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2K leaves its minigame mark on wrestling with WWE 2K15

There are some wrestling fans who will buy any video game with “WWE” on the cover, no matter what the game plays or looks like. And then there’s the rest of the fan community, to whom 2K Games has something to prove with WWE 2K15.

Although last year’s game was technically put out by 2K, this is the first time the company has really had the opportunity to leave its mark since acquiring the rights to the brand from the now-defunct publisher, THQ. The last game was more or less completed when it arrived on 2K’s doorstep, so it’s WWE 2K15 that will demonstrate exactly where 2K wants co-developers Yuke’s and Visual Concepts to take this franchise moving forward.

At a recent press event preceding 2014’s WWE SummerSlam event, 2K paraded some wrestlers around and, more importantly, finally let the press get its hands on WWE 2K15.

Story/Concept

WWE2K15_PS4No context needed. Does a WWE game need a story any more than the games in 2K’s other sports franchises, like NBA 2K? Professional wrestling is built on rivalries, and those stories speak for themselves when fans are behind the controller. Plenty of stuff happens outside the ring, but wrestling is and always should be fundamentally about the wrestling.

No one needs to explain to them why it’s epic for Sting and Hulk Hogan to throw down, or why John Cena deserves a rematch with Brock Lesnar—even a virtual one—after what happened at SummerSlam. And that’s a big chunk of WWE 2K15‘s appeal: playing out the dream matches you’ve always wanted to see, even if they would never happen in real life.

Honoring a legacy. This is where 2K Showcase comes in. The new mode follows in the vein of WWE 2K14‘s runthrough of every Wrestlemania to date, offering up painstaking recreations of some other famous matches from WWE’s past. Only it’s a little more rigid this time around. In 2K14, you could fight those classic match-up however you chose to. That’s not the case here.

From each wrestler’s entrance to the color commentators’ exact words, these 2K Showcase fights will play out exactly as they did in real life. If Cena took out Randy Orton with a finisher from the top rope, that’s what you’re going to have to do to finish the match. The game spells out exact goals like this throughout each legacy fight, and you have to complete each one before the match will progress. It’s a fun way to pay homage to WWE’s best rivalries and fans’ favorite moments.

Gameplay

Seems familiar. If you’ve played past WWE games then you’ll be able to figure out WWE 2K15 pretty easily, though there are some differences. For one thing, the pace is much slower. Characters move and attack very deliberately, giving you plenty of time to react by tapping the right trigger to attempt a reversal. This is what you’ll focus on for most of each match: throwing light and heavy attacks, grappling, and whipping your opponent back and forth, while trying to remain unpredictable enough to screw up their reversal timing, and also counter their attacks.

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There is plenty of variation on that. You can get up on the ropes, run around outside the ring, pick up chairs, execute environment-specific attacks—everything you’d expect. Each button on the controller seems to have at least three separate functions, which puts a lot of different tools at your disposal—if you can remember them all.

The stamina problem. Wrestling games usually have a lot of sliders and toggles for various options, and hopefully WWE 2K15 will be no exception—especially because some of the “features” 2K had enabled during this preview demo will likely prove maddening over time.

Most problematic is the stamina bar. This isn’t the first time a WWE game has featured a stamina system, and chances are you’ll be able to turn it off. But in this first look at the game, stamina took a long time to recharge, and your wrestler can’t perform any signature or finisher moves until it does. That creates two problematic scenarios: one, that you’re playing cat-and-mouse trying to avoid your opponent while your stamina recharges, which isn’t fun; and two, that you’re unable to complete a 2K Showcase match because your stamina is too low to perform a move that’s required to progress, and it doesn’t have time to recharge because of the AI’s relentless attacks.

The minigame problem. Then there are the minigames developers Visual Concepts and Yuke’s have creating for grappling and pins. We’ve seen lots of different solutions for these up-close-and-personal moments over the years, and none have managed to really nail it yet. We’re not sold on what 2K15 does after our limited play time.

When two wrestlers initially become locked together, it prompts a game of rock-paper-scissors. Each player presses one of three buttons—triangle, circle or square on a DualShock 4, for example—each of which wins and loses to one other, and from there determines who gets the upper hand in the grapple. Then both players rotate the controller’s right stick around until they find a vibrating “sweet spot,” then hold it there for a second or two in a race to see who will come out on top.

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Meanwhile during a pin, the disadvantaged player must hold a button and release it at a specific time while watching a moving bar on the screen. If they miss, the match is over. Timing is everything, though — as is standard for the series — it gets trickier as each fighter takes more and more damage over the course of a fight.

These minigames aren’t problematic in and of themselves, but they’re as inelegant as they’ve always been.

Presentation

Needs more sweat. WWE 2K15 is undoubtedly the best-looking WWE game of all time… but it could still look much better. The character models are incredibly detailed, but the same can’t be said for environment that 2K showed off at this first look preview.

What’s more, small details prevent the wrestlers from looking as real as they should. Cena’s “jorts” don’t look quite right, for example, and the character models don’t show the wear and tear that their depleted health and stamina bars suggest. They never look nearly as sweaty as their real-life counterparts after a long bout, which makes them appear less like humans and more like dolls.

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To be fair, WWE 2K15 isn’t out until October 28, and applying polish to character models is a particular specialty of NBA 2K dev Visual Concepts. As first looks go, however, we’d like to see the visuals tightened up before the game hits stores this fall.

Takeaway

WWE 2K15 is 2K’s first chance to really make a mark on the WWE franchise, which potentially means two things. Firstly, the publisher is clearly pushing longtime series dev Yuke’s and new collaborator Visual Concepts to experiment with elements like the stamina bar, minigames and 2K showcase. If 2K gives players the options and sliders they’re used to so they can tailor gameplay to their whims, everything might work out fine in the finished product.

Secondly, this being 2K’s first real stab at the franchise might mean that it’s next year’s entry, and not this one, that will really wow WWE fans. If the two devs too focused on establishing a new set of fundamentals in WWE 2K15 to get John Cena’s jorts right, fans might have to wait for WWE 2K16 to get the game they’ve been waiting for.