Everything related to wrestling exists on a separate level of reality. There are two extremes: our real world and the fictional world that exists on WWE-produced television programming. But there’s also everything in between: social media posts, reality shows, media appearances, cameos by WWE wrestlers in other wrestling promotions, comic books, even spy novels! All of this detritus is of dubious continuity, but at least it’s all ancillary. You can just watch Monday Night Raw or SmackDown Live and feel like you had a relatively complete experience, you won’t miss anything if you don’t follow all the wrestlers on Twitter or whatever. That extra stuff only serves to fill the void between “real” and “fake”—the only two things that really matter in wrestling.
So where does WWE 2K18 fit? Does it take WWE canon as gospel? Is it a sports management-style game where you’re putting on a fictional show? WWE 2K18 is both and neither, fully embracing the identity crisis that has thus defined the 2K installments in the form of its MyCareer and WWE Universe modes…while doing little to fix the other problems inherent to the series thus far.
The WWE Universe mode is as close to an official Vince McMahon simulator as we’re ever going to get. It primarily operates in a reality close to our own. You can inherit the rosters & pay-per-view schedule from Raw, SmackDown, & NXT and let the AI run through whole years of feuds and championship matches if you want to follow the Prime Directive. Or you can really dig into the minutiae of the WWE; force certain wrestlers into rivalries with each other, set your own champions (and championships!) for each show, and even try and influence the outcome by choosing to actually play out some of the matches you’ve set up rather than let the AI fight it out.
Hell, you can even throw Raw and SmackDown out the window entirely and make your own shows, if you so desire! Why not stuff NXT full of create-a-wrestlers and let them fight it out? Make a show populated entirely with all the downloadable CM Punks that will surely clog the community creations for the next couple years. The only limits are your imagination! Your imagination and WWE 2K18 surprisingly limited customization options!
And yet, for all the options you potentially have as a player of WWE 2K18, WWE Universe is a trifle that got real old for me in record time. If you’re not playing each match, it’s just a never-ending stream of information bookended by loading screens. I have friends who swear by the mode, calling it a form of relaxation, and I get that! I really do, but since I kind of hate playing this game, I’ll have a better time just lying on a couch and fantasy booking in my head.
Ahh, I’ve tipped my hand with that “I hate playing this game” crack. The 2K WWE games have never really been my cup of tea, but WWE 2K18 might be the most player-unfriendly release this series has ever produced. The 2K games have never been “fun” to play, mostly because the wrestling centers around stamina & reversal meters, in order to approximate the pacing of a wrestling match you might see on television. All your moves pull from the stamina meter and all your counters pull from the reversal meter. In theory, this is so your opponent can get some offense in once your reversals are used up and vice versa. It’s another example of the game splitting the difference between “fake” and “real,” a mechanic that will theoretically replicate the necessary story beats in a match that is ostensibly presented as a legitimate athletic competition. In practice, it sucks. That foundation of trash remains intact for WWE 2K18, I’ve played 2K17 recently enough to remember how that game feels and I cannot name one positive change made in the intervening year.
All the little problems I had with the last game are back in WWE 2K18, like the wildly inconsistent targeting that almost ruins foreign objects (and completely ruins your standard moveset), the way you need to hit your opponents with at least three finishers before they’ll stay down, or the fiddly controls that require minute accuracy in order to execute the move you wanted to perform. At least Yuke’s decided to make things interesting by exacerbating a problem from last year: the awful reversal system! Yes, trying to predict when exactly the inconsistent counter prompt will appear is just as bad as last year—except now sometimes the prompt won’t appear at all, even if you have the timing down perfectly. I don’t know why this happens, nor do I know if this is an intentional change or a glitch. Lord, I hope it’s not the former. There’s a “game balancing” option in the main menu that can alter the AI routines to your exact specifications, but it shouldn’t be on the player to balance a game after it’s been released.
I can name some new things I don’t like, though! After all my whining about matches being limited to six wrestlers at a time from last year, the maximum wrestler count is up to eight in total in WWE 2K18! Conceptually, this is great. Two more wrestlers and we can start doing traditional Survivor Series 5-on-5 matches. Sadly, eight-person matches are unbelievably buggy. Eight-man tag matches drag on for a complete eternity, in part because the referees will often refuse to start counting, but also because every pinfall will be broken up by the other three chuckleheads on the opposing team. Don’t count on your teammates to help, though! They’ll just sit there and let your pinfall get broken up or leave you to get pinned—which, to be fair, is a problem with every tag match in this game. Also, don’t count on playing as the wrestler you chose to play as. When you make your first tag, control transfers to the person you just tagged in. This will only happen once, at the beginning of the match, and yet it managed to surprise me every time.
The Royal Rumble has also been changed from a merely uncomfortable experience to a torturous one. In this new Royal Rumble, winning is nearly impossible unless you enter after #25 or something. Every wrestler, no matter when they enter, no matter what else is happening in the ring, will make an immediate beeline towards you and start beating you senseless. If you have two people ganging up on you, then you won’t be able to counter their moves effectively because one of them will always be wailing on you while you’re similarly wailing on the reversal prompt. Your only hope is to wait for a grapple elimination, which is surprisingly easy to beat. If they put you against the ropes and start running towards you, good luck! You have a sliver of time to hit the reversal prompt, if you fail then you’re out.
The amount of sheer hatred I have for WWE 2K18’s Royal Rumble comes from the game’s MyCareer mode, where the game tasks you with A) winning the Rumble from the #1 spot and B) eliminating ten people. Here’s exactly how wild that objective is: nobody in the WWE has ever managed both feats in one rumble. 1997 Rumble winner Stone Cold Steve Austin came close, he did eliminate ten people and enter at the #5 spot, but he also cheated to win—he was technically eliminated himself.
Here’s how I beat it: I would wait for someone to enter, run towards them, knee them in the gut, pick them up, toss them over the rope onto the apron, interrupt their “get back in the ring” animation, punch them in the head repeatedly, they fall off and they’ve been eliminated. Rinse and repeat. If any of the first ten entrants managed to counter any of my punches, I had to restart. Managing the amount of people in the ring at any one time was the only way to win. I hope that sounds as mind-numbing as it was to play. There were many times where I would scrape all the way to #20, only to be knocked over the ropes in an instant.
This is really my only major complaint with the MyCareer mode, which is otherwise a massive improvement over last year. Yeah, the promos still suck, but overall the mode really works. I spent most of my time following the “Fan Favorite” (read: good guy) path, which put me in the good graces of people like Daniel Bryan and in the crosshairs of people like Triple H. There’s also a “Company Man” path, where you do whatever The Authority says in exchange for opportunities to move up the ladder.
Although the Company Man path straddles the line between “wrestling is real” and “wrestling is fake” in an entertaining way, I just couldn’t break away from my babyface roots. There were times when I wish I had, though. The Fan Favorite story is exactly what I was talking about earlier; it’s the WWE as gospel. MyCareer paints a picture of a shiny WWE where the magical interaction between Superstar and “the WWE Universe” (read: fans) can move mountains and get that beloved underdog their title shot and corresponding WrestleMania moment.
I’m being a little reductive here, so don’t let me dissuade you from the Fan Favorite story altogether. There’s some really neat story beats that I won’t exactly spoil, but all the flash and flavour is just recycled from other stories. There’s a little of everything in here: CM Punk vs. John Cena, The Rock vs. John Cena, Roman Reigns vs. Triple H, Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H, Drew McIntyre vs. Bobby Roode, Stone Cold vs. Vince McMahon, Seth Rollins vs. Kevin Owens/Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose/Roman Reigns, and I guess a little bit of Baron Corbin’s Unfortunate 2017 for good measure. If you recognize half the stories on that list, MyCareer will feel like a warm blanket—but if that was all nonsense, then MyCareer will feel like a fun underdog story.
MyCareer is a step in the right direction for sure, but I wish 2K’s WWE games could get a wild career mode like the 2K NBA games have enjoyed for years. I understand that WWE’s licensing requirements are likely pretty strict and you can’t exactly pull The Rock in to do a bunch of voices for your game, but these WWE games have to sell well enough, right? Put a little extra flair in your career mode! Move the camera around a little bit when the player isn’t wrestling! Have more structured rivalries, ideally with a little texture. Maybe if you & a rival keep using foreign objects, your next PPV match will be a no DQ match?
There are some cool story moments, but they all centre on “the Wrestling Things.” A first championship, a Money in the Bank win, a Royal Rumble victory, a WrestleMania moment—these are all expected from a wrestling story mode. They all hit the way they’re supposed to and it’s good that they’re in the game, but this series needs to start getting creative outside of those expected moments. The MyCareer mode is a misnomer; it’s not a career shaped by the player’s actions, it’s a story mode with two branching paths. Aesthetically, it’s a low-rent sports game mode that purports lots of freedom, but it has all the restraints of a structured campaign.
WWE 2K18 can look pretty nice under the right conditions, and the character models have really started to look like they were modeled rather than approximated in the game’s create-a-wrestler mode. The menus in particular look really striking, juxtaposed against moving freeze-frame dioramas of wrestlers in a ring performing their finishers. Improved menus are a good way to quickly communicate that you care about making a better game (yikes, remember the menus from 2K17?). This almost looks like a real $60 video game, but the amount of loading feels curious when you consider the extremely low-poly background characters and the relative lack of things to render when compared to other big-budget products. If the industry as a whole has decided that I have to dedicate a whole paragraph to how photorealistic things look, then I believe these expensive games with endless loading screens need to at least meet me halfway.
I have a lot of nitpicks about WWE 2K18, but there are so many of them that I feel they all add up to one full grievance. The menus look nice, but they’re poorly laid out. The hair still looks like garbage. The game needs to load faster, especially on a PS4 Pro, since there’s really not that much going on. I can never really get my create-a-wrestlers to where I want them to be, because it feels like they’re missing necessary face/head options. Batista and Rob Van Dam are DLC. There are four versions of Sting but one less version of Stone Cold. I had to manually give the NXT Women’s Championship to Niki Cross rather than WWE just giving her the belt like they already should’ve. The official KFC Colonel isn’t DLC, you have to download him from the crummy user created content service. The user created content service is still crummy.
And on and on, and so forth and so forth. I could complain about WWE 2K18 all day. And I will! MyCareer doesn’t have some kind of “unlock all” button so I can set the Acid Rainmaker as my finisher instantly rather than hoping to find it in a loot box. Old Goldberg isn’t in the game. Many performers, like Edge, Goldberg, and Daniel Bryan, don’t have full modern Titantrons, which is weird because those definitely exist thanks to appearances like Edge’s SmackDown 900 entrance or longer runs like Goldberg’s Universal title reign. Too many good wrestlers are locked behind DLC. Kevin Owens’ “The New Face of America” Titantron is already out of date and there’s not an option for his standard Titantron. The previous theme songs for Raw and SmackDown have been replaced with some new garbage, despite WWE owning the missing songs. You can’t change the visual filter in a one-off match, so if you want to play a match with the 8-bit filter you have to create your own show and arena and choose that arena in the match options. I think that’s it. I’ll get back to you if I’ve forgotten anything.
If you’ve got a lot of free time and some like-minded friends, there’s certainly value in WWE 2K18 as a comedy game. Hop into the creation suite, make some ridiculous create-a-wrestlers, and have them duke it out online with your friends’ creations. My create-a-wrestler version of The Bye Bye Man has never looked better, and I’m excited to see what my pals come up with.
I appreciate that there’s stuff to do in this year’s WWE installment, even if it’s not perfect. I appreciate MyCareer’s dedication to its own mythology, even if the overall story is a bit toothless. I appreciate the wealth of options WWE Universe provides you, even if its appeal wears off quickly. I appreciate the better lighting and texturing, even if most of the game still looks crappy.
But conversely, between the Rumble, the glitches, the loading screen, my nitpick manifesto, and the wrestling—which, need I remind you, is reportedly the cornerstone of this wrestling game—there’s very little to ultimately recommend about WWE 2K18. This is a better game, but just because it’s better doesn’t mean it’s good.