It's starting to feel like we're stuck in some sort of groundhog day with the WWE games. Every year, they promise the world; every year, we let ourselves believe it might happen; and every year, we just end up being disappointed. Much like someone hoping Cesaro might finally get a push, as soon as we let ourselves believe it might happen, everything goes horribly wrong.
WWE 2K17 is a game that attempts to bring the pomp and circumstance of wrestling onto your consoles - spandex, baby oil and bright lights and all. There's a huge roster of your favourite wrestlers of past and present to choose from, and you can face off in a generous variety of modes, from Elimination Chamber matches to ladder match scrambles, or even the legendary Hell in a Cell. So far, so normal.
But the problem is, with each and every WWE game that comes out, we move further and further away from what makes the game fun, and more towards being a "simulation". Seemingly, someone at 2K has decided WWE games need to be realistic, and that it's "realism" that we all want. Quite what realism means when you're talking about a scripted show remains to be seen, but as Brand Manager Bryce Yang told us when we spoke to him at gamescom, the push here is to create a realistic wrestling game. And what that seems to mean in reality is one that's slow, dull, and boring.
Here, even more than previous years, your wrestlers move like they're walking through treacle. Moves seem to play out in slow motion - a snap suplex is less snap and more slide, while running makes your wrestler look like they're just jogging on the spot. Everything is incredibly protracted - and much more complicated than before.
Perhaps we're just taking this all badly because we've been playing the old PS2 WWE games a lot recently, but the difference here is like night and day. Back in the day, WWE games always used to be about the fun, first and foremost. You could step into the ring with a group of friends, and knock seven bells out of each other. Yes, it might not have been the most realistic of games - people don't get put through the roof of the Hell in a Cell quite as often as they do on the games, and we can't remember the last time we saw a snowball fight break out - but that didn't matter. They were, and still are, one heck of a lot of fun. But we defy anyone to go back and play one of the PS2 games, then pick this up and tell us it's in any way better in terms of gameplay. Better graphics, and a wider roster, perhaps - but in terms of fun, the current WWE games lack miles behind.
It probably doesn't help that things just keep getting harder, as 2K does its best to lock anything that might raise a smile behind layers of complexity. Breaking out of the Hell in a Cell, for example, is now even harder than ever before - this time round, not only do you have to have a stored finisher, and be standing in the right place, but you actually have to be playing as a wrestler that has a certain special ability before it'll let you break free of the metal confines. On the PS2 games, you just went through the door.
Still, there's at least some things WWE 2K17 gets right. For starters, it has a gigantic roster - the largest ever, as 2K are keen to remind us - stretching from the stars of yesteryear through the biggest names of the current day, and even some future stars in the making from developmental show NXT. So Randy Savage can take on Daniel Bryan; Razor Ramon can face off against Seth Rollins; and Brian Pillman can clash with Fandango in a real battle for the ages.
There's certainly a huge roster to get to grips with here - but not every character's unlocked from the start. Instead, around half of the wrestlers are locked off inside a store, where you'll need to spend in game currency in order to unlock them. The game starts you off with 200,000 to spend, but as the most expensive wrestlers will set you back upwards of 50,000 a pop, that may not last all that long. Luckily, you'll actually earn VC for almost everything you do in game - from exhibition matches through to WWE Universe mode - but disappointingly, you won't get anything for playing in local multiplayer - earning VC is single player only.
Yet the selection of modes here is a disappointment too. For starters, the best mode in last year's game, the WWE Showcase - otherwise known as the main, single player story mode - has gone, yanked to be sold separately as DLC at a later date in the form of a Hall of Fame showcase, telling the story of a group of legendary wrestlers and their biggest matches. What you're left with is a game that seems to have lost most of its soul - and even in terms of the selection of modes, the relentless push for realism drags it down.
The new main mode is now MyCareer, where you take a created wrestler from zero to hero, from developmental showcase NXT through to super stardom in the WWE proper. The only problem is, the whole thing is one big grind fest.
WWE itself is as much about the story as the action, and this would have been a great chance to see your wrestler propelled into some TV style storylines, soaking people with beer/milk hosepipes, doing dodgy deals with authority figures, and generally playing your part in the show. Instead, you end up trudging through week after week of matches, trying to put on the "best" match you can, for very little reason other than to earn points, and gradually make your way up through the rankings.
Confusingly, putting on the "best" match doesn't actually mean "winning as decisively as you can" - which is where the mental gamboling of realism starts to come in to play. If you want to be truly realistic, and take wrestling as a serious sport, then winning as quickly and decisively as possible would be best. Yet here, simply going out and destroying your opponent isn't actually good enough - instead, you'll actually do better if you let your opponent beat you up periodically, to get some "back and forth" bonuses. Everything you do in the match will earn (or lose) you points, from varying your moves to performing your finishers, with the final tally of points determining the star rating for your match - and if you want to do well, you'll need to let your opponent beat on you for a bit.
Getting a high star rating is important here, too, as your points translate into VC - the game's virtual currency, which can be spent on everything from the aforementioned unlockables in the store, to the much more pressing task of making your wrestler stronger. To begin with, you'll only have access to a limited selection of moves, a limited selection of abilities and will be playing with a weaker wrestler - you'll need to spend the points you earn to make your wrestler stronger, faster, and better. It's a nice enough idea, but all it does is turn the career mode into one big slog.
And despite the push for realism, the game still doesn't feel all that realistic to us. When anyone, from Zack Ryder to a random jobber can kick out at one after your finisher, then do we really have something that's realistic? And if making the game feel like it's been played in slow motion isn't realistic, then why have we gone so far from what was a winning formula?
It's not like the developers haven't tried, but everything they've attempted to put right seems to have torn another great big hole elsewhere. Backstage brawls make their triumphant return, too, letting you beat your opponent through the dressing rooms and even in Triple H's office, but it's hard to forget that they were six player on the PS2, but only support two players on WWE 2K17. One of the highlights of last gen's WWE games, the Highlight Reel makes a comeback too - although without the ability to move the camera freely, and a confusing control scheme, it's unlikely you'll use this as much as you used to.
Create-a-wrestler, meanwhile, is back up to its normal quality, and you can easily (and quickly) preview how new items will look without having to wait for them to load in. There's a great selection of bits and pieces on offer, too - but on the downside, matches now take an absolute age to load, taking us back to the bad old days of the very first WWE on the Xbox 360. While a standard match between two proper WWE wrestlers takes just 15 seconds, add a created wrestler into the mix (like you'll do in almost every single player mode) and it jumps to 45 seconds. A battle between two created wrestlers took us 1 minute and 18 seconds to load. In today's world of mandatory installs, that's inexcusable.
At the end of the day, for a sport that's larger than life, WWE 2K17 tries way too hard to be a simulation of something it can never really simulate. With each passing iteration, the game seems to move more towards being WWE viewed through the lens of amateur wrestling, rather than the blitz of passion, spectacle, and huge moves that it is today. The spark is slowly dying with the WWE games - a huge change of direction is needed if it's going to make a come back.