For the last few years, WWE has been on a downward trajectory with their fanbase despite positive initiatives like NXT and a legitimate spotlight on women’s wrestling. Viewership numbers are generally at an all-time low, while the independent wrestling scenes across the world are flourishing due to their innovation with groups like the famous Bullet Club spearheading this success. Unfortunately, much like its source material, WWE video games are also being criticised year in and year out for issues ranging from a poor MyCareer mode through to a litany of bugs and stale gameplay. With 2K19 marking the series 20th release, there feels like no better time than to take a critical eye to the juggernaut franchise.
This year, MyCareer mode drops you into the shoes of “Buzz,” an independent wrestler who is an up-and-comer in the fictional organisation BCW. Joining you in the story are characters Barron Blade, Buzz’s mentor and owner of BCW and fellow wrestler/frenemy Cole Quin. From here, the story follows your journey from high school gyms to NXT, and then to the main rosters of WWE on RAW and Smackdown Live. Along the way, there are a myriad of twists and turns which are synonymous with two things – wrestling and Days of Our Lives.
In fleshing out this universe, you can participate in conversations with fellow wrestlers/personalities, as well as receive text messages on your phone and listen to podcasts talking about your career trajectory and events. I love the unique spin of podcasts on the usual audio collectibles you can find in other games and thought it was a nice touch that felt authentic to the actual world of wrestling given the recent flourishing of wrestling-based podcasts such as 83 Weeks among many others. 2K19’s MyCareer mode is such a vast improvement over 2K18; the comparison indeed is closest to apple and oranges. 2K19 provides a cohesive, lengthy campaign that is not bogged by repetition and aimlessness. It tells a tight and concise story and manages to conclude it in a great time frame without over or undershooting their target. While some of the stories could come across as a little hokey or predictable, I think this is forgivable in general due to it being the nature of wrestling at times. This year provided an excellent foundation heading forward, and I hope they continue to build upon this current format.
MyCareer mode features a skill tree and allows you to assign points based on the style of wrestling you want to build your character around. The points generally accumulate by completing chapters in MyCareer mode, to begin with, and you can roughly reach a rating of 70 or so by the time you finish the story mode. To customise the look, moveset and entrance of your wrestler, you will need to spend VC to open booster packs which contain random items associated with those as mentioned earlier.
Unlike other games currently on the market, WWE2K19 doesn’t push you into spending money on VC, and instead, it can be naturally earned quite easily through playing the game. I’m far more comfortable with this system and have no issues putting time into the game if it will reward me fairly for doing so. In instances of overall design, I was most impressed with the attention to detail that Yuke’s and Visual Concepts put into the game. The most pointed example of this presented itself to me in MyCareer when my character was wrestling on a WWE Japan tour. Japanese wrestling fans are far more reserved than their US counterparts, and often wrestlers will merely be applauded with little to no chanting involved during entrances or big/surprising moves. This is emulated perfectly and stood out to me just how much attention the designers were placing on designing the product based on real constructs.
While I’m not a big fan of the often fiddly controls of WWE 2K games, this year is the smoothest I’ve played in some time. Adopting a more “arcade” style of gameplay, it allows you to get into the action straight away, and I imagine much more inviting to potential series newcomers as opposed to previous iterations which focused on more technically correct but less compelling systems such as chain wrestling. In a game which features such a wide variety of play options, this feels like a return to form for the series on the whole despite some existing AI pathing and action issues which have plagued the series for years.
Coupled off the back of the much improved MyCareer mode is the excellent 2K Showcase which features perennial underdog Daniel Bryan. Following his journey from a small-time match on WWE Velocity with then up-and-comer John Cena to his return match at Wrestlemania teaming with Shane McMahon against Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, 2K did a great job in splicing together footage and gameplay to make the whole experience feel seamless and dynamic. The use of real footage and interviews with Daniel Bryan highlight the adversity he has faced across his career and the triumph of his recent return from retirement after being told he would never compete again. Alongside these two successes, are two new Tower modes as well as the return of Road to Glory which allows you to join one of up to eight factions.
In general, the game also looks fantastic, and the animations appear to be far smoother than in previous years which is pleasing to see. The voice acting does fall a little in places, but none so much as the obvious stand-in they used for one of the company’s biggest stars, John Cena. It sounded nothing like him, and if he was unable to commit due to his burgeoning Hollywood career, then I feel like WWE and 2K should have made the call not to include him in the MyCareer story. It stood out like a sore thumb and dragged down the quality of the game just a little during that particular chapter. Much like wrestling itself with its different personalities, the soundtrack to WWE 2K19 offered an eclectic mix of rock, heavy metal and rap with the unintentionally hilarious and popular track “Ric Flair Drip” by 21 Savage getting stuck in my head for days.
While some things still need to be worked on to return WWE games to the golden age of the PS1/2 era, this is the best wrestling game that has been turned out over the last 5 years. 2K seems to have finally listened to the calls of fans and critics alike and have managed to make a successful overhaul of their series work in just a year. In closing my review of WWE 2K18 last year, I vowed I wouldn’t be trying another WWE game for a few years, but I just couldn’t help myself. And I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to renege on my promise because I got to witness what could be the rebirth of top-tier WWE gaming.