A common criticism of annual sports games is that not enough changes year-on-year. It’s often justified. For WWE 2K23, it cannot apply. This was a series so hamstrung by the bug-ridden WWE 2K20 that its immediate sequel was cancelled. 30 months in the making, WWE 2K22 was about rebuilding a solid foundation. It achieved that goal, and impressed with excellent post-release patches and DLC too. To expect its successor to sway off-course and turn into No Mercy (Redux) would – short of Kofi Kingston leathering Xavier Woods with a steel chair – make for the most senseless heel turn imaginable.
My takeaway from a two-hour hands-on is that it plays almost identically to WWE 2K22 – and this is a very, very good thing. Indeed, as someone still plowing three or four hours per week into that game, it’s what I’d hoped for. Many moves, such as the spear-into-pin combo, have been reanimated. A new optional pinning mechanic, flicking the right stick up at the correct point of a timing bar, neatly mimics the physical feel of kicking out. Fresh WWE 2K23 roster additions Cody Rhodes and Bron Breakker do not disappoint. Overall, it feels like a safe yet solid extension of last year’s game.
This means WarGames
Not sold on WWE 2K23 for the above reasons? Rest assured the big new match type is a winner, too. WarGames was a WCW favorite back in the late ‘80s, and made its WWE debut in 2017 on developmental brand NXT. After taking its main roster bow at November’s Survivor Series, it’s now in a videogame for the first time ever too. It’s exactly as fun, chaotic and – towards the climax – desperate as you’d hope.
The match type pits teams of three against one another, with one member of each starting out in the rings, and the other two confined to shark cages. In real life these are on the entrance stage; WWE 2K23 places them atop a set of steps in the crowd area. That requires some suspension of disbelief but becomes irrelevant once the action kicks in. You and your opponent duke it out for a minute or so before one of the shark cages opens, and a team-mate heads to the rings. You’ve noticed I’ve written ‘rings’, as in plural? Yep – that’s no typo. The set-up for WarGames is two rings, side by side, in an extended steel cage. It’s an incredible playground for mayhem.
The first team-mate arriving changes the dynamic for two reasons. It affords a brief numbers advantage, and the newcomer is able to collect a weapon before entering the ring. By the time all six combatants have entered it’s full of chairs, tables and Stop signs. The two opponents who started the match are flagging; the two newest additions are fresh. Only at this point can victory be achieved, by pin or submission. Within 30 seconds you can be nailing a finisher in one ring, dashing to the other to save a pin attempt on a team-mate, and climbing the cage to launch a crazy diving move. It’s carnage, and exactly what the match should be.
A few quick character notes from assorted War Games matches: Edge has finally had a haircut after numerous years of the series featuring his long-haired look. Breakker and Rhodes’ models are faultless, right down to them getting unique nameplates during their entrances. Becky Lynch has her stony faced ‘Big Time Becks’ entrance, which feels outdated – let’s hope the Irish lass kicker’s ‘face’ movements are included too. Although it’s also true that advanced entrances, where you can update a character’s ring walk in stages, are back this year – so fixing Lynch shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
The big Showcase
Also returning is Showcase mode, where you relive the career of a popular superstar, unlocking treats along the way. This year it’s devoted to a series mainstay from the Smackdown gaming era: WWE 2K23 cover athlete John Cena. The structure is what you’re used to: Watch intro video. Start match. Complete objectives to trigger cut-ins of real footage. Finish match. Unlock new character and arena.
Some smart design decisions freshen it up, however. For one, Cena’s intro videos feel candid and honest. I love Rey Mysterio, but his interviews for last year’s mode stuck rigidly to ‘kayfabe’, in which wrestlers pretend wrestling is an authentic sporting content. Cena cunningly straddles the line between ‘real’ and ‘choreographed’, offering insightful perspectives on bouts with Rob Van Dam and Kurt Angle. What’s more, in each match you’re tasked with defeating Cena – so you always get to play as a different character, adding variety. Cool.
The knock-on effect is that in-match instructions, which you need to follow to score all unlockables, are delivered from Cena’s perspective: ‘[Rob] used a Hammer Throw to toss me to the floor like a sack of potatoes.’ This too differentiates Showcase from its previous guises, even if there are a few moments where these hints don’t sound as natural as you’d like: ‘He followed me to ringside, where he stunned me with a Light Combo’. But added to the challenge of playing as Cena’s opponents and his bordering-on-honest chats, they should turn the mode into an engaging five hours’ worth of FU-evading and Big-John-bashing.
Still, you’re entitled to want to play this for five months (and more), rather than hours. That’s where GM Mode, in which you build your own super brand, and the card-collecting MyFaction come to the party. They don’t form part of my preview build, so judgment on these key elements will have to wait until our WWE 2K23 review in mid-March. For now, however, I’m truly encouraged. WWE 2K22 was the complete reset that this series so desperately needed. With that achieved, WarGames and a refreshed roster look like launching it another step closer to main event status.