It's fair to say that the long-running WWE series' debut on the PS4 and Xbox One wasn't quite as good as many had hoped. While there wasn't all that much wrong with the actual wrestling itself, the overall package was somewhat lacking, with the new 2K Showcase mode (more on this later) held back by a lacklustre create-a-wrestler mode, far too much emphasis on pre-order bonuses and post-launch downloadable add-ons, and the total omission of several modes that had become de-facto standards in wrestling games. With plenty of extra development time, WWE 2K16 looks to try and put right the mistakes of the last game - but it doesn't quite get it all right.
Let's start with the good first - the roster. WWE 2K16 contains one of the largest roster of wrestlers ever seen in a wrestling game, with over 120 superstars and divas to grapple with - and these are mostly genuinely unique characters, too - not the 30 shades of CM Punk from last year's game. From legends like Bret Hart, Ultimate Warrior, Randy Savage, and last year's pre-order bonus, Sting (x3), to the headliners of tomorrow like Finn Balor, Cesaro, and Kevin Owens, this is a huge, huge roster, taking in decades of competitors, and letting you put together dream matches like never before.
The bulk of the game this year is divided into three modes, WWE Universe, MyCareer, and 2K Showcase. It's the 2K Showcase mode that's arguably the best - and certainly the fanciest - as this lets you play through a series of matches that follow the story of one of the biggest stars to ever lace up the boots - Stone Cold Steve Austin. Each tied together with a great, TV style video package that gives you a glimpse into the feuds and feelings of the day, you'll play matches taking you from "Stunning" Steve Austin in WCW through Stone Cold's many WWE title reigns and three Royal Rumble wins, all the way through to his Two Man Power Trip pairing with HHH and beyond. There's so many memorable moments here that you'll get to relive in matches, from the rattlesnake's infamous "I Quit" battle with Bret Hart at Wrestlemania 13, which may as well have given birth to the phrase of "donning the crimson mask", to the match that spawned a thousand catchphrases, as Stone Cold tangled with Jake "The Snake" Roberts in the King of the Ring final - a match in which an off-the-cuff post match promo led to the immortal words "Talk about your psalms, talk about John 3:16… Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass!" being uttered, and the birth of a phenomenon the likes of which the WWE hadn't seen since the days of Hulk Hogan.
Each of these matches is more than just a free-for-all, though - along with a main objective (usually "win the match"), you're given a number of bonus objectives you can optionally complete, which usually involve performing moves, or doing certain things that keep the match as close to real life as possible. Whether it's damaging Bret Hart outside the ring, or performing a charged up finisher on Jake the Snake, these goals will sometimes trigger cutscenes, and at other times trigger "quick time events", where you have to mash a button that pops up on screen as quickly as possible, as your match starts to play out just like the real thing. It's a really nice touch - and it's well worth taking the time out to unlock all the extras, too, as this is the main way to unlock the many wrestlers, arenas, and other bits and bobs that are hidden away in the game.
As for the actual wrestling itself, there have been a few tweaks to the general system this year, but none of them have really made things feeling hugely better. The basics are still the same - left stick moves, and (on Playstation) X grapples, square punches, and circle lets you irish whip your opponent into the ropes - a control scheme that certainly does its job - but things have been made that little bit more complex this year thanks to the new reversal system. Now, rather than having an unlimited number of reversals available, you have five you can use at any one time - if you reverse moves too much, you'll have to wait for them to replenish .You still have to get your timing right, too - if you've got any reversals left, a little "R2" icon will pop up above your opponent's head when they go to do a move on you, and all you need to do is press it at the right time - it's not like reversals are now a lot stronger to make up for their limited number.
The whole idea behind this is to stop matches turning into one big reversal fest - but the problem is, if you're down and out, it leaves you with very little way of getting back into the match. Arguably the answer is to make sure you've always got one or two reversals left - but it isn't really as easy as that, and sometimes the match can turn against you pretty quickly. With some moves costing more to reverse than others, it's too easy to find yourself totally out of options, and on the receiving end of a beat down. Luckily, there's still the option to turn this off in the game's options, along with adjusting the amount of damage you take and give out in the game balancing menu, so if you find the game too hard, you can always reel things in.
Leaving behind the 2K Showcase mode, the other two biggies here let you give your created wrestlers some screen time. The first, MyCareer (not sure why it's in CamelCase) sees your created wrestler starting out as a rookie, first taking part in a few tutorial matches at the WWE Performance Center (a real 26,000ft complex in Florida that houses seven full sized rings), before moving up to NXT, and your quest for the NXT title. With a light storyline tying things together, you get to rub shoulders with the wrestlers on the show, interfering with matches, and crafting your character, as you head towards the big leagues.
It's a tried and tested format for a great story, but the big problem with the MyCareer mode is that it tries too hard to be realistic. It's great starting in the Performance Center and working our way up, but the fact that you get given a star rating for your match, based not on how well you've done, but on how entertaining it is gives the whole mode a really awkward feel. Here, going in and beating the snot out of your opponent in a squash match won't win you many plaudits - instead, you earn points and stars for performing a variety of moves, creating memorable moments, and - weirdly enough - letting the match go back and forth. So far from rewarding you for winning, the game gives you extra points if you let your opponent beat you up, and then have to fight back from it. It's a really weird way of scoring things, and is the only part of the game that really acknowledges wrestling's pre-determined nature (where the quality of the match matters more than who wins), which gives it a rather strange feeling.
WWE Universe mode, on the other hand, is a kind of similar idea, only it puts you in more control. Here, you have a few options - you can drop your character into one of the shows (NXT, Raw, Smackdown) and fight your way up through the rankings; you can create your own show from scratch, set up the champions and challengers, and then watch the light stories the mode sometimes provides unfold; or, you can take control of your favourite wrestler, and work your way to the top of the pile. The only issue is, there's very little rhyme or reason here for how the mode works - you can place yourself on a show, and have the game only give you a match every four weeks. Or, you can have it keep putting you in matches with the same guy - and beating them, somehow, will hugely increase your place in the rankings for the various titles.
With a little more structure, the WWE Universe mode could be something really special - letting four friends jump in, each with their own wrestlers, and form a faction, interefering in each-other's matches, going on a path of destruction through the WWE on a quest for all the gold, it'd be great. But as it stands, it really doesn't live up to its potential.
So, that's the gameplay covered - but what about the all important creation modes? Thankfully, after the terrible mess that was last year's game, the create-a-wrestler mode has been revamped, with more choices than before, but it still has a selection of items and clothing that pales in comparison to the other games. With a really annoying pause when it comes to trying on hair cuts or clothing, even the addition of some never before seen options here, like the ability to dye your created wrestler's hair a certain colour (or several colours) can't stop this from feeling a little bit weak. That said, many of the removed creation features have now made their return, with the full creation suite including create-a-title, create-a-show, create-an-arena, and more. There's certainly plenty for those who like customising to get stuck into, with the create a title mode being particularly in depth - even down to giving it an up-to-six-word-long name for the ring announcer to read out. We're still lamenting the loss of the Highlight Reel mode, though - a mode that let you pause a match, move the camera around freely, and replay the last 30 seconds of action, with the option of saving it to later create your own entrance video from the footage - or simply edit together your own "best of". That was a great feature, and we're really sad to see the back of it.
Still, while it may not get everything right, WWE 2K16 is at least a step in the right direction. While we'd have liked a few more 2K Showcases to play through, and most of the gameplay changes have done nothing to make the game play any better, what's here is fun enough that ardent wrestling fans will enjoy sinking their teeth into it, and those who only remember the "good old days" will fancy a tipple too. That said, it's certainly starting to feel like the WWE series has taken its realism as far as it can go - a bit of "kayfabe", and some slightly more arcade controls may help rejuvenate things for next year's game.