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WWE 2K23 Review: A long-overdue return to form for the franchise

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WWE 2K23 Review: A long-overdue return to form for the franchise

Promotional image of WWE 2K23. (Image credit: 2K Games)

WWE 2K23 doesn’t throw out the playbook completely; it tweaks the plays to make them more effective


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  • The game had an initial launch on March 14, and a wider one on March 17.
  • This year, John Cena is the subject of the 2K WWE Showcase.
  • The real surprise package this year is the flowing gameplay.

Have you ever played one of those mobile games that inundates you with irritating advertisements — mostly featuring Gardenscapes or Coin Master or some such — after each level? Sometimes, you get lucky and there’s just the five-second-long ad to negotiate. A bit more often though, you have to sit through 30-second-long unskippable ads. I got a vaguely similar sense while playing WWE 2K23‘s MyRise mode. But we’ll get to that in good time.

The chaos of WarGames finally arrives on a WWE game. Screen grab from WWE 2K23 on PlayStation 5

The Visual Concepts-developed and 2K Sports-published WWE 2K23 launched on Friday (initial launch for Deluxe and Icon Edition-buyers was March 14), and it feels like the franchise has turned a corner.

Ever since longtime WWE developer Yuke’s and 2K parted ways in 2019, Visual Concepts has been struggling to hit the high water mark achieved by the Japanese studio. Reams have already been written about the disaster that was WWE 2K20, so we’ll skip right past and over to last year’s WWE 2K22.

The game represented a major improvement, but a handful of aspects seemed less polished or more onerous than they should have been and by the end, it was a slog to try and play through the game for very long. Put simply, it was alright. No more and no less. I kept last year’s edition of the series installed on my PlayStation 5, so as to compare it with WWE 2K23 and at first glance, there’s nothing really earth-shatteringly different going on.

Presentation remains TV-like, but character likenesses can be hit or miss. Screen grab from WWE 2K23 on PlayStation 5

Sure, there’s a new match type (WarGames), there’s a brand new 2K Showcase that features John Cena, new stories in MyRise (the game’s take on a story mode) and some additions to MyGM (the management sim). But elsewhere, they didn’t seem to be very much all that new. Or so I thought.

It’s only when you get in the ring that you really discover what’s changed. High production values and hit-or-miss character likenesses are parred for the course. And once the bell rings, grappling and striking remains largely the same, although, I got a distinct feeling that something had been tweaked. Whether it was the fact that the stamina indicator to prevent you from spamming attacks was better incorporated, that collision detection appeared to be (for the most part) improved or that the dodge and block mechanics were better fleshed out, everything seemed to flow better — even the little touches like rolling out of the ring to recover one’s breath.

If there’s one thing that makes or breaks wrestling games, it’s pacing. Bouts simply cannot be sluggish on one hand, or Street Fighter-esque blitzes. The best wrestling games mesh reasonably snappy action with a well-told story of backs and forths. We saw this with WWE No Mercy (Nintendo 64, 2000), WWE SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain (PlayStation 2, 2003) and WWE ’13 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii, 2012) are a small handful of examples that come to mind in this regard.

The Creation Suite is bigger than before and customisation options (for everything from appearance to move sets and entrances) are vast. Screen grab from WWE 2K23 on PlayStation 5

In fact, it’s here that the general motif of WWE 2K23 becomes clearer: It’s not about massive changes, it’s about the little tweaks that make this a fun game to play. And indeed, a fun overall package to spend hours on. Let’s roll the highlights reel.

First and foremost, there’s the John Cena 20th anniversary special 2K Showcase. At first glance, it’s just a John Cena-branded version of the Rey Mysterio 2K Showcase from last year’s game. But look closer and the differences become clear. While the WWE’s own brand of revisionism (blurring out signs, logos, referees and t-shirts that are no longer on the brand) and the jarring absence of commentary remain, the overall experience has been vastly improved. Key to that is Visual Concepts leaning into the Showcase mode as a narrative experience, rather than a conventional game mode.

If you try and approach it as the latter, you are likely to be frustrated very quickly and repeatedly, because a good third or so of the content is a documentary-style walk down memory lane with Cena. The WWE veteran holds forth on the matches featured in the mode, his rivalries with the superstars in those matches and frequently beats his “Never Give Up” drum. Then there’s the fact that matches essentially require you to put together a bit of offence before we switch over to archival footage of the actual match for the opponent’s offence.

This isn’t the best mode to play if you’ve only got a few minutes to kill, but if you’re one for nostalgia and a fan of the business, it’s a great little look into Cena’s history. Best of all, this year Visual Concepts decided to twist the concept around and have you play as Cena’s opponents (notable exception being the persona non-grata CM Punk) in matches he lost. From both the gameplay and narrative standpoints, this is a great move.

For starters, it adds variety and you don’t have to play as the same character match-after-match, and you get some self-aware and at times charmingly self-deprecating insight into a loss, indeed all the losses. Finally, in the biggest improvement to the mode, the set of objectives to achieve in order to move to the next stage are less rigid, taking care of one of my biggest gripes about last year’s 2K Showcase.

Second, there’s MyRise, the RPG-ish story mode I’d alluded to earlier. The premise is simple: You build a custom superstar and play out one of two stories. The first depicts the rise of a second-generation talent in the shadow of her Hall of Famer aunt and the second tells the tale of the trials and tribulations of a newbie billed as the next big thing. There’s no copy-paste going on here because both are incredibly different stories and feature interactions with a wholly different set of superstars — real and fictional.

MyRise’s overreliance on social media to push the story along is both tiresome and an accurate reflection of present times. Screen grab from WWE 2K23 on PlayStation 5

While the backstage interactions can tend to go on and on for a bit, the writing is a bit cringe-worthy, as is the overuse of social media as a narrative device, and some of the challenges can seem tedious or repetitive, the overall package is a lot of fun. The twists and turns of the story are entertaining, the main story beats and plots are engaging, and the commentary is surprisingly good. In fact, I should probably note at this point that the game overall enjoys some of the best commentaries I’ve heard in a WWE game. And some of the strangest cross-eyed character models too (see image below).

But my biggest issue with MyRise is the fact that almost every little segment is followed by a loading screen — maybe it only lasts a couple of seconds, maybe it lasts for eight seconds — with the opening strains of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Don’t Stop, Metallica’s Enter Sandman, Post Malone’s Take What You Want (featuring Ozzy Osbourneand one or two other songs that I couldn’t name. Just like those Gardenscapes and Coin Master ads, these songs have been rendered meaningless to me after the number of times I’ve had to sit through their intros.

Third, there’s MyGM. While the format — pick a general manager to pick a roster, plan matches and earn ratings — remains the same, it’s the little tweaks that make it a lot more engaging this time around. There’s a greater variety of shows and general managers to choose from, some more mid-card titles to put up for grabs and the ability to play on for more than just one season. Picking up awards for your show is another bonus aspect of this year’s MyGM mode.

Your character’s Hall of Famer aunt from MyRise. Screen grab from WWE 2k23 on PlayStation 5

MyFaction, the live service mode of the WWE games, returns. And just like last year, I gave it a miss.

So what’s the verdict? It’s a fact that no single part of the game truly shines. Even the combat that feels extremely fluid and encourages you to make strategic and tactical decisions about how to manage a match, struggles with some collision detection issues. Running attacks frequently hit nothing but air and a thankfully small fraction of reversals can seem awfully arbitrary. As a sum of its parts, however, it’s a very different assessment.

In my opinion, the WWE 2K series goes beyond the likes of the FIFA franchise in terms of the variety it offers. And this edition of the game doubles down on that premise. If you want a walk-down-memory-lane semi-interactive documentary, WWE 2K23 has you covered. If you want a story mode using a character that looks just like you, WWE 2K23 has you covered. If you just want a chilled-out management sim, you’re covered. And if you just want to batter the living daylights out of an opponent with a belt, on top of a massive steel cage, with the stipulation that whoever bleeds first loses, WWE 2K23 also has you covered.

It’s been a while since I enjoyed a WWE game as much as this one, and it sure feels like the franchise is back to winning ways.

Rating: 3.5/5

Developer: Visual Concepts

Publisher: 2K Sports

Game reviewed on PlayStation 5. Review code provided by publisher

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