Even after a relatively weak showing last year, I had hope that the second new-gen outing for the WWE’s annual wrestling franchise would be able to right the last game’s wrongs and bring the series to a new level. After all, it’s very common that yearly sports releases require an extra year or two before they hit their stride with new technology. Unfortunately, if everything I saw at the hands-on reveal of the game at SummerSlam this year was any indicator, WWE 2K16 is still a ways away from being a main event attraction in gaming’s always crowded fall season.
The demo we were given had access to two modes. The first is your standard Exhibition, which allowed us to tussle with a dozen or so revealed wrestlers from the company’s massive roster. We could do your standard one-on-one face-off, or wrestle as a tag team. I quickly set up a match between current WWE World Heavyweight and US Champion Seth Rollins (who I controlled) and Brock Lesnar, creating a rematch of sorts from the WWE Battleground PPV from a few weeks ago.
As soon as Brock started making his way to the ring, I was able to try out one of the new features the game touts—which gives wrestlers the option to run out during their opponent’s entrance to sneak attack them. With the element of surprise on my side, I began pounding on Brock as we slowly fought our way down the steel ramp. To my chagrin, after a couple of minutes the referee called off the match, much like he would on Monday Night RAW, and the match was declared a no-contest.
When offered a rematch I took it. This time, when I jumped Brock (again, not mandatory, but I was embracing my heel nature), I ran into the ring after clotheslining him, and Brock followed suit. After a quick, but very awkward cutscene that automatically positioned each wrestler on their starting marks—and which suddenly changed Seth’s clothes from his pre-match attire to what he more traditionally wears in the ring after a series of oddly timed cuts—the match started, with Brock at a slight disadvantage.
The idea of being able to run out during another wrestler’s entrance is a good one. It adds an element of unpredictability when playing with friends, and a sense of authenticity when compared to the product we see on TV every week. I think players need a better sense of when the referee is about to call the match off, because had I known that at first, I would have run into the ring much sooner in my first match—but otherwise this is a welcome addition.
Once the action got going in the right, however, I noticed an alarming problem: all the wrestlers felt particularly sluggish. In every match I played over the course of the evening, with different wrestlers from Wade Barrett to Daniel Bryan, it felt like they all had cement shoes on. This wasn’t just a problem in terms of speed, but also in how fights flowed. Gameplay was relatively unresponsive, with most matches devolving into the counter-fests that had plagued previous iterations of the game. We can only hope that everything is tightened up in the two months before launch, but this was disappointing to see to say the least.
Another issue that has troubled the WWE series is glitches, and this demo was chock full of them. The awkward resetting of the wrestlers at their starting marks was just the beginning; clipping issues, broken animation and ragdoll effects, and awkward cutscenes and replays happening in inopportune moments—like when I was going for a pinfall against my opponent—were all prominent throughout my playtime. While all of these are things that will hopefully be fixed by the final version, with 120 wrestlers on the roster, it’d be shocking if they all could be cleaned up by October’s launch. Even some of the wrestlers themselves seemed unfinished, with the quality difference between characters models for guys like Wade Barrett and Brock Lesnar being extremely evident.
Once a given match gets underway, whether you jump your opponent or not, the combat is the same as it has been in years past. Last year’s stamina meter returns, along with three health bars. You still use the face buttons on your controller to perform a series of strikes, grapples, Irish whips, and finally the pin. The only difference I noticed immediately in the ring is the quicktime grapples that started matches last year have been removed. It’s unclear whether or not they can be turned back on in options, but they were clearly missing from the demo we had.
There is also a brand new pinning and submission system, with the latter being similar to what was seen in EA Sports UFC, where each person has a bar in a circular icon. The hold applier is trying to overlap the defender’s bar, and if they do so for a long enough time, the defender will tap out. It’s a nice change from the button mashing system of years past but definitely takes a few attempts to get used to.
The pinning system is still a timing-based mechanic similar to previous games, but instead of holding a button and then releasing it when a meter fills into a “sweet spot” (resulting in a kick out), there’s now a spinning bar in a circle that only requires a tap of the button in hopes of landing in the target area. The more health you have, the bigger that sweet spot is, but both myself and my opponents found it easier to kick out with this method. In fact, I was kicking out of pinfalls even after three of Brock Lesnar’s F5s, and the other player after two Pedigrees from me.
The tag match I played with Tyson Kidd and Cesaro versus the Lucha Dragons played out similarly, but the one observation I made there is that the AI for your partner is much smarter than it used to be. Whenever I went for a pinfall, my teammate would often intercept the opponent’s tag partner and prevent the pinfall from being broken up—whereas, in last year’s game, I often had to take out both opponents before I could attempt a pinfall. As long as I went for the pin closer to my corner than the opponent’s, there was a great chance my partner was going to jump into the ring and make sure we got the win.
The other mode I got to go hands-on with was 2K’s Showcase mode, which this year follows the career of Stone Cold Steve Austin. Besides tapping into that nostalgia factor for those of us who grew up in the Attitude Era, Austin had some of WWE’s best matches in the late 90s and early 2000s. The first of the mode’s sixteen chapters sees Austin in the finals of the 1997 King of the Ring against a hobbled Jake “The Snake” Roberts, who was reeling after receiving a Vader Bomb in the semi-finals. Just like previous years, meeting each match stipulation results in a full cutscene, and rewards that would be fitting for the Texas Rattlesnake, before unlocking the next chapter.
The new aspects that are trying to be added to WWE 2K16 this year seem like steps forward, but with foundational elements—like how the wrestlers feel and look when you play—still needing to be fixed before the game launches, I’m admittedly worried about this year’s entry. With a couple of months still before release, I’m hopeful the bumps can be smoothed out and that we’ll see a higher level of quality in the game modes we’ve yet to encounter. If not, WWE 2K may need to take a long look at itself as a franchise before being sent back down to a developmental territory to work on its gimmick.