Sometime in the early 2000s, Stone Cold Steve Austin drove a beer truck into the middle of a WWE arena and hosed down the manipulative and evil Shane McMahon. Back then, it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen – the tweenage me thought it was awesome.
Stone Cold was the good guy and McMahon was the bad guy. McMahon deserved to be humiliated, and he was, because Stone Cold said so. Bad guys always lose, and that’s the bottom line. But it was awesome for another reason. Stone Cold’s character represented something that every teenage boy will inevitably go through: pushing back against authority, making his own decisions about his own destiny, finding his own voice and place in the world. Stone Cold did all of those things, and that made him cool.
So when 2K announced that its 2016 WWE variant would pay homage to what many consider to be pro wresting’s golden age and one of wrestling’s greater heroes, I was immediately intrigued. What would a Stone Cold branded title be like? Would it allow us to relive those halcyon days? Would it be a stunner?
The answer is no. While WWE 2K16 doesn’t represent the Rock Bottom for the series, it does clearly demonstrate that even the star power of Stone Cold isn’t enough to breathe new life into what is now becoming a very tired franchise indeed.
Sort of unfairly, WWE 2K16’s problems actually begin much earlier than this year’s effort. For years, 2K has been pushing its flagship wrestling title into a style of gameplay that doesn’t appear very well suited to exciting and enjoyable console wrastlin’. Difficult controls, complex menu systems, and un-intuitive gameplay modes had players grappling with the game itself, not with each other.
WWE 2K16 tries hard to remedy some of these problems, such as by greatly simplifying the kick out and grapple reversal mechanisms, but even with these important tweaks, not enough radical change has been made to gameplay that is down for the count.
The problem with WWE 2K16 is both a technical and philosophical one. On a technical level, despite the small changes made, it is difficult to learn and even harder to master. Entry level difficulty settings are far too high, load times are far too long, and casual gamers enticed in by the Texas Rattlesnake will find 2K16’s method of gameplay incredibly frustrating.
This learning curve is made all the more stark by the changes you need to make in-game to show off what it can do. Entrances are inexplicably turned off, and blood (all important in the Attitude Era’s epic battles) is also removed by default, demonstrating WWE’s distasteful decline from an epic example of ‘90s counter-culture into a PG rated wrestling Disney World.
Graphically, 2K’s engine is also showing its age. While there has been some polishing and smoothing of the visuals, overall the images are sluggish, the game is still buggy (in one match my opponent kept trying to run into the ring post) and while major characters have had a facelift — Orton, Cena, the Rock, and Stone Cold all look great — others have been left out in the cold.
I felt especially sorry for poor Jerry “The King” Lawler, as 2K’s design team have made him look like the allergic victim of an especially vicious bee attack. Taking a step back, the commentary itself is boring and rote, and major continuity errors appear the moment you choose a commentator as a playable character. That being said, there’s something quite funny about listening to JBL crow about how badly he’s being beaten up with a steel chair when you’re doing it to him.
These are problems that are not made up for by the title’s content, which is generous. There’s a Stone Cold mode to play through, which is fun for the uninitiated, and the now-standard career wrestling mode with solid character creation. Those who’ve played any of the latest iterations of the series will feel at home here, but they won’t feel challenged.
But it is this strange mix of poor micro-gameplay and overwhelming macro-gameplay that brings 2K’s biggest philosophical tension to the fore. The wrestling genre is having an identity crisis. 2K’s annual offering has become a smorgasbord of menu options and modes involving a cast of thousands, with storylines and decision trees galore.
And at the same time its gameplay has evolved from being a hilarious and entertaining beat-‘em-up (in earlier versions of the game, The Undertaker would hit his opponents with a literal tombstone) to a poor man’s sporting simulator – one that can’t decide if wants to be “real” or ridiculous.
This is a disappointing place for wrestling games to be in. What made Stone Cold so damned awesome was not that he could put someone in the most technically perfect cobra clutch, but that he would laugh in the face of authority, run his mouth on the mic, and then go whoop some ass with beer rolling off his chin. He wasn’t a wrestler, he was a caricature of the guy everyone secretly wanted to be. 2K’s wrestling titles used to give gamers a chance to be that guy. Maybe they still do, but that guy is buried deep, hidden behind the online gameplay and NXT entry level career modes.
So WWE 2K16 is a disappointment. For fans of wrestling games it represents only more of the same, with minimal tweaks and no radical reform. For fans of wrestling, it’s a chore. John Cena, McMahon’s spiritual successor to The Rock and The Rattlesnake – and perhaps WWE’s greatest children’s cartoon – often exhorts his fans to “never give up”. It’s been a long time coming, but it feels like 2K might finally be tapping out.