Written By: Mark Armstrong
Publisher: 2K Sports
Developers: Yuke’s and Visual Concepts
Series: WWE (Previously SmackDown! and SmackDown vs. Raw)
Released: October 9 2018
Consoles: PS4, Xbox One and Microsoft Windows
It’s amazing how fast time seems to go these days. We’re already heading towards the sixth Christmas for the eighth generation of videogame consoles, and released today was the fifth WWE game of said era. It’s unfortunately been a weak couple of years for the flagship WWE series: following the excitement of the PS1 SmackDown titles, the brilliance of the PS2 SmackDown/SmackDown vs. Raw releases and the adequate if not always innovative PS3 SmackDown vs. Raw/WWE games, the last few games have had a lazy feel to them, with glaring mistakes not rectified, dull modes replacing more popular options and the number of options seemingly shrinking as the rosters grew and the graphics became more impressive. But that trend seems finally set to end with WWE 2K19.
It’s as if the development team realised that the last few WWE 2K games, while delivering some neat features and gameplay options, simply weren’t good enough to satisfy the modern fan. For instance, WWE 2K18 would have seemed like an absolute classic in, say, the mid-2000s, but a game featuring one drawn-out and boring game mode and another mode that can feel overpowering with tools, along with little in the way of real change compared to its predecessor, was not greeted well by most reviewers. Really, things haven’t been heading in a positive direction for the series in a long time; WWE 2K16 was very good, but largely through fixing major issues caused by the prior edition.
WWE 2K19 looks to reinvent the wrestling wheel, merging the return of fan favourite features with some strong additions, real creativity and other neat touches which make this by far the most anticipated WWE 2K game to date. As an overall package, 2K19 easily blows away 2K18, and though it isn’t without its flaws as I will explain, it’s definitely the strongest WWE game on PS4/Xbox One.
Let’s start with the game modes. After only appearing as Hall Of Fame DLC in 2K17, and being omitted entirely from 2K18, Showcase mode returns with the spotlight being shone on Daniel Bryan and his rise up the WWE ranks. Almost a dozen matches can be relived right down to the twists and turns that shaped their respective outcomes, and all of the authentic arenas, attires and opponents are present (we even get a 2003 Velocity bout between Bryan Danielson and John Cena, who had only just adopted the rapping gimmick that would help to make his name). Bryan is as good a candidate as any for the Showcase treatment, and him being cleared to return to action earlier this year ensures that the mode has the perfect happy ending. One could argue that the decision to chart Bryan’s journey is a slight cop-out, since it means that all of the unlockable characters are mere duplicates of wrestlers already in the game (rumours of an AJ Lee appearance unsurprisingly proved unfounded), but having this Showcase is better than none at all.
Debuting this year is Towers mode. Akin to a similar feature in Legends Of WrestleMania, this sees you enter extended gauntlets based on specific criteria (such as legends or powerhouses), with some intriguing switches to the match rules and situations ensuring that each Tower is unique. WWE and 2K have heavily promoted the Million Dollar Challenge, where a real-life tournament will be held over WrestleMania 35 weekend for one lucky player to face AJ Styles in a videogame clash worth $1 million, but even those who just want to play for fun should enjoy this mode. It’s hardly the most innovative concept ever devised, but it’s easy to jump into and provides an incentive for completion, not to mention the unusual chance to face a gold-plated Styles in the very last encounter.
But the big story concerns MyCareer mode. If you’ve read my previous reviews of WWE 2K titles, you’ll know that I have found MyCareer to be a waste of time to the point of being almost unplayable, and I (along with many others) suggested that the mode should be scrapped entirely. But it’s back – sort of. It is essentially a Story mode disguised as MyCareer, with your created star now appearing on the independent scene, battling in streets and high school gyms, before his indie fed invades NXT. From there, a rise up the ranks and run-ins with The Authority lead to all sorts of situations, not least a visit to The House Of Horrors and a sampling of Matt Hardy’s Broken Brilliance, all with actual wrestler voiceovers thrown in.
This is the equivalent of Jinder Mahal suddenly becoming one of the very best wrestlers in the world. For the first time since, well, ever, MyCareer is well worth playing and a genuine reason to buy this game. The links to independent wrestling will please hardcore fans, whilst the deliberately over-the-top nature of the overarching storyline will appeal to casual gamers. It’s the first real story-based mode that we’ve had since Road To WrestleMania received minimal praise in WWE ’12, and it’s mostly a treat to play through. I won’t go overboard and suggest that it’s the best mode you’ll ever play in a wrestling game, but it proves that the development team have worked hard to put together a compelling plotline for fans. Just look at the MyCareer trailer, which feels more like a preview to a movie.
I had feared that the return of one mode, debut of another and redesign of a third would see Universe mode quietly dropped, but it’s here for another go-round. The changes aren’t as dramatic as those for MyCareer, but you can now pick your preferred winners for matches, assign managers to specific wrestlers, and have promos which discuss previous events and results. There are other modifications, and it’s worth noting that if you’re not a fan of this sandbox option, then you’re unlikely to feel differently about it this time. If you’re a longtime fan of Universe, though, you’ll feel that this is a decent improvement over the same mode last year.
It’s the first wrestling game to have four different modes (none of which are General Manager mode; might it finally return in 2K20?), and given the depth of each one, it’s easier to forgive the team for providing minimal changes to the wrestling engine and general gameplay. If you liked the wrestling in 2K18, then you’ll be satisfied, but if you didn’t … well, prepare for another year of slow-paced transitions and move animations. It isn’t bad at all, and there are more options than you realise at first glance, but this is the fifth straight game with essentially the same wrestling engine and very similar HUDs. We do get a Payback system that allows for each wrestler to dramatically swing the momentum of a contest in their favour (such as poison mist and entrance music suddenly playing to provide a distraction), and there are extra environmental move options for Steel Cage and Hell In A Cell matches (including the chance to slam your opponent through a side of the cage for the win via an easy escape). But those who hoped for all-new, and more exciting, gameplay will have to wait another year.
As is tradition, the roster has reached a new peak, coming in at a whopping 241 after duplicates and fictional characters (this is the first game since SmackDown vs. Raw 2011 to feature original people as in-game wrestlers). Amongst those are plenty of newcomers from NXT and 205 Live, including The Undisputed Era, Shayna Baszler, Andrade “Cien” Almas (who missed 2K18 for reasons that have never been confirmed), Bianca Belair and Mustafa Ali. Ronda Rousey debuts as the big pre-order exclusive, and amongst the DLC are debuts for the likes of Ricochet and Candice LeRae. Shelton Benjamin is back, as is Bobby Lashley via DLC, and Rey Mysterio as the other top pre-order exclusive. There is a Ric Flair-themed pre-order pack, which amongst other goodies provides a welcome return for Roddy Piper. And finally, Ted DiBiase is back as a playable wrestler, following several years of merely being a manager.
On the downside (and there is always a downside when it comes to wrestling game rosters), there are no new legends at all; yes, Piper, DiBiase and Mysterio were all absent from 2K18 in playable form, but all had previously appeared on many games. The 241 figure is misleading when you consider that Daniel Bryan has six different character models when you include Bryan Danielson, meaning that the actual original character count is nearer 200. Of greater concern to fans of the series, though, is the absence of Tommaso Ciampa, Nikki Cross and Brian Kendrick, as well as a purging of the retro crew that sees Mick Foley, JBL, Mark Henry and others all miss out. Some of the snips are understandable (such as Larry Zbyszko and Tatsumi Fujinami), but others really aren’t; Mark Henry has appeared in the past 12 games, but in the year that he is inducted into the Hall Of Fame, he is dropped? And why remove Ciampa and Cross, two key parts of an NXT brand that has so many other roster inclusions? It’s possible that one or two appear as part of a patch update (the Great Balls Of Fire arena was surprisingly thrown into 2K18 after a patch update), but if not, then these strange decisions explain why a roster which is so large managed to incur such feelings of disappointment.
Elsewhere, there are surprisingly few arenas: whilst Showcase adds a few older venues and MyCareer allows for six totally original settings, some 2017 PPVs (Battleground and No Mercy) are nowhere to be seen, and away from those unlockable via Showcase, there are only a handful of classic arenas. This, the roster issues and the unchanged gameplay are the key issues that should be worked on to make the next game better than this edition. On the bright side, Bray Wyatt’s House Of Horrors is a new location for Backstage Brawls, which creates an environment unlike anything seen in a WWE game before. There aren’t many attire adjustments (and I can’t explain why there aren’t Shield alternate costumes, especially for Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose, as this was the proverbial lay-up for the developers), but we do get a more modern Shawn Michaels (fitting, since he’s about to return to action in WWE) and King Booker in place of Booker T, as well as new costumes for the likes of Edge and Lex Luger.
The soundtrack is the usual mix of genres and styles, though the inclusion of the Ric Flair Drip is amusing. The menus take up a clean, white feel, which help to make this game stand out from its predecessor. The creation suite has some changes, but not enough to grab headlines, other than the ability to provide wrestlers with Block Bodies in the style of Minecraft. We also get a new creation mode, concerning Money In The Bank briefcases; you can now create custom briefcases that can be assigned to any wrestler and attached to a shot at any championship within the game. The DLC as a whole is a bit disappointing, with only eleven wrestlers and no legends whatsoever. Fans of Jeff Jarrett, The Dudley Boyz and Hillbilly Jim – all of whom seemed a lock to appear after entering the HOF earlier this year – will be left disappointed. Commentary is a bit better this year, though nothing to shout about from the rooftops.
The game also features more match types, albeit in terms of numbers and formats rather than stipulations. To that end, we have Five-Man battles, a three-team TLC match for the first time in many years, and the first appearance of a four-way tag option. Finally, the dev team have repeatedly stated their desire for gamers to really have fun this year, epitomised by MyCareer, Triple H having a Zombie alternate attire due to a branch within the MC plotline, and – as you may have heard – Big Head mode! A staple of Nintendo 64 classics, you now have the ability to hold matches with every competitor having oversized heads, which makes for some hilarious visuals (especially during entrances), along with some more brutal-looking strikes and slightly gruesome scenes of blood loss. Add to that other little touches, such as new screen filters to make matches look truly old-school, and the upshot is that WWE 2K19 has so much more to offer compared to WWE 2K18.
Overall, I definitely feel happy with 2K19. The tagline of the game is Never Say Never (and AJ Styles being the cover star, despite his long-running status as WWE Champion, matches this mantra considering that few ever envisioned Styles competing in a WWE ring just three years ago), and one could argue that the statement sums up the revitalisation of this series as a whole. Major changes have been requested for years, but they were assumed to be futile wishes. However, just as surprising as the moment when Shinsuke Nakamura turned heel at WrestleMania 34, 2K19 has changed the fortunes of the series to an incredible degree, taking it from a harmless yet oftentimes dull wrestling title to a feature-packed and highly entertaining videogame. Without question, there are still big problems (the game has the usual glitches that hadn’t been noticed or remedied prior to release), and the roster deficiencies pull expectations back a peg. But there is much more to like than to dislike about 2K19.
It’s understandable if you’ve previously given up on the WWE 2K series, but I would definitely recommend checking out WWE 2K19. The hope is that a renewed investment in WWE titles will allow 2K20 to be an even better entry, which could see us finally getting a serious contender for No Mercy or SmackDown! Here Comes The Pain. While we wait to see what closes out the decade, though, WWE 2K19 provides the best wrestling videogame experience in a good five years or more, and wrestling fans can rejoice that they finally have a current-gen title worthy of today’s incredibly powerful consoles. If nothing else, at least try to play one match in Big Head mode.
Overall Rating: 8.5/10 – Excellent