In the midst of a raucous hometown Chicago crowd, the WWE Universe screams my name.
CM Punk! CM Punk! CM Punk!
I am straight edge, and I am better than you. I am the Voice of the Voiceless and the self-appointed Best in the World, and after a knock-down, drag-out slobberknocker of a match with John Cena, where I narrowly escape an Attitude Adjustment, two STFs, and the egotistical schemings of Vince McMahon, I lift Mr. Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect over my head only to bring him back to Earth just as quickly, ramming his face into my knees with the Go to Sleep for that beautiful one… two… three for the WWE Championship. But our battle isn't over because we will fight again… and again… and again… and again.
Repetition is woven into the fabric of professional wrestling. At its best, this repetition lays the groundwork for the epic rivalries that forever live in the imagination of wrestling's fans. At its worst, it creates a constant sense of "been there, done that" thanks to uncreative booking in the often driftless world of professional wrestling storytelling. Coming off two hot years of digital forays into the WWE's world, the PS3/Xbox 360 versions of WWE 2K15 are more the latter than the former; they are flat retreads of their forebears at best, and stripped down expansion packs at their worst.
Despite major promised mechanical changes to the forthcoming PS4/Xbox One releases (due November 18th), last-gen console owners are stuck with the same combat system they've had for years now. Developer Yuke's elegant system allows for a wrestler to have a massive repertoire of strikes, grapples, and counters without forcing players to relearn intricate combos for each superstar. Unfortunately, that also leads to each superstar playing more or less the same despite all of them having their own diverse movesets. Playing a high-flier like Rey Mysterio handles the same as playing a monstrous brute like Rusev, which discourages experimenting with the roster. To be fair, however, those complaints momentarily disappear when you nail an opponent with the sickening thud of an F-5 or counter with a well-timed RKO.
While the combat system may be the same as it's been in years past, it is remarkably less consistent. Basic actions like dragging your opponent on the mat cause your superstar to wander back and forth before finally settling on which part of your opponent he wants to grab. Spatial recognition for ground finishers is more finicky than ever, and there is little logic to when you can and can not activate a finishing or signature move. Computer opponents occasionally stand stock still if you're caught in the corner or in an awkward place on the ground, as if they've forgotten how to attack. And countering relies on nearly magical intuition.
In terms of new content, WWE 2K15's two raison d'etres are its 2K Showcase and Who Got NXT modes. In 2K Showcase, you explore two of the biggest rivalries of the last 10 years of professional wrestling: CM Punk and John Cena in the early 2010s, and Shawn Michaels and Triple H in the mid-2000s. And in Who Got NXT, you take five up-and-coming wrestlers from the WWE's developmental program through four matches a piece.
For longtime wrestling fans, 2K Showcase mode may lack the nostalgia overload of the Attitude Era or the 30 Years of Wrestlemania modes of the last two years, but it's still a thrill to relive classic matches and history-defining moments in the WWE, such as CM Punk winning the WWE Championship at Money in the Bank in 2011 despite his (non-kayfabe) contract expiring an hour after the PPV ended, or Shawn Michaels winning the World Heavyweight Championship in the first ever Elimination Chamber match.
And thanks to smart video packages (a WWE specialty), most of these moments are given the context needed to make you care about yet another fight between CM Punk and John Cena in their 19-match campaign. You fight (and control) other wrestlers at times, but the bulk of the action is centered between those two. Throw in ever-changing ring gear that matches whatever each performer wore to that specific match over the years, and there's fan-service galore. However, any match without a video package (and there are quite a few) reeks of filler and the lesser sort of wrestling repetition.
Other subtle but important elements of 2K Showcase are mid-match objectives that lead to cutscenes during matches that fill in the most memorable moments, which wouldn't be accurately simulated by the combat engine otherwise (such as Mr. McMahon's interference I mentioned above). For those not familiar with every one of these fights, the scenes add a layer of unpredictability and drama to what would otherwise become just another squash match. It's a cool risk, seeing the objective to hit your opponent with your finisher and not knowing whether you'll succeed or if your opponent will turn the tables on you. Some semblance of this system would be quite welcome outside of the story mode.
If 2K Showcase is a celebration of WWE's past, Who Got NXT could have been a celebration of the company's future. Smarks will gladly tell you that NXT regularly puts on a better program than the company's flagship show, Raw, but the utter lack of context for your actions in Who Got NXT, beyond throwaway dialogue from the commentary team, removes the semblance of an arc you're given with 2K Showcase. It's satisfying that the objectives in these matches (which do not reward you with in-match cutscenes) match the personality and style of the wrestler you're controlling, but the mode fails to gel into a substantive whole.
Everything else in WWE 2K15 are elements of the series you've seen before except… there's less. After two years of massive rosters filled with classic WWE Legends, 2K15 backslides with just the current Raw/Smackdown rosters and a handful of classic stars unlocked during the Shawn Michaels/HHH feud. The content creation elements of the game are similarly stripped down from years past which is frustrating for fans who have lost dozens of hours creating superstars, finishing moves, costumes, and custom entrances.
One of the most touted elements of the PS4/Xbox One releases of the game is the huge leap forward in visuals (as well as a MyCareer mode similar to modes in the other 2K Sports games). The character models in the last-gen versions are a wreck. Paul Heyman looks like a low-res, bloated Steven Seagal; John Cena's eyes look like they're about to burst out of his head; and Shawn Michaels looks like he wandered in out of The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Some superstars look fine (Big E, Rusev, Seth Rollins), but I would be unable to guess who most were at first glance, were it not for their ring gear. The game also suffers from a series of audiovisual bugs including but not limited to: delayed and/or non-existent sound on mat collisions, non-existent lip-syncing, wonky shadows if the ring is hit too hard, clipping through the ropes, repeated dialogue by the commentary team during pre-match introductions, and a host of other issues.
The one area where WWE 2K15 manages to outshine its predecessors is the color commentary. For the first time, Jerry Lawler and Michael Cole recorded their commentary together for the game, and the stilted and unnatural repartee from past games is finally gone. And while it's weird (and jarringly inconsistent with the game's attempts to get all the little details right) hearing Michael Cole call matches with Jerry Lawler during the Shawn Michaels/HHH rivalry mode, when Jim Ross was doing that job at the time, that anachronism is a small price to pay for commentary that provides necessary context and fun historical tidbits. There were moments where I would stop beating on opponents in 2K Showcase just so I'd know I wasn't going to interrupt what the King and Michael Cole were going to say next.
At last month's Hell in a Cell PPV, John Cena and Randy Orton fought for the #1 Contendership to the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. These superstars, two of the most storied performers in WWE history, didn't have this match because storylines had built up this encounter in the demonic Hell in a Cell. It happened because the WWE needed to give John Cena something to do while current champion, Brock Lesnar, continues his months long hiatus. It was an afterthought of a match that paled in comparison to the PPV's main event, Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins in the same structure, which had brewed over months of excellently written betrayal, revenge, and brutality. WWE 2K15 on last-gen consoles is, sadly, more Cena/Orton than Rollins/Ambrose.