any of Piper's memorable, if potentially unlicensable celebrity bouts come to mind--and there are a few head-scratcher inclusions that seem to be there strictly because they were available, like that largely reviled Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar match from Wrestlemania XX, and the thoroughly hyped but largely forgettable Cena/Rock match from Wrestlemania XXVIII (thankfully, not the even worse one from this past April). But outside of those few peculiarities, the scope and breadth of talent and history on display was most impressive, as were the educational film packages produced by WWE's video team.
As great as all these matches and features looked during the event, they ultimately played second fiddle to what came next. Ostensibly, the superstar panel (hosted by an immediately salty Jim Ross, who seemed unsure why he was actually there) was designed to give the press some sound bytes about the importance of Wrestlemania to each of them, in context with the theme of the game. What actually happened is something unique and completely unexpected for the typically highly managed WWE brand. It was something hard to describe in words, given that it appeared largely governed by complete and utter chaos. If you haven't watched the archive of the panel up on Twitch TV, you really ought to. Seeing how it went down is a hell of a lot better than me trying to describe it to you. (Skip to around the 38:00 minute mark if you just want to watch the wheels come flying off.)
Reportedly, the WWE was pretty irritated by how this all went down. After all, this was an event meant to spotlight the game, and the stream itself was broadcasting on WWE.com, a place where the kind of insanity facilitated by Ross's playful grouchiness, Mick Foley's earnest confusion over the script, and Flair's alcohol-fueled behind-the-scenes story time wasn't really in keeping with the more kayfabe-oriented content typically seen there. Last year's panel, which featured Austin, CM Punk, Sheamus, and even the likes of Mike Tyson, seemed low-key and largely forgettable by comparison.
Reportedly, the WWE was pretty irritated by how this all went down.But for as crazy as this panel was, it should be said that it was also kind of wonderful, in its own weird way. It's one thing to put press in front of a bunch of wrestlers and have them all say the right things. It's quite another to witness a group of current and former colleagues loosen up, bulldoze over the approved script, and just have themselves a good old time. Well, at least Flair seemed to be having a good time. Everyone else appeared to be laughing out of shock, mortification, or just for lack of any better response to Flair's drunkenly excitable ramblings.
Sure, I felt bad for a couple of guys, like Rey Mysterio, who drove up from San Diego to essentially get one statement in (before just resigning himself to holding his hands over his face--er, mask--for the rest of the night), and Bryan, who earnestly remarked at one point that he didn't quite feel like he belonged up there with such icons of the industry. That statement was as much a part of his character's current storyline as it seemed very much the truth. When I had the chance to briefly interview him at the event, he seemed genuinely awe-struck to be in the same room as names like Flair and Austin, let alone one of the biggest current stars featured in this year's video game. In some peculiar way, Bryan and the game felt like perfect analogs for each other that night. Both were meant to be the stars of their respective shows, but seemed almost overshadowed by the enormity of the names and egos surrounding them.
Fortunately for Bryan, he overcame any possibility of overshadowing in his match the following night, defeating Cena with a clean victory in the ring to a reverie of crowd elation, before falling victim to a trademark McMahon-brand screwjob that should cement his place as the primary hero of the company for months to come. And, all things considered, WWE 2K14 will likely overcome any of the antics that dominated this particular event. It's been a long time since a WWE game has featured a roster this deep with major names, and from a gameplay perspective, it appears to build well on the concepts and mechanics developed over the last two iterations. There's still much more of the game to see, too, with many of the current superstar roster spots yet unrevealed, and the status of at least a few major features still murky. We can expect to hear all about those things over the next couple of months, as the game works toward its October 29 release date.'