I grew up right in the sweet spot of wrestling’s popularity. I was born in 1980, so I started coming into full consciousness right around the time Hulk Hogan was in the middle of his first title run. By the time I hit around eight years old, I was fully hooked, cheering “good” guys and booing “bad” guys, getting depressed when someone I liked turned bad; I was borderline inconsolable when Randy Savage turned heel on Hogan. I was so into the product at the time, I waited in line, on the day of its release, to watch No Holds Barred. For those too young to remember No Holds Barred, take all of the combined suck from the worst movies starring wrestlers from the modern era – let’s say Tooth Fairy and The Chaperone – and multiply all of that suck by about a hundred. In 1989, I ate it up.
Eventually, I got back into wrestling in the service, when I needed things to watch that allowed me to bond with other sailors my age. The product had changed significantly, as did the way I enjoyed it. I fell in with the internet wrestling community (IWC), and became what’s commonly known as a “smark”, for smart mark. We were the ones who read recaps of the shows, talked about who was getting “pushed”, and generally just bitched that Chris Benoit was being “held back”. We didn’t know what we were talking about, but that never stopped any of us from thinking we were the next Dave Meltzer. Eventually, it got old, and the product started to get more banal as WWE bought up all legitimate competition and went more corporate. Since that point, I effectively became one of “those” wrestling fans, the type who troll Youtube for old Misawa matches and who speak much more fondly about ECW than it deserves to be spoken about. Simply put, we don’t get invited to too many parties.
WWE 2K14, the first WWE game put out by 2K Sports after years of being under THQ’s umbrella, toes the line between the new fans – the ones who won’t stop changing “What!” and “Yes!” no matter what – and the older ones who grew up on everyone from Bret Hart to Stone Cold Steve Austin. It’s a modern game with modern rosters and modern options, just like any other sports game at this point, but it also features a love letter to fans my age, via the 30 Years of Wrestlemania mode, which takes us through all of the prior Wrestlemanias’ best moments. I rented the game to see if everything was worth the hassle.
The answer, to most fans, is a definitive yes. But of course, I’m not like most fans.
Everything about WWE 2K14 starts with 30 Years of Wrestlemania, which is part nostalgia fix and part tutorial. Each match, starting with the body slam match between Andre the Giant and Big John Studd, has a list of tasks to do to get the actual result that happened in the original matches. For example, the first Kane vs. Undertaker requires Undertaker to hit a chokeslam, three separate Tombstones, and then win the match. The progression is very well done so long as the player does what he’s asked, when he’s asked, and especially if the player is familiar with how the matches worked at the time. The original dialogue from the announcers is also recreated – perfectly so in some cases – by Jim Ross and Jerry Lawler, with them alternatively repeating the lines spoken by Gorilla Monsoon, Vince McMahon, Jesse Ventura and others. Even if JR sounds flat at times (understandably so), Lawler does a wonderful job during these matches, especially taking over for Ventura. The devs even took the time to get all of the presentation aspects of each era correct; the older WrestleMania matches had the kind of grainy, smoky “film” quality that one could expect back in the days when the events were shown in arenas on large, closed-circuit screens. Anyone who grew up watching the WWF before the forced rebrand to WWE will love playing this mode, even if a few issues stand out. For one, there’s no real context in the realm of the arenas; it’s a bit disconcerting to see so many signs at MSG for WrestleMania 1. Secondly, in a theme that seems to permeate the product at large, WWE’s corporate interests take precedence over all. Rights issues are the biggest issue; any video from before the rebrand has blurred out WWF logos1, and certain events, such as Bret Hart winning the WWF Championship at WrestleMania X, are changed up because WWE no longer can use certain wrestlers. The company’s more corporate and PG focus has other consequences, such as having Steve Austin’s middle fingers blurred out, even in the middle of actual moves; this is from a company that one had Stacy Carter flash her breasts during a live Pay Per View. Finally, Chris Benoit has been effectively scrubbed from history after the double murder of his wife and child followed by his suicide, so his winning the Championship at WM XX didn’t make it as a “moment”.
As an extension of that mode is Defeat the Streak mode, which allows the player to try to take out the Undertaker in Wrestlemania. It’s a nice addition for fans, and something I guess a lot of the more dedicated smart marks to play all the time, likely while breathing profusely.
As with most wrestling games since the PSX era, there’s also a highly robust creation section, that not only allows wrestlers to be created, but titles, move sets, even finishing moves can be created, lumping together moves into one crescendo. The finisher creator is kind of weak – it’s hard to create a decent finisher that is both original and not totally ridiculous – but everything else is intimidatingly robust. I’ve had the game for almost a week and haven’t finished my CAW’s move set yet; there’s just too much to do, and not enough time. Dedicated fans can lose themselves in this mode like a metagame of sorts. The title creator is cute, but also a bit limited; there’s also not enough incentive to create a title because the game is overflowing with virtually every championship the company has used since the mid-80s. There are like five different Intercontinental Titles; I don’t need my Legends Championship in the game that badly.
These would make a decent game on their own, but there’s also a “season” mode to be had, in the form of WWE Universe, which allows players to simulate a full calendar year, including PPVs, while adding shows and events if they choose while also managing “rivalries”, or feuds. Unlike most of the rest of the game, WWE Universe is a flop. The problem is that it treats itself like a sports game, with clear winners and losers, with the winners benefiting from winning fights that happen to resemble wrestling matches. There is virtually no storyline exposition, either; either someone interferes, or someone wins the first of many matches, usually on Raw or Smackdown. No booker in his right mind would have, say, HHH and John Cena in a feud, and have them fighting in a consequential match – with a clear winner – in any match before a pay-per-view, and ESPECIALLY on a free show. It’s not even really possible to create another show without working within the confines of Raw or Smackdown; though the roster editors are nice, I couldn’t find a way quite yet to make the show I wanted: a mid-week “Legends” show with its own belts. All in all, instead of simulating what it’d be like to either book the WWE or be a superstar coming up the ladder in it, WWE Universe mode just answers the question “what would it be like if WWE was like any other sports league?”. The whole mode doesn’t work, and if I was WWE or 2K executive, I would be knocking down Adam Ryland’s door and shoving blank cheques in his face.
All of this is besides an actual wrestling engine, used for carrying out actual matches that don’t entail playing the male version of dress-up. I felt the wrestling engine was surprisingly competent; it’s deceptively complicated, with all of the main moves involving a combination of a direction press, a face button and a various situation or hold. For example, pressing up and X will get a different move in a front facelock than it will from a waist hold from the rear. There’s also a limb targeting system, which is effective for those who have submission-based finishers. Submissions themselves still rely heavily on button mashing, and too many of them lead to reversals, but that’s just one nitpick. I’ve also read about players complaining about the reversals – initiated with R2 at the right time – but the system works beautifully in practice; the right timing has to be guessed on these reversals, which makes human vs. human games fun, though I will concede that the computer can be cheap.
All of this is wonderful, but it really underscores the biggest weakness of a WWE game: it’s not a wrestling game, it’s a fighting game that happens to feature wrestlers and their moves. To me, the best wrestling game ever is still the first Fire Pro Wrestling for the Game Boy Advance, and the reason for this is because their “career” mode wasn’t just “beat the other guy”; if the player was tasked with wrestling, say, a typical power match between two large Western wrestlers (think Undertaker and Kane), they had to use the moves and the psychology that goes into that. Two-counts were rewarded, with the crowd getting hotter if the match progressed thusly. Losing was relevant, but not a killer with no reward until the end; wrestling a 100% approved match got you rewards, even after a loss. In WWE, on the other hand, if you lose, that’s it. Because the only thing that matters is the result, the actual art of wrestling takes a back seat; the psychology that got us into the product in the first place is not even a consideration. Ultimately, you’re playing with really good looking action figures. In a sense, it mirrors the current WWE product, where the in-ring action is not the primary focus of the product. This is where I start nonsense about how it has “wrestling” on the marquee, and sounding like Bill Watts.
WWE 2K14 is an outstanding video game, but with that stated, one’s enjoyment of it is wholly dependent on what kind of wrestling fan they are. I would say to anyone who just wants to go through the 30 Years of Wrestlemania to relive their youth, rent the game, enjoy that on a lower difficulty setting, and return it, satisfied. Those who are fans of the modern product, buy this game, unless you’re waiting on the next-generation version. Those like me, who grew up on the WWE but then got into Japanese wrestling and old Smokey Mountain VHS tapes and won’t shut the hell up about Ring of Honor in 2014… honestly, we’re screwed, and know it. This game, much like the product it emulates, was never for us in the first place. We can go back to our cocky assurances that there will never be another game like Fire Pro, and ignore this like we have the other games. We can once again fit into the comfortable niche of the elitist minority that even the smarks dismiss.
1 – For those unaware: The World Wildlife Fund sued World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc. (formerly Titan Sports) – the “business” end of the house – in 2000 for misuse of the WWF initials. A settlement in 2002 forbade WWFE from using the WWF initials in their programming, and forced them to censor past use of the logos; this forced the WWF to rebrand to World Wrestling Entertainment. A new agreement with the World Wildlife Fund allowed WWE to use past logos in their retro and archived footage, so I’m not sure why they had to blur out video footage of the WWF logo in this game.