Back in 2003, the now-defunct THQ published a wrestling game widely regarded as one of the greats. “WWE Smackdown: Here Comes The Pain” was a perfect blend of arcade action and tactical depth. In the years since, the franchise went looking to recapture this high, and in new custodian 2K’s latest edition, it may have recaptured that magic.
Blurring the lines between sport and performance, 2K’s prior efforts have painted WWE in a predominantly simulation-based light. While stamina meters and the like are still factors in this year’s title, WWE 2K19 brings back the fun-factor. On the mat, there are great new additions in the form of Paybacks and Overcharges. Paybacks range from the boosts to grappling to more nefarious means, such as a low blow when the Referee isn’t looking, or even pulling out brass knuckles to get the job done. There’s even Tajiri’s “Poison Mist” cloud, which is exactly as weird as it was on television all those years ago.
Overcharges are a buff to one of three areas – strikes, grapples, or momentum. These are accompanied by a neat visual flourish, bordering on cartoony but certainly making you FEEL powerful.
Aside from these, there are some minor improvements to animation clipping but 2K18’s impressive core is still very much intact. This year’s gameplay is certainly iterative – an evolution over a revolution. Bugs occasionally surface, particularly in more demanding multi-man matches.
Where 2K19 piledrives its predecessor is in MyCareer. Where last year’s game was a slog – seeing you work your way from match to match, interspersed by seemingly endless treks down the same corridor – this year features a story, complete with voice acting, custom animations and custom commentary. In fact, it’s the best career mode I can think of in a wrestling game, well, ever.
Avoiding spoilers, you’ll start out as an indie superstar living out of a van and wrestling in High School gymnasiums and car parks before earning your chance with WWE. There are certainly issues – all created superstars have the same voice, and there still isn’t an option to compete as a female – but the story is surprisingly well told and featured some genuinely comedic moments. Matches often feature objectives to complete, and some certainly feel like padding, but the story moves at a brisk enough pace to keep you invested chapter to chapter. It’s certainly more linear, but the increased focus makes everything feel curated – free of superfluous conversations backstage and dismal corridor trudges.
Unfortunately, the game’s progression system in MyCareer is a halfway house of sorts between 2K18’s disappointing loot-box mechanism and a new forward-thinking one. While new moves and customization options can be purchased using currency earned from matches, this process is expensive. This leaves the much-maligned lootboxes as the predominant unlock system, although thankfully these can only be earned with in-game currency and not via microtransactions. The other half of this coin is a new skill tree that unlocks new stats, perks and passive bonuses at a much more reasonable pace – each node that is unlocked will open up the nodes above, while some have items linked to them. It’s possible to build out your creation in any way you see fit, from high-flyer to weapon specialist and everything in between.
With all of the effort clearly put into MyCareer, it’s impressive that 2K have been able to add so much else to 2K19. A new “Towers” mode features a playlist of matches within a certain theme, working your way higher and higher. This allows for live-service elements such as Daily and Weekly challenges to keep you logging in. It’s a throwback to the Arcade mode of old, and is a great distraction.
Meanwhile, Showcase mode returns after an absence in last year’s game, this time centered on the in-ring exploits of Daniel Bryan, the “American Dragon” and three letter word enthusiast. Featuring interviews with the man himself between bouts and recreating every minor detail imaginable (his beard length growing is a particular highlight), this year’s Showcase is accomplished and confident. Series staples Universe mode and Road To Glory also return, giving 2K19 the most solid complement of gameplay options in the franchise so far.
While commentary still feels laughably inane at times, with constant clichés and repeated dialogue, the visual production values are second to none. Wrestlers look eerily reminiscent of the real thing at times, with beads of sweat and fluid animation. Those worried that the game’s new arcade-leaning sensibilities would lead to a less authentic visual spectacle can rest easy.
That detail extends to the still class-leading customization suite. For a universe centered on such colorful and distinct characters, it’s impressive that a game can do such creativity justice. If you can imagine it, you can create it – or you can download creations from the community. There are already superheroes, ex-wrestlers and celebrities available online for you to fight or fight as, swelling the already incredible roster of 252 superstars (yes, really).
WWE 2K19 is a wrestling fan’s dream. It’s a treasure trove of modes, wrestlers and customization options, and each is equally worth your time. The return of Showcase mode is welcome, while MyCareer is a huge step up for the franchise and brings it closer to 2K’s NBA efforts. Quite simply, this is the best there is, the best there was, and the best there will be – until next year, at least.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.