The best thing I can say about WWE 2K15 is that it resembles the current state of the WWE’s television product. Not literally, mind you. 2K15 does mark the debut of the WWE series on the current generation of consoles, and that does come with the requisite bump in visual fidelity toward something more lifelike, but those visual upgrades don’t transform this game into a wholly accurate representation of the WWE we see on TV every week. WWE 2K15 resembles the WWE more in ramshackle spirit than anything else. 2K15 is a sloppy game, loose where it should be tight, sluggish where it should be exciting. Its newest pieces are either good ideas that haven’t been fashioned into something compelling yet, or flat-out mistakes that either need a complete repackaging or need to be forgotten by the time next year rolls around. Which is to say nothing of the various aspects of this franchise that have simply gone missing since last year, a number of which will be sorely missed by longtime fans.
None of this should come as any great surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to 2K’s PR message throughout the last year. This was always intended to be the year that features were sacrificed in favor of visuals as the franchise moved onto new platforms. The problem is that the trade-off isn't equitable. The graphical bump that WWE 2K15 gets is certainly impressive, especially when it comes to wrestler models. Most every current WWE superstar has gone through 2K’s face-scanning process, and especially in the case of top tier stars like John Cena, Randy Orton, and Triple H, the attention to detail is a massive improvement over what this series has previously been capable of. Some wrestlers in the game evidently weren't face-scanned—the recently departed CM Punk, and the recently departed Ultimate Warrior among them—and the quality difference between those characters and those who did get scanned is definitely noticeable. And when the model quality is at its worst in WWE 2K15, it can get pretty nightmarish.
These upgraded wrestlers look their best when strolling down to the ring in their carefully choreographed entrances, and when taunting and strutting around the ring. It’s when those wrestlers come into contact with one another that things start to fall apart. For all 2K’s talk about upgraded animations in this year’s game, the end result isn't quite as impressive as you might hope. Newly motion-captured moves do look good, but they also serve to make older, poorer animations stand out all the more. 2K has also made a significant effort to slow down this year’s game, yet you still see animations that feel like they’re running at twice the speed they should. At times, 2K15 takes on the quality of video footage being sped-up and slowed down during editing. You’ll see wrestlers lumber around, staggering from punches and slams while trying to regain stamina, then suddenly blast into some hyperactive special move that feels like it’s running entirely too fast. It gives the in-game action this awkward quality that never feels quite right.
That’s a shame, because I generally liked some of 2K15’s strides toward a more realistically-paced version of WWE wrestling. Wrestlers now come with stamina meters and multi-tiered health bars that turn your grappler from a sprinting bad-ass into a gasping mess as matches wear on. These systems aren't perfectly balanced—wrestlers tend to tire out a bit too quickly for comfort, and I ran into a few instances where tired wrestlers just refused to get off of one knee for way longer than necessary—but they go a long way toward negating some of the more easily exploited issues of this series’ gameplay.
Less enjoyable is the addition of chain wrestling. Designed to resemble the sorts of back-and-forth early match battles you always see in live wrestling (but never in games), the chain wrestling mechanic turns the early portions of matches into a battle of rock-paper-scissors and right analog stick noodling. When two wrestlers lock up, a prompt appears asking you to choose from one of three different move types, each of which trumps, and is trumped by another. Once you've transitioned to an arm bar, waist lock, or headlock, you then have to find the “sweet spot” to transition to the next stage. You do this my moving the right stick around until the controller begins to rumble, and a circle on the screen fills up red. You keep doing this until one of you has successfully gone through a full procession of chained moves. It’s an interesting idea that does allow for a fair amount of back-and-forth between you and your opponents in a match's early goings, but it’s also not fun for very long. Once the novelty of a new mechanic wore off, I found myself more irritated with having to keep jumping back into this mini-game multiple times during a match. When I wandered into gimmick or multi-wrestler matches that had the chain wrestling turned off, I didn't exactly miss it. You can, thankfully, turn off chain wrestling if you like (at least in exhibition matches, as I couldn't find a way to do so in the game's career modes), but be aware that doing so essentially removes the one big new thing in this year’s gameplay.
Most of whatever else is different compared with WWE 2K14 isn’t for the better. Reversal timing seems comparatively off by default. The window for reversals can, thankfully, be tweaked in the in-match settings menu, though that doesn’t translate into things like online ranked matches. Apart from animations looking strange at times, gameplay just doesn’t have a great flow to it. Grapples frequently feel sluggish, especially if you’re trying to perform a strong grapple or a ground grapple. I had a variety of instances where my wrestler would just hover over a downed opponent for a few seconds instead of doing the move I was telling the game to perform. This happens a lot. The game often seems to be a little bit behind your commands, not out of some rebalancing of momentum, but simply because it can’t keep up with what the player wants. Glitches and bugs are maybe a bit less prevalent than in previous years, but I still saw my share. You’ll encounter opponents falling over or flying out of the ring despite no move being performed against them, your wrestler awkwardly turning away from their opponent despite the fact that you’re walking toward them, and plenty of physics wonkiness when foreign objects are introduced to the fray. None of these are game-breaking issues, though the crash bugs that popped up now and again certainly were.
Where WWE 2K15 really suffers is in its feature set. Let’s just get the stuff that’s missing out of the way right now. A variety of match types are missing--mostly gimmick types like guest referee and inferno matches--and some of the more popular gimmick bouts can no longer be played with four players. Cuts are most sorely felt in the creation suite, which is as threadbare as any WWE game I can remember from the last decade. Create-a-belt, create-a-finisher, create-an-arena, and story creator modes are straight-up gone this year. Those first three are just kind of a bummer, but that last one is a real dagger for anyone who loved the admittedly stupid, yet kind of wonderful stories that editor let you build. That story editor is what allowed something like VGCW to worm its way into wrestling fans’ hearts over the last couple of years, it’s why the phrase “ghost problems” has become part of this very website’s lengthy lexicon of inside jokes. It was a beautifully busted thing that didn't necessarily need upgrading to justify its continued existence. Yet it is absent entirely in 2K15, and that absence is absolutely felt.
The good news is that you can still create wrestlers, entrances, and move-sets, but only that move-set editor feels as complete as last year’s game. Wrestler edit options have been scaled way, way back, not to the point where it’s impossible to make interesting-looking wrestlers, but still a far cry from what you could do in the past. For one particularly egregious example, you can’t create female wrestlers at all. The game tries to make up for some of what's missing by allowing players to upload custom logos via a website, which you can also use to upload your own faces and tattoo designs, should you feel so inclined. This is a really excellent addition that, nonetheless, doesn't quite make up for how gutted the rest of the create-a-wrestler mode feels.
The mode also loads poorly, primarily when you’re editing aspects of a wrestler’s face. You also can’t put clothing items on a wrestler to see how they look; all you get is a preview image that gives no indication how an item will look on your character, and when you do put it on, you get another load time. It makes trying to cycle through options far more of a chore than it ought to be. Entrances have been reduced to almost exclusively offering entrances for existing wrestlers, and only a handful of those can be edited using the “advanced” editor. Custom music options also seem to have been removed, and you can’t even use the songs from John Cena’s much-promoted “curated soundtrack” as wrestler entrances. Not that I would have wanted to, since that soundtrack is one of the worst collections of licensed music I've ever heard in a video game, but still.
You can, at the very least, now edit existing wrestlers from the WWE roster in order to keep outfits up-to-date, if that's your thing. That said, doing so requires you to insert that edited wrestler into one of the game's create-a-wrestler slots, of which there are only 25 this year, versus the 100 available last year.
There’s also no big, grandiose story mode feature this year, or at least no version that scratches the same nostalgic itch that the 30 Years of Wrestlemania and Attitude Era modes did. 2K15’s version, 2K Showcase, is a more limited examination of specific rivalries throughout the WWE’s history. The game launches with two rivalries: John Cena and CM Punk’s back-and-forth around the WWE Championship from 2011, and Triple H and Shawn Michaels' post-DX blood feud from the early 2000s. Both modes feature a collection of matches that took place during those feuds, each of which comes with in-game objectives that allow you to relive some of the key moments from those contests. Some of those objectives prove a great deal more challenging than one might prefer, especially any time you’re tasked with wrangling a particular scenario out of a multi-wrestler match. Having to survive through four other competitors as Triple H during an elimination chamber match, just so you can switch over to Shawn Michaels at the end, is more arduous than fun, and only a handful of these matches are all that memorable to begin with. I did like being able to play through the Cena/Punk title match that saw Punk absconding with the title, but only a few of the matches that came afterward managed to hold my attention. 2K is apparently going to flesh this mode out a bit more via DLC, including some segments featuring highlight matches from the careers of the Ultimate Warrior and Mark Henry, but as-is, Showcase feels depressingly light on interesting content.
Shockingly, the best part of 2K Showcase is the commentary from Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler. I know, I know, the words “good commentary” and “Cole/Lawler” don’t belong together under nearly any circumstances. In this case, 2K had the pair record a ton of situation-specific commentary for the Showcase matches, and this stuff is light years more interesting to listen to than anything else they do in the game. There is additional new commentary that mixes in with the old stuff in other modes, but very little of it involves more than just one of the two rattling off moves that wrestlers know how to do and championships they’ve won. Some of it is even bizarrely out of date; Jerry Lawler talking at length about Daniel Bryan using the Cattle Mutilation submission hold, despite him not having used that move on WWE television in ages, for instance. But the Showcase commentary is littered with information both relevant to the matches at hand, and acknowledgments of the outer-depths of WWE lore—Damien Demento and Max Moon references, anyone? None of it is perfect, but it’s the closest these guys have come in ages to sounding like men who enjoy, and know a good bit about wrestling, as though these recording sessions were an opportunity for them to send the audience a cry for help through a venue that Vince McMahon has no chance of ever stumbling upon. We hear you, guys.
Elsewhere, the WWE Universe returns in a somewhat expanded (but mostly familiar) form, though I expect a lot of players will ignore it initially in favor of the new MyCareer mode. This mode intends to give WWE fans something in the same vein as the MyPlayer mode in the NBA 2K series. On paper, it sounds terrific. You take a created superstar from a try-out in NXT into a full-fledged career in the WWE, with rivalries and storylines appearing along the way. The reality of this mode as executed in WWE 2K15 is, sadly, something entirely different. You do start out in NXT, with trainer Bill DeMott barking orders at you as you work your way onto TV, fighting for the NXT championship. But then something peculiar happened. Within the span of a few matches, I managed to get a title shot, and then won it. Suddenly I was NXT champion, and forced to defend my title on a weekly basis. Which is fine, except that once I’d done that, I was very suddenly promoted to WWE Superstars, and soon after had to relinquish my title. By the time I was on to the WWE main roster, I’d had what amounted to a cup of coffee in NXT. Maybe it’s because there’s only a small number of NXT wrestlers available in 2K15, but the game seemed to be in a tremendous hurry to usher me out of there and get me onto the main roster. Speaking as someone who often enjoys NXT more than most of the main roster shows, this was a big disappointment.
That disappointment might have been salved if what came next were markedly better, but that isn’t the case. From here on out, you have to work your way from Superstars to Main Event, to SmackDown!, and eventually to RAW. Disregarding the fact that roster splits haven’t existed in the WWE in several years, this structure also proves a remarkably boring way to progress your wrestler’s career. Much of your time is spent working dark matches and tune-up matches, matches that have no bearing on any storylines, but do provide boosts to the amount of in-game currency or social media fans you earn, respectively. The problem is that after a few hours, those bonuses become far less meaningful. By the time I was halfway through my SmackDown! tenure, I'd already purchased most of the skill upgrades I could ever want. The same goes for the mode's experience point system, which comes from working more exciting matches. Ignoring that the game's definition of an "exciting match" is woefully inconsistent, I still managed to boost my wrestler up to maximum stats for his weight class by around that same point in my career. Yet I was still being fed these dull, now utterly pointless matches on a regular basis, with even less reason to care.
It just goes on like this until you eventually win the WWE championship at Wrestlemania, at which point the credits abruptly roll, and your career skips all the way ahead to your own retirement match at a future Wrestlemania (which, of course, takes place in the Wrestlemania XXX arena). No title defenses past that initial win, just THE END followed by a few final exhibition matches. Not exactly a banner career, considering I barely had any feuds to speak of during it. The only significant rivalry I had involved The Shield showing up to extract a bit of justice on who they believed to be an unworthy new competitor, and that rivalry lasted for all of a few matches. Then things just fell back into the same holding pattern of pointless match after pointless match. Occasional cutscenes would appear, but mostly I'd just see the same menu pop-ups over and over again. There's depressingly little in the way of player choice, and the choices you are presented with don't add much flavor to the proceedings. What few nuggets of excitement the mode offers are largely drowned out by tedium.
And then there's online play, which has seen some of the most confusing changes anywhere in the game. WWE games of late have come with their share of online problems, but I'm not certain that matchmaking menus were really the villain most people were focused on. Thus, 2K15's switch to a "background matchmaking" system, which has players essentially opt-in for challenges from online competitors while sitting in non-online game menus, is an odd choice. Private matches still use the same basic matchmaking screen you're likely accustomed to, but ranked matches can only be played using this system. On its own, that change is merely confusing, but the fact that ranked matches require you to set long-term match type and favorite wrestler preferences, rather than just letting you choose those options on the fly in each match, is a little bit insane. Meanwhile, online performance is still fairly suspect. I only experienced a few instances of connection drops while trying to connect with other players (though those drops often came along with a full-on game crash), but lag was a prevalent issue through most of the matches I played. Not the kind of lag that dragged the whole match down, but the kind that made reversals and pin kickouts considerably more difficult than in the offline game.
With all these issues considered, it's hard to look at WWE 2K15 as anything but a massive downgrade. Yes, 2K has imbued 2K15 with impressive graphical prowess, but those hot visuals don't mean a whole hell of a lot when the rest of the game feels so undercooked. At best, 2K15 shows some glimmers of hope for the future, laying the groundwork for modes and features that could be turned into something great in upcoming iterations. But as those features exist within the confines of WWE 2K15, little of what's here is strong enough to make up for what's been lost in transition.