Time for a confession. Wrestling holds no interest for me. Muscle-bound, gaudy-costumed men parade around knocking seven bells out of each other in a balletic charade which is be impossible to believe. A crowd of boorish Americans, cheering with every taunt and jibe, make you wonder how so many can be so passionate about this whole sweaty endeavour. That Weazel Wrestling spoof on Grand Theft Auto IV suddenly looks oh so on the nose. WWE 2K14 was my entry to this fated sport (or entertainment). Wrestling had lurked on the periphery since childhood as friends watched it in the days of CRT screens and PlayStation 2 consoles. Some still watch it, a guilty pleasure into their thirties. What was the appeal? With WWE 2K14 I soon discovered how this antithesis of my interests could offer up so much entertainment.
Since the collapse of THQ the WWE brand has changed hands to 2K, although the traditional developers have remained. The game exists as a strange mishmash of the two publishers, featuring the brand identity of 2K’s sports titles but with none of the polish seen in games like NBA 2K14. That’s not to say it looks awful - each wrestler is visually identifiable, if skewing towards something that wouldn’t be out of place in a waxwork museum. As a potted history of Wrestlemania the game is a nostalgic trip back to the beginning for die-hard fans while also accommodating clueless newcomers (*ahem*) who don’t know their Brett Harts from their People’s Elbows.
The ‘Thirty Years of Wrestlemania’ mode incorporates match highlights from each contest of the past three decades, starting with legendary wrestlers such as Andre the Giant and running right up to the present day. While wrestling aficionados will delight at the period correct titles and the grainy beige filter of the early matches, the mode also serves as a gentle tutorial for those just getting to grasps with grapples and throws. Each match has ‘Historical Objectives’ to fulfil – specific moves or QTE-based events that match up with the real-life story beats. In focusing on these events, WWE 2K14 reveals the true attraction of wrestling. It’s not about blokes hitting the crap out of each other – because everyone knows the violence is carefully choreographed fakery. Instead, the entertainment lies in the other orchestrated component of wrestling – the ridiculous rivalries, trash-talk and spontaneously ‘shocking’ betrayals that liven up each match. As an outsider this all looks like so much hot air, about as subtle as Yokozuna sitting on your chest, but when you accept that a team of writers concocts this madness then you can see why this is called entertainment. The inclusion – however briefly in some cases – of the early greats in the pre-Attitude era is welcome, bringing with it wrestlers long absent from the franchise.
Video montages glue the years together, hyping each momentous change in Wrestlemania’s evolving lineup with the usual overblown gravitas. For some it will be a fond look back on the lost greats, for others it is a semi-hilarious peek into a different mindset. What does come across are the numerous censored clips, blurring out expired logos and unaffiliated people. There are also some controversial moments that are glossed over – Hulk Hogan’s move to WCW is sparingly mentioned – but these are understandably left out. Thirty Years of Wrestlemania never falls foul of repetition, switching control between whichever wrestler triumphs during a match - even to the extent that you might play as two different characters in a single bout. As a story mode it’s less about the rise of one individual personality and more about the forging of a brand, from humble beginnings to world domination. Those interested in the rise of an icon can attempt ‘The Streak’, a mode pitting you against the Undertaker’s undefeated record. Alternatively there’s the option to play as the man himself, defending that feat against all-comers. It’s a nice touch, a focal point for fans more interested in contemporary events.
Completing the historical objectives in the main story mode unlocks rings, wrestlers and costumes for use in the numerous other game types, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of customisation. The ‘Create a Wrestler’ option is as expansive as it is fun to tinker with, allowing even move sets to be customised. Almost any particular event can be selected – from cage fights to ladder matches – allowing bedroom managers the chance to concoct their own spin on Wrestlemania. Once the main story has been completed it offers gamers the ability to tinker to their heart’s content, but may not have quite the same appeal as the more structured fare. The infinite combinations are so in-depth that almost anyone can be created from wrestlers absent from the already packed roster to spandex-clad superheroes and celebrities. Fan sites have been created solely to showcase creations - a testament to the sheer replayabilty Create a Wrestler adds for the determined fan. There’s even an Executive Producer simulator, dealing with the periphery of the main fight. When a game allows you to customise the fight schedules and crowd types you know you’ve got your money’s worth.
Online matches feel easier thanks to WWE’s streamlined control system and the reliance on reversals and counterattacks carries over from the main story. Matches count towards your overall performance - a set of statistics that links to your profile and, as such, incorporates most of WWE’s available modes. The netcode has been refined from WWE 2K13 - perhaps thanks to the change of publisher? - but the game still works best locally, where split-screen rivalries inspire real-world feuds.
Control issues have long plagued wrestling games and 2K14 is no different. Once the button-based system clicks it feels fairly streamlined, but moving wrestlers still feels like piloting a tank. This means matches very rarely feel like they flow; rather they are disjointed, clunky and cumbersome. Ladder matches especially seem drawn out, with the controls to pick up, set up and climb the damn thing feeling unintuitive. The historical objectives of the main story help by switching to cutscenes once the requirements are fulfilled, but the basic controls still need updating. It’s a complicated business, what with all of the different moves segueing into each other, but 2K14 unfortunately comes across as animatronic at times.
Perhaps WWE 2K14’s biggest problem lies in the over-familiarity. Aside from the history of Wrestlemania, a huge amount of the game can be found in previous entries in the series. This might be forgivable were there a graphical overhaul but the game still sits firmly in the uncanny valley, employing none of the sheen associated with the new publishers. If anything, WWE 2K14 feels like a holdover, biding time until next year’s inevitable release on the new consoles hopefully with perfectly rendered beads of sweat in tow. Even the commentary is phoned-in, frequently repeating phrases or not even there at all, leading to periods of awkward silence save for the crowd and the slap of muscle-on-muscle.
Fans of the series will find a lot to love with WWE 2K14, looking beyond the scant new additions to the game. It’s by no means bad – it’s expertly curated, genuinely passionate about the source material and has an infectious enthusiasm – but there’s the lingering thought that, aside from the campaign, we’ve been here, grappled that before. For a newcomer it’s fantastic, using that enthusiasm to ignite interest where cynicism once rooted itself. Either way, it will likely serve as a full-stop for WWE on the last batch of consoles before a full reboot under the new publishers. If the future entry is anywhere near as reverent as this one then fans will have a lot to get excited about. For now WWE 2K14 will serve as an admirable filler, its wide array of modes and customisation there so players can concoct their own stories once Wrestlemania’s has been told.