There was a point in time when I would joke about playing and reviewing every annual WWE game, often even overstating their lack of quality for comedic effect. The joke went full circle once I found myself pretending less and less, actively hating the experience of playing them at a certain point. This isn’t to say that every WWE game in recent memory has been completely devoid of value, but, like the product it’s based on, these games have gotten too big to fail. They don’t actually need to be good to sell, so often they simply shamble forward, as if on auto-pilot. Like the real WWE, for the casual fan, it’s more than enough. For someone that wants more, it likely never will be.
WWE 2K18 marks the first iteration of the series to have no big feature hook. Previous games have typically marketed around some hot new mode or gameplay overhaul, but this year was different, offering little more than vague references to a new graphics system and improvements to Career Mode. It wasn’t until loading the game myself that I realized that “new graphics” in this instance meant “better lighting” and that the changes to Career actually managed to make it more of a grindfest than it had already been. In what was last seen during the PS2 era, you now control your created superstar in a series of backstage interactions, theoretically to add to the drama of your ascent through the rankings. What you’re not told is that your first hour or so with the mode will be spent having one-sided out-of-character conversations with whatever wrestler model just happened to be loaded into the backstage area. Whilst I enjoyed talking pizza with Asuka, all other interactions very quickly started to feel exactly the same, to the point that I eventually avoided them altogether. I would then go have my match or run-in, then speak to a parking attendent (using a security guard model and animations) to end the week. Within three weeks I was NXT champion, only having one official match that went about four minutes. After this, the game told me that side quests were now available, which suddenly gave meaning to those aimless prompts that I’d spent so much time avoiding.
These, of course, will then provide you with the means to upgrade your character, though how is primarily out of your control, since all unlocks are now done via loot boxes. There are three tiers to choose from, though the result is mostly the same – a random assortment of moves and creation parts that you may or may not have even wanted to begin with. Your starting character will have a very basic moveset and appearance and the only way to improve upon that are via the boxes. Instead of just directly putting currency into the items you want, there is a significant chance that you’ll simply stop playing Career Mode altogether before you get any of them, since the only things to do in said mode are the aforementioned backstage interactions and playing through matches, which are even less engaging with limited movesets.
An alternative mode is Road to Glory, which is a twist on the normal PvP of the past, forcing you to use your Career Mode wrestler in matches with other human players. While it’s a nice workaround to the old 100 rated CAW problem of the past, the mode itself is a mess of restrictions and server issues that make it rarely work and even less rarely any fun. The few times I got it to work typically resulted in frustrating gimmick matches with people that clearly didn’t intend to play the game past the first week.
So, what else is there to do? As always, there’s Universe Mode, which hasn’t changed at all. While I was a critic of Showcase modes of the past, it’s still yet to be replaced with anything equally significant. Story Creator, a highlight of last gen, is still nowhere to be seen. Other than that, you’re left to either create and upload content, or just simply play matches. Perhaps the biggest tragedy of 2K18 is that its creation suite is the most impressive in all of gaming and this year’s is the best it’s ever been, allowing you to make shockingly accurate renditions of anyone of could possibly dream of. The problem is that you are then left with a roster of beautifully crafted characters having the same awkward boring matches that they’ve been having for ages. As with every year, it is up to the player themselves to find a combination of slider settings to make the game somehow engaging, since default settings are either too easy or result in the same spastic reversal-fests that the series has always been known for.
Another thing that has become a series trademark are the various glitches, and in that regard, 2K18 does not disappoint. I have encountered wrestlers levitating, distorting and occasionally even disappearing. In my very first match with the game, the referee would simply freeze in place and refuse to count pin attempts, making the match unwinnable. During a Hell in the Cell match, my opponent ended up on top of the cage despite being on the mat seconds earlier. Since the only way to go outside in a HIAC match is to use your opponent to rip through the cage, we simply glared at each other for a while, seeing if I could end the match via staring contest submission. The technical issues don’t end there. Any match with more than 6 wrestlers (another new feature this year) looks like it’s taking place underwater. Universe mode once put me in a match with myself, then crashed when trying to load the entrances. It’s always been fairly bad, but this year in particular seems to be one of the buggiest iterations of the series that I’ve ever played, and I’ve played them all.
Wrestling games are hard to get right and a one-year turnover is not nearly enough to fix everything. I’ve experienced every WWE game since the first Smackdown, and WWE 2K18 reinforces that feeling that I didn’t have to. That’s the real problem here, and is perhaps more indicative of the business model than anything. But the truth remains – if you’ve played just one, you’ve played them all too.