I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
Albert Einstein reportedly defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Every year, I buy these games expecting things to be marginally better. Nothing drastic, but little changes over time that will eventually lead to a fun product. I like wrestling a lot. It’s been something I’ve followed since I was a little teen boy. I really, really want there to be a fun, mainstream wrestling game someday. WWE 2k17 is not that game.
For as long as anyone can remember, these games have always felt like clunky messes that actively work against any cool thing that you want to do in the ring. This one isn’t an exception, but compared to the last few years, it does feel a lot snappier. While you’ll still find yourself squatting like a chicken waiting for your opponent to finish their groggy animation before you can do a move on the ground, the wait is much much shorter. There are also more moves that combo into each other, which are pretty smooth when you get the opportunity to use them. Another neat new addition are contextual taunts, which’ll do a different animation depending on where you are in the ring, like telling your opponent to suck it while leaning up against the ropes. You can already tell your opponent to suck it without leaning on something, but it’s nice to have options.
If you’re familiar at all with how this series handles, then you won’t have much trouble getting into this one, for better or worse. While there are nice additions, there aren’t very many positive changes, especially for a series long in need of a major structural overhaul. The controls are still antiquated, requiring strange button combinations to do common things like run or leave the ring. Prompts don’t appear when they should for no good reason. It still feels like a PS2 game in the year 2016, and that’s just plain unacceptable.
WWE 2k17 primarily features two returning singleplayer game modes, MyCareer and Universe. Absent, however, is the historical Showcase mode that would put players in the shoes of past wrestlers to reenact big moments in wrestling history. I was never a huge fan of this mode, but I know its exclusion is a huge turn-off for a lot of people. Seeing CM Punk banter during his matches with John Cena, or watching The Rock steal the camera to talk smack into it with his back to Stone Cold Steve Austin is enough to give people the warm fuzzy feeling that nostalgia brings. There’s none of that in this game.
With the removal of Showcase, it seemed like MyCareer was poised to become the new story-driven single player mode this year. There are a few scant some bits of story that are few and far between in what’s largely just a repeatable single player mode. You start with a short tutorial that somehow feels 20 minutes longer than it should be. After a couple weeks of training (set to what feels like a hellish, endless loop of Axwell /\ Ingrosso’s This Time), you’re ready to become a full time wrestler. It is undoubtedly way more fun to screw around and watch your dude stumble in promo practice, awkwardly gesturing around and tapping his mic until your trainer says, “Kid, you’re a natural!” However, for the sake of your own time and sanity, it’s probably a better idea not to mess around and complete the tutorial as best and quickly as you can since messing around puts you in an NXT chapter with no story bits at all. You have to grind your way through that nonsense before you get to the main roster, where stuff allegedly happens.
I put 15 hours into MyCareer and saw a total of two story cutscenes: one where Triple H pats you on the back and says you’re doing a good job, and another where Paul Heyman does the exact same thing. The UI gave me a little bit of indication of what I need to do in order to progress to more story bits, but that involved grinding through another 5 or so hours of absolute slog matches against really poor looking created characters. Although, you can probably skip past most of this grinding if you just pay $10 for the MyPlayer kickstart, which, surprise, doesn’t come with the $30 season pass.
Universe mode is similarly devoid of any major changes, which is a huge drag. They made a point of advertising that with the exclusion of Showcase mode, Universe and MyCareer were going to get a lot more attention. Instead, it’s the same bland fantasy booking mode it’s been for years. You still only get 3 rivalries a show, which is the main way you actually set up some kind of storyline between wrestlers. The stories that unfold aren’t exactly groundbreaking. Someone will walk to the entrance, point at a dude in the ring, and gesture that he wants his title. Sometimes a dude will attack another dude. It feels really shallow and meaningless.
Actually playing Universe mode does little for me too. You can’t play as your tag partner in tag matches, which is not only incredibly boring and annoying, but was also something they allowed you to do in earlier games. It’s my least favorite thing about MyCareer mode, and hopefully it’s an oversight that’ll get patched later. Setting two people in a rivalry occasionally means they just wrestle each other and nobody else for a month or longer, which makes an already repetitive mode even moreso. The only thing that gives me the slightest bit of lizard brain enjoyment is assigning people to brands and tag teams and matches together, looking at match cards, and saying “I did that!”
They did at least overhaul the interface of Universe to make it look similar to MyCareer, which was a pet peeve of mine as a designer. All the interfaces for separate modes in earlier games were a weird hodgepodge that lacked any cohesion. They felt like, and most likely were, developed by individual teams. However, the overhaul of Universe mode’s UI makes it less usable than it was in earlier years. You can still find out the rankings of every superstar on every brand, but it involves a few more button clicks and more scrolling through menus that lack any kind of meaningful sorting options. It’s a huge pain and a baffling change that makes playing an already unfun mode less fun to play.
Mycareer and Universe mode both tout a brand new feature where wrestlers can finally go toe to toe in a war of words with the Promo Engine, which is very barebones and pointless to engage with. You get a list of 4 unvoiced text options to choose from that are all terrible, and have a range of exactly two things: “I love/hate the Authority,” or “I’m the best superstar in WWE!” The things you say in promos don’t fit together in any meaningful way. You’re just picking from a table of canned responses, and some of them are arbitrarily the right one. Occasionally, in dueling promos, you’ll have an option that directly responds to something your opponent said. Somehow, those moments are few and far between, and not the entire point of dueling promos.
This is such a bummer since promos are a massive part of wrestling. The system in this game feels like an alpha build of what a promo engine could be someday down the line. I can see a world where wrestling promos in wrestling games totally work, too. Something like custom voiced fantasy promos where Shinsuke Nakamura smack talks Bret Hart would be extremely good, and what they have now is hollow and meaningless. The most fun to be had from promos is this one skill you get get where you choose to end a promo whenever you want, low blow your opponent, and then the game bluescreens and crashes to the dashboard.
There are a startling amount of bugs in this game. These games have always been janky, buggy messes, but typically never straight up unplayable at launch. At one point, after booting my PS4 from rest mode, my Universe mode save was totally gone. Fortunately, I was able to grab a back-up off my cloud saves. Another time I went and selected Create a New Superstar and the game just up and crashed. Probably the weirdest glitch I found was during the middle of a No Holds Barred match against a Goku I downloaded off community creations. I tried to bring him with me to this game’s brand new backstage area, but he decided he didn’t want to follow me. I went back and forth between the backstage and ringside areas, but he wasn’t there. I hit the start button, and his portrait just vanished. He quit WWE 2k17, and I can’t blame Goku for that.
My experience with the online mode of this game was just fine. I played the 2k Tonight mode which just seems to have 3 theme matches you can play for bonus points or money. I’m not actually sure and it doesn’t really matter. I matched up with some randos, and while there’s definitely noticeable latency issues, I was still able to hit moves and counter things fairly regularly. It’s not like this game requires twitch responses or anything, and if you’re actively trying to play this game competitively, I question a lot of choices that you’ve made, and I’ve played these games for over a decade.
If you’re a fan of wrestling games, I have a lot of empathy for you. There hasn’t been a good mainstream wrestling game in a long time. We’ll probably be waiting a while for a wrestling game where everything just works. I did have a moment during this game, though, that came close. After I leveled up my created character’s most important usability stats like reversals and movement speed up to max, I put him in a match with a similarly high leveled Finn Balor. It was absolutely perfect. Our reversals played off each other well, we both got in our best offense, and everything felt responsive and right. Perhaps setting my stats like that helped alleviate a lot of the clunkiness. Maybe it was total happenstance that everything worked exactly how it was supposed to. I don’t know. What I do know is that it gave me the slightest glimmer of hope. That this year’s game isn’t the best but that maybe not next year, maybe not the year after that, maybe not two years from now, but someday, they’re gonna totally nail it. Maybe not today, but someday.