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It’s WrestleMania III and I’m Ricky Steamboat, a man about to make history by defeating Randy Savage for the Intercontinental Title in front of 93,173 screaming fans. It’s a revered match that’s worth gamifying for WWE 2K14, but as I try to finish the final bonus objective, my pinning attempt is reversed into a finisher and Savage changes the record books by retaining the title. To be successful in this mode I need to repeat history as closely as possible, which is fitting for a series that keeps succeeding by repeating the same formula each year.
Yuke's hasn't needed to stray from its core feature set of bodyslams and hurricanrannas because, well, taking one man (or woman) and slamming his (or her) body forcefully into a post, or table, or mat is just going to always be inherently fun. WWE 2K14 is no different, and that core gameplay remains unchanged. However, especially given the change in publisher (THQ lost the title to 2K, hadn't you heard?) the formula's age is beginning to wear. Much like a real-life match between veterans like Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio, you get quality, but the performers are aging and there’s little you haven’t seen before.
Even if the in-ring action is intensely familiar, a handful of gameplay changes are lurking beneath the surface. Reversals have gotten the most impactful update, as many exchanges now end on the first counter instead of the increasingly boring repetition of reversals that would occur. A successful attack or counter matters more now, quickening match pace in a realistic fashion. Or at least, as realistic as a fake wrestling match can be.. Similar small-but-effective changes include a deeper selection of cinematic OMG! moments to pull off mid-match, wake up taunts that put opponents in the perfect spot for a finisher, and more aerial attack options. When a franchise is as long in the tooth as WWE, you come to appreciate even the smallest of updates.
Most hardcore fans will like that those changes push 2K14’s feel closer to the real life shows they watch for hours each week. Beyond what’s playable, the visuals, arenas, and camera angles carefully re-create the look of any given Raw or SmackDown show. That authenticity spruces up the returning Universe campaign, a highly adjustable season mode where players control years’ worth of wrestling programming like an sofa-bound Vince McMahon. Universe has so many options that it ends up being more fun to tinker with match settings than actually play the match.
That’s not a massive drawback when the actual solo campaign is the 30 Years of WrestleMania mode (mentioned at the start of this review). It re-creates at least one match from each of the 29 WrestleMania events with the same accuracy as the rest of the game prizes. The mode casts a wide net, including main events like Hulk Hogan vs. The Ultimate Warrior and underrated classics like Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Jericho. If those names have now conjured some Mania moments in your mind, you’re just the WWE fanatic this mode was built for. And when the majority of the game’s audience is that hardcore, putting so much emphasis on a virtual tour of history is a smart move.
Having 30 Years of WrestleMania reflect history also gives WWE 2K14 a fantastically diverse roster covering every era of modern wrestling. No matter when you watched the product, there’s at least one star from your favorite year that’s carefully reproduced right down to the specific tights he was wearing to that year’s Mania. Once they’re all unlocked in Mania mode, the number of characters is just shy of 100, and even as the current-gen graphics are showing their age, you can still see the care taken in getting Daniel Bryan’s beard or The Rock’s tattoos just right.
The list of modest updates ends with 2K14’s collection of creation tools. They’ve been around so long that they’re easy to take for granted, but when you step back you'll see a massive amount of creator options in front of you. Create-a-Superstar, -Arena, -Finisher, and -Storyline are all there to reshape the WWE Universe to fit your own twisted vision, all made slightly better by this year’s iteration. It’s a deep rabbit hole if you want to dive in, but the number of features have become so dense they only really appeal to the very committed folks that upload hundreds of hours of content to the online community.
And this has painted me into the same corner I get into with every WWE game. The franchise's formula still works at crafting great grappling action, but it’s been a long time since the gameplay felt fresh. I yearn for something truly new from wrestling games, something WWE doesn’t seem all that interested in giving me. And why should the series make a total left turn when the formula still works so well, even as the audience gets increasingly insular?
WWE 2K14 is at its best celebrating WWE history, so it’s forgivable that the game wants to hang on to its recent past instead of blazing a trail to the future. In a transition year like this one, it works as a fitting capper to another gaming generation of wrasslin’. However, 2K hopefully has something more original in the pipeline. I can only bodyslam Macho Man so many times.
The freshest thing about 2K14 is its publisher, but this finely tuned package remains a wrestling fan's best choice for action in the squared circle.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 and tested on the PlayStation 3.