Becky Lynch and Roman Reigns share the cover of WWE 2K20, yet you can’t help but wonder if a more appropriate choice would have been Kassius Ohno. Visual Concepts’ already infamous brawler is, in parts, surprisingly good. It is, at others, one of the most peculiar sports games of this console generation, overflowing with bizarre design decisions and glitches that leave you either laughing uproariously or throwing Baron Corbin-style tantrums. Sometimes both. It is also, without question, the most curious entry in the series’ 19-year history.
Where to start? The wrestling, I guess, what with it being a wrestling game. When it works – remember those words – it’s fundamentally sound. Match pacing is excellent, building from exploratory punches and holds early on, to impactful moves and near falls at the climax. It feels much like what you see on TV, while elements such as reversal slots and momentum-switching Payback abilities keep things satisfyingly ‘gamey’. When it works.
Wrestlers handle uniquely. AI characters at long last utilise their full repertoires. ‘Selling’ is hugely improved. Big finishing sequences delight, with 2K19’s returning option to pause and switch characters, effectively ‘booking’ match endings yourself, a godsend. When it works.
Fast facts: WWE 2K20
Release date: 22 October 2019
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC
Developer: Visual Concepts
As such there’s immense pleasure in building a ten-bout card and playing it through in one sitting, either manually (in exhibition) or via the more structured WWE Universe framework. Ricochet vs Cedric Alexander – all somersaults and speed – feels markedly different to a chaotic four-team extreme-rules tornado brawl, which in turn has little in common with a tactical, technical Ronda Rousey vs Becky Lynch submission fest. From that standpoint 2K20 is varied and highly playable, especially with the long-awaited, well-implemented return of mixed-tag bouts. When it works.
Those critical three words, though. When it works. Your receipt for every 10 minutes of WWE 2K20 goodness is to be unexpectedly clubbed across the shoulders by a metaphorical steel chair. Glitching is commonplace, as documented in alarming detail elsewhere on GR. Targeting and hit detection occasionally go AWOL at the most inopportune moments. Legacy shortcomings remain, such as going for a pin in a tag match and having the opposition partner interfere while yours idles on the ring apron, filing his nails and/or pondering his post-match meal.
More problematically, the new control system, with reversals switched (on PS4) to triangle and leverage pins moved to R2 + circle (rather than just flicking down on the right stick!) subtracts as much as it adds.
Your muscle memory eventually adapts, but there are too many instances where button selection becomes convoluted. For instance, many championship matches in 'real' WWE end with an attempted finisher triggering a sequence of back-and-forth reversals. Such scenarios made for great fun in previous games, with your thumb on a move button, and finger (R2) primed to reverse. Now they instead require Olympian thumb reflexes: square + cross (again, why?) to try a finisher, then an immediate switch to triangle if the AI counters and you wish to counter back, and so on. It’s cumbersome and needless. Worse still, there’s no option to switch back to 2K19 controls.
Without excusing it, there’s a reason for this head-scratching inconsistency. WWE 2K20 traces its lineage back to the still-revered WWF Smackdown series on PS1 – and this is the first entry to have zero involvement from Japanese studio Yuke’s, after 2K and Visual Concepts cut ties earlier this year. Initially that news delighted the community, given VC’s grade-A reputation, tied to the on-court authenticity and graphical excellence of NBA 2K. But it feels like the release is a year too early, with Visual Concepts’ rep for nailing minor details now dealt a huge, Braun Strowman-weighty blow.
Character models are just odd: glassy eyed, often robotic, and generally a downgrade from previous years. I’m guessing their fidelity has been sacrificed in order to improve the frame rate, which is noticeably upgraded in eight-person matches, but they look shambolic close-up when compared to NBA 2K20. Molly Holly and Trent Seven – who recently told us about his delight at debuting in the game – are especially off.
Championship belts clip through the attire of any wrestler who wears additional clothing to the ring, such as Kofi Kingston, or Keith Lee, or The Iiconics. Long hair is awful to the point of rendering Bianca Belair unusable. Cesaro and the team of Hawkins & Ryder are missing theme tunes they debuted months ago.
And, my lord, the naming conventions. There are five different versions of Charlotte Flair, so on the character select screen a year is added to her name so you can tell them apart. Cool. But when she comes to the ring, the year *still appears* as part of her name. Not cool. On the WWE Network, the company’s ubiquitous video-on-demand service, matches from two years back are not presented as ‘Charlotte Flair 17 vs Becky Lynch 17’, because those are not their ring names. An injury-time Zinedine Zidane goal in FIFA 20 is not credited as ‘Zidane 1998 90+4’. It’s another small detail. But small details really matter.
In fairness, we do get some subtle-yet-lovely flourishes. New ring announcer Greg Hamilton is both enthusiastic and authentic, with his call-and-repeat ‘one fall’ trademark included and guaranteed to raise a smile. Commentary - so often a Smackdown series weak point - is the best it’s ever been, with match-up-specific conversations too numerous to count, and a likably self-effacing tone. New lady-specific Universe cut-scenes expand the mode’s depth and range, though that is again too buggy to enjoy in these pre-patch days. Fictional arenas unlocked in MyCareer mix fun – Hell’s Colosseum – with functional (WrestleMania 2029!).
Most pertinently, I’m still playing it. Somehow, for all its flaws and glitches and inexplicable design decisions, WWE 2K20 keeps dragging me back in. MyCareer is unconventional, occasionally hilarious fun, if you can look past its PS2-era backdrops and models. The Four Horsewomen showcase is over too swiftly, but carried by insightful videos featuring its participants, and some genuinely surprising unlockables. Across the game the in-ring action is very good – when characters aren’t doing physics-defying, possibly criminal things to the ring ropes, and hair isn’t being swirled around by an invisible force-nine gale.
Simultaneously playable and terrible, if Schrödinger made a wrestling game, this would be it. Beneath the mess, behind the glitches, there’s a great sim desperately scrapping to get out. Patches may yet turn WWE 2K20 into a fully-formed, functioning whole. But can I recommend it in its current state? Like Kassius, it’s a big noisy Ohno.
Reviewed on PS4.