Sports games are not synonymous with innovation. Their annual release schedule typically guarantees that meaningful updates will be minimal since a bulk of development time finds itself assigned to roster updates and new attires rather than big evolutions in gameplay. For developer Yuke’s, WWE’s rapidly-changing environment compounds this issue even further. Wrestlers are constantly being signed and released, gimmicks are swapped out and total brand overhauls can occur multiple times within a 12-month period, which has resulted in previous WWE games being outdated before they’ve even launched.
WWE 2K19 marks the twentieth installment in the long-running franchise, and the sixth offering from publisher Take-Two Interactive, who took the reigns following the bankruptcy of THQ in 2013. Since this acquisition, the series has endured a moderate amount of change for the better, most notably in its visual presentation, but it’s been content to languish in the realm of mediocrity for far too long. Regrettably, despite several tweaks to gameplay and genuine attempts to freshen up its narrative-driven modes, WWE 2K19 once again fails to breathe new life into the interminably stagnant franchise, and it still lacks the polish and production value of its bigger brother, the NBA 2K series.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE GAME
Let’s start with what’s new this year. Showcase mode, which highlights key moments from WWE’s storied history, makes a welcome return after being sidelined in 2K18. This time around it chronicles the rise of perennial underdog Daniel Bryan, starting with his formative years on Velocity and Heat before eventually concluding with his comeback match at WrestleMania 34.
MyCareer, the core stat-building mode has seen a significant revamp. 2K18’s woefully redundant backstage free roam segments have been gutted. In their place is an infinitely more engaging story, focusing on your humble beginnings on the indie wrestling scene and later your breakthrough into the WWE and pursuit of championship gold.
Lastly, 2K Towers marks the debut of the first new mode in years. Here, players can battle their way through tiered challenges containing various superstars, modifiers and stipulations. These range from facing off against a group of “supernatural” superstars such as Undertaker and Finn Bálor, defeating opponents with the game set to run at double the default movement speed, and the “Million Dollar Challenge”, which tasks you with slogging your way through 15 consecutive opponents back-to-back, culminating in a final showdown with the phenomenal one himself; A.J. Styles. The catch here is that there’s no health regeneration. That’ll separate the jobbers from the main eventers.
2K19 also brings with it the expected slew of superb creation suites. You’re able to handcraft not only your own superstars (right down to the morphing of individual facial features), but also move sets, entrance/victory scenes, arenas, title belts, match types, titantron videos and — new this year — the ability to create your own Money in the Bank briefcase. If you can dream it, you can build it.
Other key additions include a positively massive roster, totaling over 180 superstars from the past and present and an impressive number of current divas and NXT stars (though there are some glaring omissions. We’re looking at you, Ciampa). Universe mode now allows you to change which superstar you’re controlling mid-match, giving you full control over the outcome. You can even witness the AI cash in the Money in the Bank briefcase during a match, too, which can produce some epic pay-per-view moments.
Mechanically, the game functions more or less identically to how it always has. Moment to moment gameplay is a combination of strike and grapple attacks, with each causing damage to a specific area of a superstar’s body. Whittle away enough health and you can move in for a pin, or, if you’ve weakened a limb sufficiently enough, lock in a submission maneuver that directly targets it to increase your chances of making your opponent tap out.
The grapple carry system introduced in 2K18 returns, allowing you to lift an opponent into a number of different positions and carry them wherever you wish before slamming them onto the mat. 2K19 allows you to further modify these moves with a button press, opening up a few new possibilities, like hoisting someone into a body press and then chucking them unceremoniously over the top rope and out of the ring.
A new layer of complexity comes in the form of Payback abilities. These become available when you’re on the receiving end of a prolonged pummelling, and, when activated at the right time, can potentially turn the tide of a match in your favour. Some of the abilities include surprise possum pins, instant recoveries and speed buffs. If you hold off from activating these abilities even longer, you can earn a Major Payback ability. These are even more powerful, and options range from immediately gaining a finisher, performing a low blow, spraying poison mist, summoning an ally from backstage and even causing a blackout to appear behind your opponent in a move popularised by the Undertaker.
RAGS TO RICHES
However, it’s MyCareer’s refocused direction that’s arguably 2K19’s standout feature, and it certainly feels as though the crux of development time was invested in its creation. The story kicks off with you in the role of your custom superstar (voiced by talented indie star A.J. Kirsh) performing on fictitious indie promotion BCW. Desperate to catch his big break in the WWE, he is stunned to find himself headhunted by Matt Bloom and later offered a contract by Triple H himself, who schedules him for a trial match on WWE’s flagship show RAW. Unfortunately, a series of events transpire and the whole deal goes sour, leaving our guy fighting for his future.
All told, it’s a surprisingly rousing tale and a huge improvement on 2K18’s dismal offering. It’s entirely linear, but this absolutely works in the mode’s favour, pulling you from cutscene to cutscene and serving up the kind of pomp and circumstance WWE fans have come to expect from professional wrestling. There are a number of light story differences depending on decisions you make, too, meaning the story isn’t completely starved of choice as a result of its more narrow focus.
The only major issue with MyCareer is its pacing. The speed in which you move from indie performer to rising NXT star, to PPV headliner is alarmingly fast and the whole thing is over before you know it. Regardless, it left me yearning for more, and I haven’t felt that in MyCareer for years. If 2K continue on this course, I sense greatness on the horizon.
After you’re done with MyCareer, Showcase mode awaits. Structurally, it’s a series of matches ordered chronologically, each one interspersed with videos from Daniel Bryan talking about his rise to stardom and the pitfalls he was forced to endure to reach the top. If you’re a huge supporter of Bryan it’s pure fan service. All of his weightiest moments are in here, and seeing them recreated with such a high level of accuracy is commendable.
Outside of these additions, it remains the same gameplay you’ve come to either love or hate. Many animations are recycled from WWE games past, and there are cases where old animations appear awkwardly amongst the new, bolstering the impression that this series is a Frankenstein’s monster-esque amalgam of elements that continue to anchor the game firmly in last generation tech. Moreover, there are absurd physics issues that cause superstars to look like victims of horrific car accidents if they happen to fall the wrong way. Case in point: I was playing as Brock Lesnar in a Falls Count Anywhere match against Roman Reigns. After botching a top rope dive to the outside onto a supine Reigns, Lesnar’s left leg shot upwards, resulting in his foot sticking out through his face for the remainder of the match. That image will probably haunt me for the rest of my life.
In fact, there is a laundry list of neglected and underdeveloped features that continue to severely handicap the overall experience. Universe mode, which essentially allows you to assume the role of Vince McMahon and curate matches, champions, and rivalries, sees only marginal improvement this year. You have a gigantic amount of options to tinker with, but creating something worthwhile takes far too much time, effort and sifting through dull menu screens. The lack of consistent cutscenes also means that too often you’re left to fill in the blanks with your imagination. Even sitting back and letting the AI do the booking isn’t much of an option, since it produces some ludicrous matchups (Undertaker vs. Sami Zayn? Pur-lease).
Commentary, a perpetual sore sport, has somehow managed to regress in quality this year. Michael Cole frequently blurts out completely incorrect statements, calling the clothesline you’ve just landed a big boot and a singles match a tornado tag. All three commentators also seem to have a bizarre obsession with superstar power rankings in Universe mode, with endless back and forth disagreements over the currently competing superstar’s position. For the love of God, shut the hell up.
Oh, and that promo system? It’s still here and it’s still appalling. The writing is hyper-generic, with comically inoffensive discord reducing what should be an intense mic duel between two opposing personalities into nothing more than a petty squabble that wouldn’t seem amiss in a school playground. The complete lack of evolution since it first appeared in 2K17 is embarrassing.
2K19’s system for unlocking content is also massively flawed. To get new moves, attires, and entrances for your custom superstar in MyCareer, you’ll need to unpack loot boxes, the contents of which are randomised. You do have the opportunity to buy individual items outright using virtual currency, but they’re so ludicrously expensive that it’s rarely worth it. Locking basic stuff in this way is a needless and arbitrary approach to content gating and creates a grind that doesn’t need to exist in a wrestling game. The only positive is that there are no microtransactions. Loot boxes can only be opened using the virtual currency earned through regular gameplay. An interesting decision by Take-Two, considering how their NBA 2K franchise is infested with such insidious practices.
WWE 2K19 ultimately feels like the exact same game we’ve been playing for years, and you’ll find yourself quickly settling back into the same old match routines. The Payback abilities are more a rehash of past systems and do little to upend gameplay, and MyCareer, whilst fun and most certainly worth a playthrough, is over in a flash.
Ardent WWE fans will still find value here, and many will buy it purely because it remains the only mainstream wrestling game on the market. It’s just a shame the series isn’t able to take a hiatus and return with something truly electrifying.