Finally, the disaster that was WWE 2K20 can be laid to rest. Following a game so legendarily bad its successor was canceled, developer Visual Concepts has spent three-and-a-half years exhuming this series from the dead, Undertaker style. Last year's outing was solid: not quite main event caliber, but the most playable in half a decade. WWE 2K23 goes one better. The former Smackdown series is finally back on top form.
Release date: March 11, 2022
Platform(s): PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PC
Developer: Visual Concepts
WWE 2K23 is packed with stellar modes, but the in-ring action is the main reason for that colossal comeback. It eliminates annoyances from WWE 2K22, expands its best bits, and adds some subtle touches for good measure. Sure, some will decry it for not being No Mercy, or Fire Pro, but this series has never tried to be that type of wrestling game. It's a sim brawler, with a few arcade touches that make matches just a little quicker than what you see on TV.
Get your kicks
Engine highlights? The new pin-break mechanic, where you flick the right stick up to mimic a kick-out, with the timing more challenging as you lose energy. Smartly lifelike, but with button tapping also an option if you're not keen. Stamina matters now, with grapplers slower to charge around late in matches, and a host of 'knackered wrestler' animations to match. AI behaviors can be tweaked for every brawler in the game – such as completely stopping a giant like Omos from leaping off the turnbuckles. Some bouts end swiftly, others sway back and forth via finisher reveals and last-ditch kickouts. Exactly what you'd hope for.
The match type everyone is hyped for is War Games. One cage, two rings, teams of three (or four) walloping one another with Stop signs and tables. It's fun. Oh god, it's fun. Team members enter at alternating intervals, giving one squad a numbers advantage early on. The match can't end until everyone is in, lending a neat risk-reward mechanic to its initial stages. Do you tire while damaging opponents, or save big moves until there's a chance for victory? Once the carnage starts, your eyes dart all over the screen. You hit a finisher, but notice your mate being pinned in the other ring… can you dash over in time to save him? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, keeping you on your toes to the end. Brilliant.
Still, you're not going to play one new match type non-stop for 12 months. Visual Concepts knows this, and wants to keep you coming back with a suite of upgraded modes. The traditional career option, MyRise, does away with the old tale of a newbie rising up from scratch. Instead you jump into one of two storylines. The Legacy tracks a rising second-generation star looking to live up to their heritage, while The Lock covers an elite athlete starting afresh in the 'E. It's immersive, with intriguing branching options, and humor too. Sami Zayn nails his whiny heel gimmick, and there are some amusing nods to the main character sounding like a very famous Dwayne.
You won't be playing Showcase for as long as MyRise, but it deserves praise too. It's based around John Cena, with candid interviews discussing the biggest matches of his career. In a neat twist, they're all losses! In this way you unlock Rob Van Dam, Kurt Angle, and assorted arenas. The bouts are great – the dirge soundtrack in place of commentary less so. MyGM is bolstered by a swathe of new options such as four-way play and secondary titles. And Universe mode, in which you run every show, contains one massive improvement. As well as matches, you direct cutscenes: specifying that you want one star to cheap-shot another before a match, or have two opponents show mutual respect after.
Solid as these inclusions are, Visuals Concepts is determined to funnel players into MyFaction – the equivalent of Ultimate Team from EA's FIFA series. You collect cards, build teams of four, then take them into Towers, Live Events and other challenges against the AI. Or, new to this year, human opponents. The structure is solid, and opening packs to unearth wrestlers, managers, nameplates, and logos proves as fun as you'd expect if you're a regular FIFA 23 player.
There's a sucker punch, though. The addition of online matches ensures a race to get the top cards – but, unlike FIFA, there's no market or auction house for you to buy and sell. You either find them in packs, or pay a set price from the in-game Store. Across the coming year fans are going to shell out hundreds of pounds or dollars chasing special versions of The Rock or Undertaker, for a game whose Icon edition already cost £104.99/$119.99. It's a hard structure to defend.
There's one more issue with MyFaction. During the latter stages of WWE 2K22, Visual Concepts began dropping alternate looks for wrestlers, exclusive to that mode. Not only is it doing so again this year, it's promising this mode as the only way to stay up to date with onscreen gimmick changes. This doesn't feel right – imagine if FIFA or Madden started locking roster updates to MUT or FUT. If 2K wants to add bespoke gimmicks to a specific MyFaction card, fine. But an owner should be able to use it across all other modes.
Nonetheless, WWE 2K23 is a return to form, even with MyFaction muddying the waters. The new match enhancements deliver, its myriad modes will keep you hooked throughout the year, and the WWE 2K23 roster is well-rounded too – with loads of surprise NXT additions such as Grayson Waller and Nikkita Lyons to bolster more celebrated names. This series looks set for a strong run on PS5 and Xbox Series X. So long as its annual focus doesn't become milking fans for cash, long after its WrestleMania release date.
WWE 2K23 was reviewed on PS5 with a code provided by the publisher.