Sports game fans often lament how their favorite series are annualized and aren't always given enough time to improve. This year-over-year dev cycle is a challenge for the teams making the games too, and Visual Concepts learned that the hard way when WWE 2K20 became a viral sensation for bugs that were either funny or infuriating, depending on whether or not you bought the game yourself. In turn, some WWE fans got their wish and the sim is skipping a sequel this season. In its place is the arcadey, exaggerated WWE 2K Battlegrounds, and while there's some enjoyment to be had for longtime fans, it's hardly better than if the entire brand just sat out the year.
Release date: 18 September 2020
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC
Developer: Saber Interactive
Publisher: 2K Games
One glance at WWE 2K Battlegrounds is all you need to know this year's wrestling game is nothing like the usual fare. With exaggerated character models, physics-defying moves, and absurd weapons like motorcycles and live alligators, Battlegrounds seeks to offer a different pace to its sim counterpart the same way NBA 2K Playgrounds has done for NBA 2K. Sadly, the comparisons really end there. While Playgrounds offers a fun alternative for basketball fans, Battlegrounds merely ports the art style, but rarely the enjoyment as well.
More than anything, this is because of a combination of shallow move sets and poorly implemented controls. Battlegrounds breaks up its roster of dozens of wrestlers into classes like Brawler, High-Flyer, or All-Rounder. These classes determine a wrestler's moves in every way except for one: their finisher. For example, Triple H still gets his Pedigree and Brock Lesnar still gets his F5, but in all other ways, their moves are the same because they're both classed as Powerhouses.
This feels cheap already, but it's made worse by the controls. Battlegrounds confusingly utilizes the left trigger and right stick inconsistently. The former is meant to modify simpler grappling moves to perform better ones while the latter allows you to do different lifting moves, but in practice these different combinations feel randomly assigned, as virtually every move is a high-flying lift of some sort anyway.
There's a bit of would-be interesting nuance in who can lift whom, like Technicians being unable to lift Powerhouses, but this ultimately serves to only shorten an already lacking move set for some players. Consistently, reversal moves resulted in broken animations where players would teleport and skip frames to execute their moves. Battlegrounds isn't nearly the mess of WWE 2K20, but it's not without its own janky-looking fights.
Despite them fitting the game's aesthetic, some of the sillier mechanics hurt it too. Each arena offers its own unique environmental abilities, like an alligator that you can feed your opponent to in the Everglades, or a ram you can inexplicably control with a remote in Mexico, but these greatly vary in their effectiveness and don't feel well considered. The Detroit arena, for example, allows you to throw explosive barrels which destroy the ring, collapsing the turnbuckles and making irish whips or high-flying moves inaccessible.
This hinders acrobatic players by removing a great deal of their moves and in general just makes those matches worse because moves will start in the ring and end outside of it with no ropes there to keep the fight inside anymore. The ram is easily overcome too, as players can laughably run in and out of the ring as it gives chase until the invisible timer expires on the ability.
The career mode feels rushed to hit the October deadline. It's not an understatement to call it a long series of matches with little context in between. Comic-style screenshots tell a story in between every few matches but these aren't cleverly written, so they just become a screen to move past onto the next match. You earn crucial power-ups for use across all modes by playing the campaign, so it's necessary in that way, but its focus on fake superstars climbing the ranks is a poor decision.
Eat, sleep, create, go back to sleep
The game's create-a-superstar suite offers a decent package of customization tools, including full facial molding mechanics, which feels like more than this sort of game usually allows. But rather than put your player in the starring role of the campaign, the story is told through the careers of six fake wrestlers, leaning on neither the player-created star nor the roster of greats like The Rock, Bray Wyatt, AJ Styles, or Becky Lynch.
A very similar mode, Battleground Challenge, does let you play as your custom wrestler and earn skill upgrades as you go. This is a much better use of one's time, but it's too bad the game keeps the power-ups behind the campaign, requiring you double-dip these two nearly identical modes for several hours each.
The best part of WWE 2K Battlegrounds is online mode King of the Battleground. Playing out like a Royal Rumble where anyone can join at any point, it invites players to step into the arena and wait for their turn alongside others already brawling. You earn in-game currency the longer you survive and the more opponents you eliminate. This open invitation is a fun way of engaging with other players online. You never know who you're facing or if anyone before you has been in the ring dominating for a long time, and the rewards feel worthwhile.
Alongside that, there's also a tournament mode which, while not as interesting, is still a better way to spend your time in Battlegrounds than the campaign because it feels like there's a worthy endgame to it all, with big in-game currency rewards coming to winners or even just those who survive a few rounds.
It's that currency of the game that reveals one last crucial issue, however, and it'll be a familiar one to players of anything with 2K in the name lately. Everything is for sale. The base game offers a good roster of superstars spanning the last several decades, but about just as many are locked behind a paywall. Those who buy the upgraded version of the game unlock a few more superstars right away, but everyone else is for sale. While their individual prices range from a reasonable sounding 75 cents to three dollars, it's the full roster's price tag, which would cost you dozens more dollars, that really stings.
These superstars can eventually be unlocked by grinding in-game currency, but again, it all feels cheaty and exhausting. Play a standard match in FIFA and you wouldn’t expect to grind in order to use Mane or Salah or Robertson.
Pay it again, Sam
Even skills come with optional price tags too. Paying to immediately upgrade your created player rather than earn their skills through challenges feels like selling a game and then suggesting players pay to skip past all the important bits. It just doesn't make any sort of consumer sense. It's true that anything you can buy with real money can also be earned with free currency, but as is often the case with these two-currency models, the game is clearly designed for you to favor one payment method over the other.
We've seen plenty of good games with questionable in-game economies. Sports gamers are especially familiar with this as the scheme has found its way into every major sports series that exists today, but it's a bigger problem when an already lackluster game asks you to keep spending more. WWE 2K Battlegrounds isn't nearly as fun as its NBA counterparts and doesn't feel like the stopgap it's intended to be while we wait for the mainline series to return.
Devoted WWE fans will get some enjoyment out of seeing their favorite stars dressed up like cartoon versions of themselves, but the majority won't find the nostalgia of old-school wrestling games here. Instead they’ll unearth a brand that's reached rock bottom.
Reviewed on Xbox One. Code provided by the publisher.