Professional Wrestling has been among the more popular sports to turn into video games since the medium’s infancy, and it’s not hard to see why: The colorful characters, built-in “match narratives,” arcane rules that are somehow rigid and malleable in equal measure, character-specific move sets including nicknamed “finishers”… the two mediums share so many tropes and traits that it’s near-impossible to tell who borrowed what at this point.
When Roman Reigns is ready to execute his finisher, “The Superman Punch” (forward-leaping downward cross strike, popularized in Muy Thai and mixed martial-arts), he signals his intent to the crowd by “cocking” his right arm like a shotgun, dropping dramatically to one knee, slamming his fist into the mat and pausing to glare up at his target before the (usually) victorious lunge. It’s “powering-up” choreography familiar from dozens of video games… but ported over from fighting-themed manga and anime that have often been profoundly influenced by pro-wrestling, which happens to be massively popular in Japan.
But while games based on “legitimate” sports like baseball, basketball or American football have been widely improved by modern innovations in graphics, A.I. and movement simulation; doing the same for what the pro-wrestling biz today calls “sports entertainment” has proved (with the notable exception of THQ’s WWE All Stars, which ditched any semblance of reality for an arcade-style fighting game approach) a trickier proposition: What does “realism” mean to a sport where the outcomes are predetermined, the motivations are scripted and the characters are to varying degrees fictional constructs? Do we really want things like a realistic physics engine when the “real” sport being simulated runs on its own alternate-universe physics where, for example, you can take multiple direct strikes to the head and merely become more determined to win… but can be rendered unconscious by a single surprise smack across the back with a folding chair- providing, of course, that said chair being wielded by your former best friend who has inexplicably formed an allegiance with your mortal enemy?
2K, Visual Concepts and Yuke’s are betting big that the answer from rasslin’ fans and gamers alike is a resounding, Daniel Bryan-style “Yes! Yes! Yes!” With WWE 2K15, they’ve set out to deliver the most authentic looking and realistic feeling wrestling game ever, and even in an unfinished form it seems quite possible that they’ll have succeeded. Whether or not the final product will be what WWE fans actually want or something gamers in general will find fun to play? That remains to be seen.
The main overhaul (from previous games in the official “main” WWE series, which 2K took over from THQ as of ’14) has been to the gameplay. Whereas most earlier pro-wrestling games generally allowed players to begin throwing strikes or lunging for holds right off the bat, 2K15 makes an interesting attempt to mimic the move/countermove “chain-wrestling” choreography that traditionally forms the first narrative “act” (and sometimes more) of a real-life match by having matches in the game put players through a set of minigames before they’re permitted to start throwing strikes and activating special-moves.
In the build offered hands-on to members of the press (at a debut event held adjacent to last weekend’s Summer Slam) it works like this: When opponents lock up at the start of a match, it triggers a rock-paper-scissors button-pushing minigame that decides which player will start off with the upper hand. That position can then be prolonged or reversed by the outcomes of a second minigame built around a “lock-picking” mechanic (i.e. turn the thumbstick until it vibrates, hold it there until the power-meter fills up.) Until the back-and-forth of these minigames has left one or both fighters sufficiently damaged, the full arsenal of moves isn’t at your disposal.
It’s an interesting idea: Using a scripted sequence to lock players into acting out the rhythms of a scripted professional match. I personally found it frustrating to get into at first, the feeling you get from an unskippable tutorial in a long-running series (“Yes, Cortana/Fi/Kenzie/Bruce Campbell, I know how to jump – this the fifth bloody sequel!”) but there’s a semblance of satisfaction once you get the hang of it and it’s not hard to imagine devoted players taking great pride in their ability to work through the grappling “dance.”
Unfortunately, I find it even easier to imagine fans more accustomed to the immediate “set your own pace” play of earlier titles to be irritated by its presence if not outright infuriated by it being mandatory (it feels, more than anything, like an option the developers are so proud of they couldn’t bear to allow you to turn it off) – especially given the unwelcome reputation that scripted sequences, quick-time events and minigames often have among core gamers. I asked WWE 2K15 executive producer Mark Little (who was present for the unveiling, along with Stephanie McMahon and a variety of WWE Superstars) if the prospect of gamers looking at “chain-wrestling” as yet another QTE, he was confident that they wouldn’t:
“It’s not [a series of QTEs]. It’s dynamic. There’s no predetermined system involved. Depending on who does what when, the outcome will be different. It’s truly a back and forth chain-wrestling experience, not just push a button.”
In his onstage presentation earlier, though, he seemed more concerned about player reaction to the introduction of a stamina system – another mechanic roundly disliked by players in similar genres. Here, it feels less like a concession to “realism” and more like a way to incentivize players to get into the mix and stay there despite the (now) more accurate simulations of relative weight and speed removes the fighting-game style feel from a flurry of blows.
That greater adherence to the real can be seen most visibly in the game’s highly touted graphics presentation – easily a high point for the series (no less than John Cena himself, speaking at a Roster Reveal press event one day earlier, acknowledged that WWE games have never been known previously for top-tier graphics) and a major selling point for 2K15. The extensive facial and motion-capture done for many of the unhand Superstars is remarkable, and coupled with staging and composition that accurately reflects the WWE’s “house-style” TV presentations is really something to behold, and fires the imagination in regard to what little was to be seen/experienced of the “Showcase Mode” (which recreates famous storylines from roster-members careers) and the PS4/Xbox One-only “My Career Mode” (which promises the chance to take a player-created character from an NXT-rookie to Hall of Fame inductee.)
It looks so much like the real thing that it even makes the inclusion of retired/semi-retired “Legends” like Hulk Hogan and Sting (or the no-longer-affiliated CM Punk) in the roster almost feel like something more than a gimmick: Hell yes, I want to see Hulk Hogan, time-displaced in his physical prime to what looks for all intents of purpose a present-day Monday Night RAW broadcast, drop the leg on Bray Wyatt! …even if it means going through a somewhat tedious minigame despite Hogan (and, it must be said, several other “Superstars” in the roster with him) never having been much for chain-grappling to begin with.
While still unfinished, WWE 2K15 appears to be a franchise sports title with genuine ambition – something we don’t see too often anymore. But its ambitions may well be at odds with its subject, attempting to build a realistic sports-sim around a sport that’s anything but realistic (would the “real” Randy Orton let some game dev’s “rules” about a lockpicking minigame get in the way of throwing an early cheap shot?) Wrestling fandom has always been uneasily split between those who love the science and those who thrill to the spectacle, and it remains unclear that 2K15 will succeed in its lofty goal of satisfying both.