Since the shift to current-generation consoles, 2K's WWE series has steered away from the arcade-style formula of its extensive lineage. It's clear that developers Yuke's and Visual Concepts want to forge their own unique path to a simulation style of wrestling video game, iterating further and further in this direction with each passing installment. Much like last year, matches in WWE 2K17 have a distinctly measured pace, focused on capturing the look and feel of the current WWE product as closely as possible. It's an acquired taste, for sure, and if you haven't enjoyed this deliberate style previously--and perhaps yearn for the days of old--2K17 isn’t going to change your mind.
With that being said, however, I wouldn't hesitate to call WWE 2K17 a better video game than its immediate predecessors. For one, singles matches have seen some incremental refinements that improve the ebb and flow of each contest. While the reversal system, pin/kickout mechanics, stamina management, and submission minigame remain relatively unchanged, there's some welcome fine-tuning sprinkled throughout.
Counters, for instance, now feature a much more generous timing window and come in two flavors: minor and major--with the latter eating up two reversal slots but dishing out damage to your thwarted opponent. There's also an alternative submission minigame that ditches the swiveling red and blue blocks for much more intuitive button mashing. And taunting now provides mid-match buffs, which makes sense and gives these gestures the same measure of importance they carry on TV.
For the first time in a few years, you can take the fight backstage, too. With the gorilla position, a hazardous hallway, locker room, and Authority office ready to be demolished, this isn't as gargantuan a space as it was in the halcyon days of WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw, but there's no denying the joy to be had powerbombing your opponent onto a sturdy oak desk while Vince McMahon stands by, undeterred. Sure, backstage brawls are nothing groundbreaking, but it's an anarchic addition that's entirely welcome.
Similarly welcome are some of the improvements made to multi-person matches. Previously, these scuffles were a noxious mix of the chaotic and the frustrating. With everyone stuffed inside the ring at the same time, moves were constantly disrupted, and matches would extend far beyond their expiration date as one pin after another was irritatingly broken up. WWE 2K17 fixes this issue and injects a dose of realism into proceedings at the same time. Much like actual multi-person matches, the action is still mostly confined to two warring combatants. As damage is inflicted to various superstars, they'll roll out of the ring and lay on the outside to recover for a short time, making the in-ring action a lot less disorganised. Mechanically, this gives you time to regain lost stamina, but you can also cut this process short if you want to get up early and try to stop someone else from getting a three-count.
Switching between targets is, thankfully, a lot less cumbersome this year, too. A simple tap of R3 cycles through each wrestler involved in the bout, with the name of your target appearing above your wrestler's head for a short moment. Ladder matches have also seen some ease-of-use adjustments. Now, you'll never have to suffer the ignominy of setting up a ladder--only to climb it and find out it's not in the exact right position required to grab a dangling briefcase. Ladder placement is now restricted to specific positions dotted around the arena, which certainly makes things easier but does rob these matches of some spontaneity.
All of these changes, however incremental, move the needle in a positive direction. But some nagging issues still drag down the overall quality of the in-ring action. Now, I'm not expecting this series to suddenly adopt the fast-paced, arcade-style sensibilities of its forebears, but something slightly more sprightly wouldn’t be amiss, either. The pace of the action is still far too plodding, and the game is overly reliant on disconnected reversals dictating the outcome of each matchup. Maybe it's implausible, with such a bevy of moves available, to somehow coalesce the reversal system with the excellent motion-captured animation, but simply tapping a button when a prompt appears above your head feels far too rigid and detached from the action. These issues aren't game-breakers, and some will appreciate the deliberate pacing. But the series is still a long way off from being a king in the ring.
Online matches are effected by the same latency problems that have plagued the series for years. The general flow of each fight is fine, but the timing window for reversals is impacted, so kicking out of pins becomes nigh on impossible. I was constantly defeated minutes into fights purely because the timing of counters gets knocked so far out of whack that it's incredibly difficult to react with the necessary precision. In most instances, it felt like my button presses weren't even registering.
I wouldn't hesitate to call WWE 2K17 a better video game than its immediate predecessors.
The lack of 2K Showcase mode this year puts a damper on the proceedings as well. By offering a guided tour through some of the most memorable moments in WWE history, 2K Showcase was a nostalgia-fuelled romp of recreating famous matches and being treated to WWE’s wonderfully reverential video packages. It’s absence this year can’t help but strip WWE 2K17 of much of its personality, and that leaves MyCareer to pick up the slack.
Much like year’s previous, MyCareer is still an incredibly tedious slog, as you use a created fighter to wrestle your way through the roster, ever so slowly grinding your way closer and closer to a title fight. It’s bland and lacks character, neglecting all of the pomp, spectacle, and engaging storylines that encompass the actual WWE. This is an odd issue, considering how 2K’s own NBA series has embraced the idea of sporting narratives in MyCareer. Wrestling should be an obvious choice for similarly scripted stories, but WWE 2K17 is far more interested in presenting meaningless matches and monitoring T-shirt sales than in aping its real-life counterpart. Even the ability to become a Paul Heyman Guy boils down to fulfilling a few insipid objectives with minimal payoff.
One interesting aspect of MyCareer is the introduction of interactive promos. These exist elsewhere in Universe mode, but they make much more sense as a tool to shape your own created character. The aim of promos is to essentially play up your heel or face persona in order to achieve a positive or negative reaction, depending on how "smarky" the crowd is on any given night. You have four options to choose from for each stage of the promo, but these choices are incredibly vague and rarely reflect what your character is actually going to say. This proves problematic when you’re trying to lean a certain way, especially if you want your promo to be the least bit cohesive. The writing here is also terrible for the most part, which can’t help but break the immersion when Bray Wyatt says "You hate me because you ain’t me" or Brock Lesnar complains about a bad smell backstage. With no voice acting to speak of--just superstars moving their mouths to abject silence--this mechanic feels like a first draft that still needs plenty of work. I appreciate the effort, because it's about time a wrestling video game tried to capture one of the industry's most important aspects, but the implementation is lacking.
Other presentation issues persist throughout. The commentary is as atrocious as ever. It's stilted and regularly irrelevant--which some would argue is entirely true to life. Replays are universally awful, too, often showing pins rather than the moves that preceded them. And the whole game is considerably outdated. This isn't 2K's fault, mind you. At some point, the developers have to lock down their content and actually finish the game. They're just in the unenviable position of releasing a game a couple of months after a vast upheaval in the WWE, with the brand split resulting in a wave of NXT callups, new teams forming, shifting character alignments, new commentary teams, and new sets. Fortunately, if you're a stickler for accuracy, WWE 2K17's exhaustive creation suite means that many of these issues can easily be rectified, with the community already creating plenty of near-perfect new attires, wrestlers, and set designs.
No matter how you spruce it up, however, WWE 2K17 isn't the substantial leap forward I was hoping for. The in-ring action is still serviceable, and refinements to various aspects of its combat make for a more enjoyable game than in previous years. But there are still a myriad of niggling issues holding it back, and the absence of 2K Showcase only compounds these problems. If you’ve had previous reservations about this series, WWE 2K17 is unlikely to change your mind--and, at this point, it feels like 2K would be better served taking a page out of Seth Rollins' book for next year’s installment. Time to redesign, rebuild, and reclaim.