After WWE 2K15 failed to bring the series into the current generation of consoles smoothly, developer Yuke's has attempted a course correction that sets backwards the strides the franchise had made with combat while failing to address the jarring lack of personality in any mode of the game that wasn't last year's rivalries focused 2K Showcase. Though this year's massively expanded roster is a step up from the paltry offerings of last year, the return of most of the creation suites that were missing come back in gutted forms. And the series' attempt to have the Career mode ape similar modes in traditional sports games manages to entirely miss the point of what makes pro wrestling special.
It isn't entirely doom and gloom for 'rassling fans, though. The 2K Showcase mode remains the primary reason to come back. While last year's 2K Showcase focused on rivalries (particularly CM Punk vs. John Cena and Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels), this year features a single performer: Stone Cold Steve Austin. As a retrospective of the Texas Rattlesnake's career, 2K Showcase is a nostalgic, beer-drinking, ass-whooping blast from the Attitude Era past. Whether you grew up during Austin's reign on top of the WWE or came to the fold years later, the mode includes a bevy of video packages that provide ample reason to care about this man and his feuds with the McMahons, Bret Hart, the Rock, and more. However, the best part of the whole mode is the return of Jim Ross, who records original commentary for your matches. As one of the best commentators in all of pro-wrestling, it makes you wish you could hear his voice during the rest of the game.
Little else in the game makes much of a positive impression. WWE 2K15, while having its own issues, still featured some of the best combat in the series, and introduced a stamina meter which added a measured pace to matches. This year, Yuke's has attempted to solve a problem that existed in the series for years now: an overabundance of reversals and counters. At first sight, Yuke's solution--finite-but-recharging reversal meters--seems elegant. However, you have too few counters for reversal use to be tactical. Plus, in matches where you're fighting multiple opponents, the inability to counter at will means you're open to repeated attacks until you have a charge, which you use… usually before being subjected to further attacks again. Considering that the previous games' counter system carried its own flaws, a new approach is most welcome, yet in this instance the changes have only made matters worse.
The wonky hit detection and collision issues from WWE 2K15 are also not addressed. The space in which you can and cannot pull off certain moves is as vague and seemingly arbitrary as ever. You can jam the button to grab an opponent repeatedly, and your player will just stand over your opponent as they slowly get back up. Even when you have reversal charges left, the space in which those counters do and don't work is often a mystery. Plus, your list of moves to perform has been shortened, leading to a simplified combat system.
Just like last year, the MyCareer mode starts out promising, with fully voiced cutscenes from NXT head trainer Jason Albert. After you create a superstar, you make decisions that align you as a face or a heel. However, after that new car smell dissipates, you realize that the only "scripted" story moments you get are through cutscenes with WWE backstage personality Renee Young asking you the same five or six questions over and over again, or having your rivals interfere in your matches.
Watching a WWE Superstar rise from NXT to the main roster and potentially become the WWE champion (à la Seth Rollins) isn't just about seeing them improve in the ring or get wins and secure belts. It's also about watching them grow as characters and performers. It's about the memorable twists and turns their feuds and rivalries provide (which the 2K Showcase highlights well). Earlier WWE games understood this and provided tightly scripted career modes. Yuke's treats it like a legitimate sports simulation--which wrestling isn't and will never be--and provides few hooks to the experience once you realize how slowly your character's stats advance.
The highly touted expansion of the roster also isn't as impressive as it first appears. Although the inclusion of all the men and women on the main roster, a healthy number of NXT performers, and a bevy of classic stars is welcome, there are still some unfortunate absences, namely the WWE's Four Horsewomen: Charlotte, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Bayley. In a game that features names that even hardcore wrestling fans have likely forgotten (Haku, Mikey Whipwreck, Savio Vega, and more), the exclusion of some of the most exciting performers in the entire company today is a glaring omission. Although the Create-A-Diva mode has returned, you can't have a female performer rise through the ranks in MyCareer mode.
Other problems from last year's entry remain. The visuals range from impressive--Triple H and Randy Orton are two of the more realistic-looking members of the cast here--to unsightly. In some superstars, hair hangs in thick clumps. Eyes bulge out at creepy angles. Faces are shockingly blocky at times. It's terribly uneven.
Worse than the technical shortcomings, off-the-mark combat, and terrible omissions from the roster, Yuke's failure to capture the heart of WWE makes WWE 2K16 such a disappointment. The modern WWE is overflowing with talent. The series’ inability to deliver on the magic of WWE's characters and athletes, beyond number crunching and subpar combat, indicates that this series is still far from being able to relive the magic of the squared circle inside your living room.