Last year, WWE 2K15 was trimmer than a wrestler trying to make weight before a match. With cut exhibition match types, a streamlined roster, and several excised creation modes, that entry was lacking content that fans had come to expect from the franchise. With WWE 2K16, Yuke's and Visual Concepts have had another year to bolster the feature set and bring back fan-favorite creation modes, but the core mechanics feel clunky and well-worn, like a wrinkled old-timer still fighting for the spotlight.
WWE 2K16 has so many modes that it’s difficult to know where to start. The My Career mode is a logical launch pad, since it gives you the chance to create a wrestler from scratch. You start out as an NXT vet and then get to choose how to work your way through the ranks of the WWE with the ultimate goal of becoming a Hall of Famer. As a WWE fan I enjoyed choosing between being a heel or a babyface, and got a kick out of developing my own rivalries with real WWE superstars. Unfortunately, building up your paltry starting stats takes a long time, and managing your wrestler’s training sessions quickly feels like a massive grind.
One of WWE 2K16’s standout modes is a journey through the career of easily one of greatest wrestlers of all time, Stone Cold Steve Austin. In past years, the WWE games have highlighted the biggest events throughout the first 30 Years of WrestleMania and taken players on a trip back to the Attitude Era. This shift in focus to a single wrestler feels smaller in some ways, but Austin’s ascent into the WWE Hall of Fame is full of plenty of great matches. As usual, the video packages before each match are a joy to watch and do a great job setting up the Texas Rattlesnake’s historical feuds that players get to emulate.
The videos may promote big thrills, but the gameplay can’t deliver on the promise. Players dropkick and Irish whip their opponents across the mat, but WWE 2K16’s animations are so sluggish that it’s hard to know when you are initiating an attack or responding to your opponent’s grapple until the wrestlers are halfway through their moves. This sluggish combat urges you to mash buttons in hopes that your attacks land before your opponent’s. Targeting the correct opponent during matches with multiple wrestlers is also difficult, and your character often takes jabs at the closest opponent rather than the one you’re moving towards. Even managing your super meter can be tricky, because in order to win a match you almost always have to perform your signature or finisher before pinning your opponent.
Last year, players complained about 2K’s reversal system, which was easily exploited and often led to wars of attrition where players were constantly reversing each other’s attacks until someone gave up. In response, Yuke’s developed a limited reversal system, which helps prevent this loop. Unfortunately, the A.I. still reverses far more often than you ever see on an episode of Monday Night Raw, so you have to wait until your opponent is out of reversals before you can really start laying the smack down.
My biggest problems with the mechanics come from the grappling, submission, and pinning minigames. Whenever your opponent initiates a submission, you’re forced into a minigame that has you chasing your opponent’s analog stick around a track. If you’re pinned, you have to carefully tap the grapple button to hit an escape window. If you blow either of these minigames, the results are the same: You lose the match. In several matches, I wrestled almost flawlessly only to lose at the 11th hour thanks these clumsy events.
Due to last years’ visual overhaul, these wrestlers continue to look better than ever. Unfortunately, WWE’s gameplay hasn’t made the same strides as its graphics. Reliving Steve Austin’s career will likely appeal to a lot of wrestling fans, but it’s more fun to watch than to play. WWE’s live action video packages remain some of the series best content, but if you just want to watch a bunch of historical matches there are plenty of other, stress-free ways to access most of that content.