World Wrestling Entertainment has had a big spotlight on it in recent years. The mystery of ‘the business’ has dissipated and everyone is well aware now that not only is it pre-determined (the use of the word ‘fake’ still isn’t quite right, as the physicality is very real) but now the characters are very openly played by on the whole, very nice people.
These police, mild mannered individuals transform into monsters, beasts, maniacs, show-offs and borderline psychopaths once they walk through the curtain. Performing for thousands of people live and millions on television around the world will do something to someone, but once they are back out of sight they return to normality. The videogame version of this year’s WWE installment then has to try and capture this new mentality - steps which were taken in the previous outing, but in an ever-increasing era of podcasting, YouTube and social media, how do you capture all of the drama of being a wrestler?
WWE 2K17 has a balancing job to do here then, and it is probably a release more filled with compromise on its vision than anything else. The glitz and glamour of WWE has always been a trademark and one you should expect bigger and more realistic in every video game. WWE 2K16 had fantastic high definition images littering the screens when you first started the game, the menus were tiled to fill the screen with these larger-than-life characters. WWE 2K17 changes things here to instead have your central hub for all things WWE to be a text list.
It’s baffling really - the underwhelming entrance to your WWE experience is low-key, understated and feels like a placeholder screen for when the final menus are completed. Giving the benefit of the doubt, you could be fooled into thinking that this was to try and rekindle the flavour of WWF No Mercy, the AKI classic which was released on Nintendo 64 many years ago and had a similar set of titles. Some spice is added by smoke effects and a randomised animated entrance of a character across the background but feels a bit lame.
The compromise begins immediately. Character selection is also a text list, with images appearing of each one you pass by. Gone are high definition photos of each character but instead you get an in-game model depicting them. This would be fine if the models were good, but there’s a serious quality mix between them all. Some look fantastic. Some look fairly horrific. When you do select a character, the announcer bellows their name - this is a really nice touch.
Once you’re in the ring all that is behind you and it is down to business. Thankfully, business is good. The in-ring action is as good as ever with some fairly small changes to last year but they can have a large impact on the gameplay. By default for example, you can now manually switch who you are targeting. This sounds really trivial but makes a huge difference. Previously, if you were in a match with more than one person, you could push the stick to switch your ‘focus’ and attack someone else. But you could only do this when standing perfectly still which meant that you often were open to attack. Also in bigger matches, you would not know who you were fighting unless you had your ‘target’ name above your head all the time. In WWE 2K17 this problem is resolved by having the name flash only for a second as you switch focus, and you’re able to do it at almost any point in time - making the match much more dynamic. You can also focus on the referee or managers and oddly, your tag team partner (unclear why you may want to do this).
The submission game has been refined slightly with an option to have button-bashing replacing the stick swirling method of last year, which itself has been changed so attacking and defending are now consistent colours. Taunting has also been revised - now your taunting has a purpose, either giving you a momentum buff to get to your finisher quicker, giving your attacks a damage boost or by making your opponent get up from the mat. Each character also has multiple taunts now but they’re selected at random, so if you want to give yourself a damage buff before attacking, you need to hope it’s one of the quicker taunts rather than a lengthy one or you’re open to attack.
The final big in-ring change are reversals - minor and major reversals have their own windows, with major ones requiring two reversal blocks (the amount of which varies by character). Major reversals have a benefit of limiting your opponent from being able to do any reversals themselves for a limited time - which adds more of a risk/reward dynamic to matches and helps mimic real-life matches better.
For as much as the gameplay is good, the context surrounding it is limited. Single play matches are expected of course, but sorely missing this year is the Showcase mode which detailed the history and progress of famous wrestlers, matches or feuds with supported video packages. It’s a shame this isn’t here, and instead you have Universe or MyCareer modes. Universe is much the same as before, a series of matches built into the structure of weekly shows around which the AI Director then makes feuds and storylines. MyCareer details your entry into the wrestling world and follows your career through an endless slog of matches with very slow progress. Virtual Currency can be spent on improvements which fortunately is earned through everything you do in the entire game, but it has all of the hallmarks of the 2K repetitive career mode as found in their other sports games.
The customisation options are where the time has really been spent this year and they are extensive. Not only do you have the biggest roster in the series’ history (although in fairness a lot of the characters were included in DLC last year) but you have almost unlimited option to change them. From default attire to various entrances, music, directing your own videos - there’s loads here. You can create your own arenas, championship belts, shows and download or upload them for others to enjoy. Things from crowd reactions and types of crowds (hardcore, family friendly etc), signs in the crowd, type of referee - there really is an absolutely massive amount of things you can tweak and change to your desire.
The extent to which you can make WWE 2K17 your own probably sums up the experience this year. For everything that has been left out or undercooked by the developers, there is something which you can tweak to your preference which you weren’t able to previously. The fundamentals are sound and provide a solid base for a good experience, if not a great one. For those that are into wrestling and really want to be able to tailor their experience as they wish, then this is the game to allow you to do it. You will get out of WWE 2K17 exactly what you put into it - be it a quick go for exciting ring action or an in-depth wrestling simulator which you can sink many hours into.