FOR a game seeking to emulate the pomp and circumstance of Vince McMahon’s never ending corporate roadshow, WWE 2K14 is unafraid to acknowledge the spectacle’s roots.
WWE 2K14 - Xbox 360 (reviewed) / Playstation 3
Score: 8.6 / 10
There is an encounter early on in its flagship game mode which transports the player back in time to an era when Shirley Crabtree was still delighting overwrought grandmothers by hurling his considerable bulk across the draughty municipal halls of anonymous English market towns. Even then, at a time close to WWE’s year zero, the American offering had upscaled the concept popularised by its British counterpart, staging shows in arenas and engineering rivalries and vendettas befitting a late night Argentinian soap opera. Even so, it remained a inceptive marriage of sport and entertainment, grappling towards a formula that would one day earn it global prominence.
The first match of 30 Years of Wrestlemania recalls the earliest chapter of that narrative in a glorious VHS quality haze. Set in September 1985, spartan television graphics recreate contemporary coverage as the bell sounds to signal the beginning of the contest. With that, the curtain twitches, and all 7ft 4in of André the Giant emerges from the locker room, looking like a feverish toddler’s drawing of John C. Reilly come to life. His opponent, it soon transpires, is King Kong Bundy, another legendary WWE figure and owner of a waistline deserving of its own postcode. The ensuing fight asks the player to step into André’s not inconsiderable boots to re-enact a moment of WWE history - defeating not Bundy but the forces of gravity by bodyslamming his gargantuan frame into the canvas.
At first, the action seems crude and regressive, the sheer size of both competitors meaning that combat is anything but nimble or nuanced. Ropes and turnbuckles exist only to hem in the wrestlers, not aid their assaults. Instead, an arsenal of necessity prevails: lumbering kicks to the abdomen, slugging punches, or headbutts that leave you wincing every time they connect. Blow for blow is traded in a war of attrition before eventually, should the player triumph, the Grenoble behemoth leaves Bundy flailing on the floor. He celebrates by clutching a kitbag containing his $15,000 winnings and scattering note after note into the throng of fans below.
The climax to the match - the first main event on the card of Wrestlemania’s inaugural edition at Madison Square Garden - was doubtless envisaged as a flamboyant demonstration of showmanship. With the benefit of three decades’ hindsight, however, it seems charmingly coarse, and a reminder that the high octane razzmatazz of wrestling’s modern era is the product of a lengthy evolution. This storied history, once granted a begrudging acknowledgment, is now cause for celebration, and WWE 2K14 does a better job of throwing the party than any of the games to have preceded it; the clash of the giants is just one of several classic encounters from the so-called golden age of 1980 to 1992 lovingly recreated in-game.
The sport’s characteristic braggadocio is no longer mere window dressing, but a main attraction in itself. As much fun as you might have in the ring, the game excels by allowing you to emulate McMahon’s puppeteer role, sculpting each spectacle to your own design. An endless tumble of drop down menus offer choice in lighting effects, pyrotechnics, entrances, songs and videos, all of which can be comprehensively customised, with features borrowed here and there from certain wrestlers or periods to create an individual mash. The pageantry of WWE is something you no longer just participate it in but actively choreograph, becoming the director of your personal testosterone-fuelled pantomime.
The star attraction of that show is The Undertaker, here given his own mode challenging players to either defend or shatter his illustrious Wrestlemania streak. The dead man, though, forms part of an enormous cast, amounting to around double the complement available in 2009’s Legends of Wrestlemania, an embryonic attempt at wrapping the entire franchise in the one title. From the gold lame of yesteryear through to the peroxide brand-savvy frontmen of now, the roster is thorough and diverse, and allied to a greatly improved creation suite that allows for up to 100 wrestlers to be stored.
Once the action begins in earnest, the fast-paced muscular ballet is exacted using a control system that has been simplified and streamlined in recent years to such an extent that a button apiece is reserved for strikes, grapples, and Irish whips respectively. For those who remember the Byzantine controls of the Smackdown-era games, the entries of which insisted awkwardly upon employing the right stick, the change may take some getting used to, but it results in refreshingly uncomplicated play. There are other, punchier improvements. Opponents can now be defeated with double finishers, an addition that is satisfying against the AI, but comes into its own in the gloating glory of multiplayer.
The economy of the controls will not be to everyone’s tastes. Despite incremental progress, there are still occasions when one reversal is followed by another, producing a sequence of on-screen prompts that punctuate the flow of a match and sail close to becoming little more than quick-time events. The fluidity is also held hostage by disruptive animation, meaning that moves seldom feel interlinked. Arguably the most annoying feature, meanwhile is the way in which victors are too often decided by a final, devastating move, with no real sense of momentum in a match being rewarded. But then, some might argue that is design rather than accident, mirroring the predictably unpredictable scripts that dictate WWE’s outcomes.
Depending on what you perceive - and demand - of a wrestling game, the above shortfalls may be forgivable. Personally, I find the emphasis on arcade combat a natural fit. It is not the greatest test of dexterity, granted, but there are plenty of other fighting franchises out there to satisfy those who relish lengthy, complex combinations. I suppose it comes down to this: do you find the prospect of controlling André the Giant exciting in spite of his cumbersome moveset? Wrestling is, and has always, been about cosmetics, a fact laid bare by WWE’s seemingly infinite array of options and modifiable elements. If it is a simulation you seek, disappointment awaits. If, however, you are after a proudly vacuous celebration of WWE’s heritage, you will find no better example.