John Madden has a lot to answer for. Sometime around the early nineties, when the legendary American football coach began lending his name to EA Sports' juggernaut NFL franchise, developers learned a terrible lesson: that fans will buy the same sports game in perpetuity as long as each new edition includes up-to-date rosters and maybe a little graphics tweak. And while pro wrestling isn't exactly a sport (“sports entertainment” is the preferred nomenclature, dude), Yukes and 2K Sports have certainly taken the formula to heart in their ongoing wrestling series – one that has been asking its players to accept the bare minimum, year after year, for too long.
In 2017 this shouldn't be a thing. This is the second generation of truly online-capable consoles, and by now buying a whole new full-priced game just to get an updated roster should be a thing of the distant past. Most sports games now actually do update their rosters regularly – but only for the period of exactly one year, until the next edition hits shelves and players have to either hand over the cash or get left behind. There's really only one word to describe this model of distribution and I'm gonna spell it out for ya: C-Y-N-I-C-A-L.
Surprising no one, WWE 2K18 is essentially the same game that wrestling fans have been thrashing for more than a decade now, and at this point those fans can rattle off its flaws from memory: its reversal-heavy combat is sluggish and imprecise; its controls are a morass of convoluted, context-sensitive commands and unintuitive button combinations; its hit detection is lousy; the minigames that trigger during submission attempts and holds are lame; the AI ranges from passable to “stupid idiot”; and the commentary is just the worst.
Actually, let's talk about the commentary for a minute. When you bring into a recording booth three people whose literal job it is to hype up an audience and sell the realism of a performance, and this stilted awfulness is the best you can elicit from them, you've got problems. The WWE's commentators have never sounded so bored, lifeless, and completely clueless as in these games, and 2K18 is no different. Repetition, horribly generic lines, repetition, and just straight-up incorrect calls abound. When 2K Sports can put together the startlingly accurate, interesting and free-flowing commentary of the NBA 2K series, it beggars belief that WWE's 2K outings have never once come close to nailing anything like a realistic broadcast feel.
So, okay, another year, another retread of the same old issues, but of course there are some piecemeal new features and improvements. That big ol' roster is bigger than ever, featuring nearly all of the current WWE line-up (a few notable omissions, like the Hardy Boyz, will be upcoming DLC), and a mix of past greats, from the standard inclusions of Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, and Randy Savage to deep cuts such as Papa Shango, Tatanka, and the Limp Bizkit-loving, motorcycle-riding “American badass” version of the Undertaker.
Incremental graphical updates mean that lighting is improved, and a few of the less accurate character models have been rescanned. Generally, there are some outstanding likenesses on the roster, but a few still slide horrifyingly into the uncanny valley. Hair is definitely still a problem, as well, with long-locked wrestlers suffering from severe cases of “underwater hair”.
There are also new carry holds introduced to the grapple system, allowing players to pick up their opponents and manhandle them around the ring, a double-edged sword that does help with setting up certain moves but adds another layer of complexity to the already-overworked controls.
The most touted feature for this year is MyCareer, an RPG-esque career mode in which players create their own character and work their way up the WWE ladder, starting in the NXT performance centre and gunning for an eventual headlining spot at Wrestlemania. It seems to be where players are expected to spend the bulk of their time in the game, but it comes with a host of problems that make it a deeply unsatisfying experience.
Aside from the fact that when I'm playing a WWE game I want to be using the characters I know from television, not some pale, doughy Joe Plaintrunks that the player creator makes me build, MyCareer just feels like a slog. The ability to free-roam around a backstage area between matches is a supposed exciting new feature, but I seemed to spend more time watching my shlubby avatar lurch around between the production area and the parking lot than I did actually wrestling any matches. Combined with painfully long loading times and screeds of pointless and badly written text-only dialogue, my time with MyCareer was just flat-out boring.
And this is without even mentioning the ominous presence of loot boxes, which randomly dish out new attire, moves, and boosts for you to equip to your character, and which can be bought using in-game currency. 2K has said it won't be including microtransactions in the game – possibly a decision made after the poor reception of its latest NBA outing – but the whole thing stinks of softening up its audience to the idea somewhere down the line. Oh, and you'll probably want to fork out real money for the “Accelerator” package, which unlocks all the classic characters, arenas and so on, unless you feel like facing a massive grind – it can be done for free but it'll take forever.
MyCareer also has an online mode, Road to Glory, where you can pit your creation against other players, competing for spots in pay-per-view events that mirror the ones happening in WWE in the real world. Frankly though, the loose combat of the WWE 2K series is probably the last thing I want to be playing in a highly competitive environment. Others might find some joy in it, but I would rather watch a box-set of Eva Marie's greatest matches on repeat than subject myself to that sort of torture.
Sadly, the focus on MyCareer seems to come at the expense of Showcase mode, the classic match format which has finally been cut from the game once and for all. Which means that the single player experience has really been gutted, and if you're not smelling what MyCareer is cooking, there aren't many options for you beyond WWE Universe mode, which is mostly unchanged from previous years.
Yet despite all of its flaws WWE 2K18 is still a pretty okay game. If you're a wrestling fan and you want to pour hours into WWE Universe mode, wherein you can micromanage match cards, teams, and rivalries, and watch various basic, generated storylines play out, you can. You'll have fun. If you want to crowd around the TV set with your crew, recreating dream matches and trash talking as you superplex each other off the top rope, you can. It'll be a laugh. But, you know, you've probably already done all of this before.
The last WWE game I played was WWE '13, which I reviewed for this very site. Its focus on the late-'90s “Attitude Era” appealed directly to me as a lapsed wrestling fan, and I had a blast slamming chairs over the heads of my favourite brawlers from the past. Still, even then I could tell the game was ageing badly. More recently I've been pulled back into the “WWE Universe” again, so I was genuinely excited about getting a crack at the latest in the series, but firing up 2K18 for the first time was mostly just sad and underwhelming. From the start its flaws blared at me like the trumpets in John Cena's theme song, made all the more obvious by their instant familiarity, even when my last brush with them was five years ago.
We shouldn't have to put up with this, but as long as a yearly WWE release continues to be a cash cow, there's really no choice. 2K's exclusive license means no one can threaten their corner of the market with a rival series (although if someone wants to develop a competing series based on Lucha Underground, I'm there), and the relentless release schedule means there's no incentive and precious little time to overhaul the systems that so badly need dragging up to speed. It's hard to code drastic improvements when you've got giant dollar signs in your eyes. Until something happens to break up the monotony/monopoly, this is, I guess, the best wrestling game on the market. It just could be so much better.