Good review. I hope 2k18 is better!
In the last few years, the WWE 2K series has more or less bucked the iterative trend of the annual sports games it gets some of its DNA from by making risky but ultimately worthwhile changes to its formerly arcade-style formula. By comparison WWE 2K17 feels like more of a fine-tuning year. There are some welcome gameplay tweaks and additions that keep the in-ring action in top form, but while it takes a few small steps forward in some ways it has either remained stationary or slid backward in areas that have needed improvement for a while now.
The first and most important thing, above and beyond the minutiae that’s so easy to get caught up in with wrestling games, is whether the actual wrestling feels right. And like last year’s game, 2K17 delivers the goods. It has a weighty, deliberate feel that really sells the power and impact of each open-hand chop and every double-underhook suplex. Developers Yukes and Visual Concepts have steadily added layers of tactical depth in the last few years that reward timing, planning, and decision-making in a way that makes matches fun beyond the simple joy of playing as your favorite wrestler. All of that holds true this year; even more so thanks to a handful of adjustments and additions.
The single most significant improvement is to multi-person matches, which in the past have always been such an awkward mess that I usually avoided them altogether. This year, subtle changes to the default targeting system and a clever new mechanic has changed all of that for me. Manual targeting is now the default targeting method, and 2K17 does a better overall job of making your current target clear. Snappier target-switching helps too, allowing me to reverse an attack from one opponent and then quickly switch targets, whip around, and wail on someone behind me without feeling like I'm mired in mud.
The real gem, though, is the new rollout mechanic. Like last year’s Working Holds, it represents another example of how wrestling’s theatrical elements can be co-opted to enhance gameplay. If you've ever seen a Triple Threat or Fatal 4-Way on TV, you know it isn't three or four wrestlers wailing on each other for 10 minutes. One guy takes a big bump, rolls out of the ring, and takes a breather while lettings the other two put on a show for a while, and that's exactly what this new system enables. Not only does this make these types of matches look and feel more like their real-life counterparts, it also makes them less chaotic and, as a result, a lot more fun.
Particularly high-impact moves have a chance to force a rollout, which starts a meter filling up. At around half way, you get the option to re-enter the fray at partial strength. Choosing whether to come back in sooner with a debuff or later at full strength becomes a key decision down the stretch, often leading to dramatic interventions right as your opponent is about to score that match-winning pinfall or briefcase grab. This exciting back-and-forth cadence has transformed modes I used to ignore into my favorite ways to play WWE 2K17.
Rollouts have transformed modes I used to ignore into my favorite ways to play WWE 2K17.
That more or less sums up the net effect of most of this year’s gameplay tweaks: they broaden the range of matches and modes that feel worth playing. The inclusion of backstage brawls and the the ability (finally) to fight in the crowd makes Falls Count Anywhere matches far more novel, seeing as – as the name implies – falls can now literally happen anywhere. Ladder interactions have been expanded and refined, which, along with the new rollout system, makes Ladder and TLC matches much more enjoyable affairs. There aren’t really any new match types, but it almost feels like it thanks to the new life that’s been breathed into so many of the existing ones.
Showcase of the Immortals?
Core gameplay is the most important thing, but it’s not the only thing. So let's address the elephant in the room: there's no 2K Showcase this year, and it kinda hurts, folks. Don't get me wrong, there's still tons of content here to justify a purchase. This isn't about quantity. But 2K Showcase has been the single-player staple mode since it was introduced as the “Attitude Era” mode in 2K13, and for good reason. It's been the perfect mix of historical reverence and fantasy fulfillment, taking full advantage of the many mechanics that make up the combat system.
I know and understand the reasons for this decision, but that doesn't make the absence of 2K’s marquee mode any easier to take. Without it, the role of the self-contained single-player story mode falls to MyCareer, which is just too different to fill the gap effectively. Not everyone wants to put in the work it takes to create a good-looking custom character or the amount of grinding involved to move your career, and the story forward. Moreover, writing a long-form story of your own just isn’t the same as reliving a well-known, exciting one in the way 2K Showcase allowed.
There's no 2K Showcase this year, and it kinda hurts, folks.
That isn’t to say MyCareer is so bad, it’s just longer-form and not as polished as the missing mode it now has to live up to for returning fans. There’s certainly an appeal to building a character of your own creation up from nothing to Hall of Fame status, it just takes a lot of empty-feeling repetition to get there. Just like actual WWE undercard rookies, you’ll be locked in dead-end feuds with other jobbers for weeks at a time, fighting them two and three times a week until you’re sick of beating the tar off them. It makes sense that in order for your eventual ascension to feel meaningful you have to struggle and earn it, I just wish there were a more steady sense of progression and variety.
It doesn’t help that MyCareer is also probably the most poorly presented element of 2K17, especially in the case of the new player-controlled promos. As mentioned earlier, the developers have generally done a great job of gamifying the performance-based elements of wrestling, but the the way they’ve chosen to implement promos just doesn’t live up to what they’ve done in other areas. Picking what feel like arbitrary, disjointed dialogue snippets and then watching my character awkwardly mime them while I read the full text below feels like something from a generation-old game compared to how well implemented the rest of 2K17’s gameplay is. There’s an attempt at depth here, with different cities having different types of audiences and requiring you to cater your performance to what they like, but there’s nothing indicating which city has what kind of audience or which dialogue options correspond with them, so it just feels like guessing.
The best parts of MyCareer are the optional ones involving Paul Heyman (who gets to voice himself here) and as anyone who watches wrestling knows, the man knows how to work a mic. Despite your character quietly emoting his way through it all, every scene with Heyman felt far more interesting. That makes one wonder why 2K doesn’t leverage the many talented promo-artists of the WWE more fully to create a story mode that fully showcases their personalities. Heyman’s brief standout moments only highlight what an opportunity is being missed here.
Let Me Get the Tables
While we’re talking about missed opportunities, now that we are a few years into the console cycle the absence of modes that got lost in the hardware transition are starting to get harder to look past. I don’t really care about gimmicky stuff like Buried Alive, but I can’t even do a simple tag-team tables match. How is D-Von supposed to “get the tables,” hmmmmm? Six-person tornado tag TLC’s still aren’t a thing? I get it, there are TONS of modes and features already there, but these are things we used to have and the promise of this franchise has always been an EA Sports-like “if it’s in the game, it’s in the game” approach. So these missing features are tough to ignore.
Still, even the best wrestlers don’t nail every single spot, and 2K17 offers so much depth in terms of modes and options that those missteps barely slow it down. The creation suite continues to expand and impress with a surprisingly powerful Adobe Premier-like Titantron video editor, and the most insanely detailed facial morphing I’ve ever seen in a game. 2K17 even provides a generous helping of stock video footage, icon animations and scene transitions, allowing you to make something truly original rather than just a slightly modified version of an existing Superstar’s video. Bringing back the still-missing Create-a-Move and Create-a-Story would have been an ideal complement to this new tool, but hey, there’s always next year.
WWE 2K17 doesn’t make any big, drastic changes, but its smart gameplay tweaks have revitalized match types I’d ignored the past few years. I really miss 2K Showcase, and 2K17 is still weak in areas that I feel should have been shored up by now, but its excellent combat, and generous amounts of customization help it retain its title.
Good review. I hope 2k18 is better!