“AEW: Fight Forever will win over N64 nostalgists, but anyone looking for a modern wrestling experience may be let down by an unpolished, bare-bones package.”
- Nostalgic wrestling system
- Road to Elite shines
- Lots of unlockables to chase
- Chaotic tag matches
- Less content than an N64 game
- Lacking roster
- Disappointing creative suite
- Bugs and performance issues
For a certain subset of people, nothing I’m about to say about AEW: Fight Forever is going to matter. Their money was spent the second the project was announced and they’ve already had a can of retorts ready for any criticism. Poor presentation? “Just like the old days!” A lack of content? “It’s coming in DLC!” Bugs and performance issues? “That’s part of the charm!” In fact, when I demoed the game at Gamescom last year and offered some mixed impressions, the smarks over at the Squared Circle subreddit sure had a lot to say about a game they hadn’t actually played yet — yeah, I’m calling you jabronis out!
Much like how the video game industry is plagued by an insufferable war between “Xbots” and “Sony Ponies,” the wrestling world has its own obnoxious form of tribalism. There’s a constant online battle between WWE die-hards and AEW devotees, with both overeager to praise anything their respective promotion does. Depending on what side of the ring you’re on, AEW’s first major video game is either a white-hot babyface here to save the wrestling genre or a jobber heel to be fed to the Super Cena-like WWE 2K series.
In reality, it’s neither; AEW: Fight Forever is a true tweener. A fun and familiar core wrestling system will scratch fans’ itch for a return to Nintendo 64’s glory days, but anyone who’s looking for something more substantial than nostalgia may find themselves put off by a sparse, unpolished wrestling package.
All Elite Wrestling’s console debut is meant to be a throwback to the Nintendo 64 era, replicating the style of the all-time great WWF No Mercy. To accomplish that, the promotion enlisted the help of Yuke’s, a developer known for beloved 2000s releases like WWF Smackdown! The nostalgia behind its pedigree has left fans hopeful for a reprieve from the WWE 2K series’ more simulation-based gameplay and pivot toward an arcade-style feel. The good news: It accomplishes exactly that.
Matches here really feel like they properly echo the pace of an actual wrestling bout.
AEW: Fight Forever uses a grapple-based wrestling system that should be immediately familiar to those who grew up playing WWF games on Nintendo 64. There are two buttons dedicated to basic strikes, but most of the action happens in lockups. Players need to grab their opponent and press an attack button to execute a flashier spot. If you’re not used to that style, it can seem a little stilted at first. Matches have a very start-and-stop pace where there’s always a beat before an exciting move. That system almost betrays the dynamic, unpredictable nature of real AEW matches, making it feel more in line with WWE’s brand of wrestling.
After some initial struggling, though, I came to enjoy the flow of one-on-one matches in Fight Forever. They’re fast-paced and it never takes too long to regain momentum thanks to grapple and strike counters. There’s a clear progression to fights too; I’m building up a power gauge by softening my opponent with strikes until I have enough to hit a signature or finishing move. In that sense, matches here really feel like they properly echo the pace of an actual wrestling bout.
The core fighting system goes the extra mile at times too. Its best innovation is seamlessly integrated tandem offense. If I’m in a multi-wrestler match and I grapple an opponent from behind, a CPU-controlled wrestler might hit them with a series of chops while I’m holding them. Similarly, there are also moments where wrestlers unexpectedly hit a move on two opponents at once. In one match, I was beating up Nyla Rose alongside a CPU player when she grabbed both of our heads and knocked them together. Details like that make a throwback system feel more sophisticated, building a strong framework for future AEW games to springboard off of.
There’s plenty of room for improvement, though. Tag team matches are always a little hard to get right in a wrestling game, and they’re especially chaotic here. Whenever a teammate breaks up a pinfall attempt, there’s a very long window where all four wrestlers are allowed to fight in the ring before automatically being sent back to their corner. With how often that happens, it can be confusing to follow the action, especially when your non-legal teammate decides to wail on the legal man while you’re trying to regain control (AEW detractors might say that the lack of adherence to any tag rules here is fairly realistic).
Other pain points come down to systems simply not working as smoothly as they could. In my playing time, I’ve had several occasions where I set an opponent up for Orange Cassidy’s Orange Punch, only to have the move mysteriously not connect. In one match against the enormous Paul Wight, my punches and kicks seemingly weren’t landing at all. Move animation would get canceled out because of a referee standing in my way, computer characters would wiggle in place when I’d exit the ring instead of giving chase, and the AI is so painfully inept at times that you can easily win a match by standing on the ring apron and kicking your opponent until they’re counted out. And don’t get me started on its referees, who take their sweet time to actually start a pinfall count.
Fight Forever has a strong core that shines when it works, but don’t expect AEW’s first game to be a maverick. It’s very much a promising young upstart that’s going to need to work their way to the top before taking home any titles.
If you’re hoping for a wrestling game that’s as fully featured as WWE 2K23, temper your expectations. Despite the fact that Fight Forever is a full retail game, it’s surprisingly light on content – in fact, there’s significantly less in here than the 20-year-old N64 games that inspired it. For instance, there’s a disappointing lack of match options here. Players can compete in a few special bouts, like ladder matches or a Casino Battle Royale, but basic genre staples are absent. The stipulated matches that are included aren’t great either. Exploding Barbed Wire Death Matches make for a funny callback to an infamous AEW match, but it’s a shallow meme that isn’t really fun to play. The package also includes a tiny collection of truly terrible multiplayer minigames that I can’t imagine anyone getting much out of. One of them is a three-round AEW trivia game that lasts less than 45 seconds total.
I’m left a little baffled by how a modern game like this could feel so anemic compared to something as old as WWF No Mercy.
Similarly, the included roster of wrestlers is lacking at launch. While there are plenty of familiar faces, there are some glaring omissions that make it feel years out of date. Popular acts like The Acclaimed are nowhere to be found (despite the fact that their music is in the game), and a paltry women’s roster leaves out heavy hitters like Toni Storm and Jamie Hayter. It’s especially jarring considering that members of the missing roster play a major role in some of the archival footage that’s used throughout the game. I can even use elements from some of the missing wrestlers’ entrances in the game’s creative suite. Wrestlers who were instrumental in the game’s promotion cycle, like Evil Uno, didn’t even get a slot. DLC will help fill in those gaps, but it really feels like publisher THQ Nordic chopped a complete roster in half in order to work monetization into a $60 game.
Also disappointing is Fight Forever’s paltry creative suite, which severely limits the potential for a community to take matters into their own hands. There are only a small handful of visual customization options for wrestlers, including a miniscule number of hairstyles. While I had fun making arenas full of silly props (and there’s a wealth of unlockables to buy with in-game currency), there’s simply not much room for players to create anything substantial. That’s a major letdown, as modern wrestling games really live and die on customization that give their communities the power to keep the experience fresh for one another. I can’t imagine Fight Forever having the same shelf life.
The big draw for anyone looking for more substance is Road to Elite, the package’s only true single-player offering. Here, players choose a wrestler and go through one year of their career, moving through weeks of TV storylines that culminate in pay-per-view bouts. While it doesn’t feel as fully formed as it could be, it’s an enjoyable template that I’d love to see pushed further. In my first run, I played as Orange Cassidy (the industry’s true workhorse) through four distinct storylines that intersected with real AEW history. I’d get inserted into the war between The Inner Circle and The Pinnacle, getting to see a real video of MJF’s first promo after splitting from Chris Jericho and forming his own rival faction. There’s a historical aspect to the mode that makes it feel like an interactive museum chronicling the promotion’s first three years.
What especially makes it work is that it all feels pleasantly reactive based on match results and decisions I made in-between fights. In my first run, I’d play as Thunder Rosa and start my career battling to be the inaugural AEW Women’s Champion. I lost my debut to Nyla Rose in a Fatal 4-Way match, but would beat Riho the next week to win the title. I’d win a rematch against Nyla Rose after that, and then team up with Kris Statlander to battle Riho and Nyla. All of this would culminate in a PPV title defense against all three women. I’d drop the belt to Nyla in a disappointing loss, but I’d get to redeem myself immediately by filling in for an injured wrestler and fighting Scorpio Sky in the same night. I won the intergender match, proving myself as I capped off a surprisingly cogent, engaging storyline.
A Road to Elite run only takes a few hours to complete, and it’s meant to be replayed with different characters to see all of its possibilities play out. It’s a great idea for replay value, but there are limits to it. There are only a handful of events that it cycles through, and I was already repeating storylines on my second run. Were there more to it, it would be enough to make up for the overall lack of content here. As it stands, though, I’m left a little baffled by how a modern game like this could feel so anemic compared to something as old as WWF No Mercy.
Were AEW: Fight Forever a tightly constructed package, I’d have a little more leeway fregarding its faults. This is the first entry in what I figure will be a series, and WWE 2K certainly wasn’t built in a day. Unfortunately, the version that’s launching is so devoid of polish that it’s hard to recommend it to anyone outside of fans that had bought in on the game before it was even revealed.
Some aspects will be a matter of taste. For instance, Fight Forever doesn’t include full entrances. We only get a quick clip of a wrestler walking out onto the ramp, and you usually can’t even see their Titantron graphics in the shot. Sure, that’s how it was in the N64 era, and it does let players get to matches a lot quicker, but it certainly doesn’t capture the feeling of the vibrant wrestling show it’s adapting. It also makes the creative suite’s entrance customization tool feel a little superfluous as it’s a lot of work for a few seconds of underwhelming payoff. A lack of ringside commentary similarly makes matches feel a little flat, though that’s something that didn’t bother me for long.
I experienced some truly gnarly bugs as well that were as bad as anything I saw in the disastrous WWE 2K20.
What’s less up for debate are the more technical aspects of the project. It’s important to note that I tested the Nintendo Switch version of the game and expected a rougher experience on the console going into it. Even then, I wasn’t prepared for how brutal the port is. Textures are so blurry that characters constantly look like they’re out of focus. I’d get frequent frame hiccups during matches where the action would actually pause for a split-second and then jerk ahead. While some character models look fine, others are frankly jaw-dropping. Eddie Kingston is so unrecognizable and poorly rendered that I’m half expecting the guy to cut a promo on the developer.
Some of these issues might be Switch-specific, but other problems seem to be more universal. Characters frequently teleport around the ring to get into position for moves, which is a common issue in the WWE 2K series that’s turned up to 11 here. I experienced some truly gnarly bugs as well that were as bad as anything I saw in the disastrous WWE 2K20 (it’s worth remembering that Yuke’s acted as a support studio on the 2K series’ during its gradual loss in quality). On multiple occasions, I found myself lodged in the corner of the ring, stuck there until I was attacked in just the right way so my character model would teleport around the screen until they were free.
Even after raising all these red flags, I’m fully aware that certain fans will want to pick a fight. Bugs that were unacceptable in WWE’s games will turn into charming jank here. A microtransaction setup that would have anyone raising their People’s Eyebrow elsewhere will morph into a smart way to keep new content cycling into the game. There’s little room for constructive critique in an era where everything in our culture has been turned into a wrestling feud. AEW vs. WWE, PlayStation vs. Xbox, Marvel vs. DC — it’s all a frustrating way of applying heel-and-face dynamics to brands and rooting for our favorites to win. That form of corporate tribalism is self-defeating, holding back the things we actually care about. Game developers, film producers, and wrestling promoters alike have no incentive to improve when there’s a large enough fan base willing to defend every decision they make on principle. Hell, AEW wouldn’t exist in the first place if those who genuinely love professional wrestling didn’t use their voices to criticize WWE during its lowest point.
The only thing anyone should want AEW: Fight Forever to be is a great professional wrestling game that performs well, captures the energy of the product, and features enough meaningful content to justify its price point. That’s not what we’re getting with the game at launch, even if fans will still have fun with its retro wrestling systems. Don’t work yourself into a shoot over it.