WWE 2K22 relaunched the franchise on the right foot, and 2K23 aims to build upon that success. The improvements and additions from last year’s game remain intact and expanded in some cases. The legendary John Cena gives his blessing of sorts by gracing the game's cover and starring in the centerpiece Showcase mode. That’s all well and good, but the addition of the long-requested WarGames match may be 2K23’s most exciting bullet point.
I visited San Antonio to take a hands-on tour of WWE 2K23 during a preview event hours before the Royal Rumble to get a handle on how it's shaping up. After playing a couple of matches, my first thought was that if there are any major gameplay differences between this and last year’s game, they’re subtle. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Gameplay is a little quicker and tighter, but it doesn’t feel like a substantially different game than 2K22 from what I've played. That includes some old annoyances rearing their ugly heads, such as how finicky picking up weapons can be.
A rework to how pinfalls work stands as the biggest exception, though it’s more of a return to its previous form; the pinned player stops a meter within a moving, gradually shrinking box to kick out. I’ve never been particularly fond of this mechanic, which is why I’m glad it’s optional; you can switch to mashing buttons to escape pins in the settings. Speaking of pinfalls, 2K23 adds female referees for the first time. Based on the superstars and entrances I witnessed, the presentation looks as sharp as it usually does, though a couple of wrestler's faces, such as Ronda Rousey, appear less polished than others.
Showcase, WWE 2K’s playable documentary mode, highlights the career of John Cena but with a unique twist. This time you’ll relive Cena’s journey from the perspective of the opponents who served him his most defining losses. For example, I controlled Rob Van Dam and beat Cena for the WWE title at one of the most iconic – and infamous – shows of John’s career: ECW One Night Stand 2006. Cena's debut loss to Kurt Angle is also playable.
Showcase still tasks players with completing mid-match objectives to earn unlockable bonuses such as playable Cena variants, and matches feature the slick mid-match transitions from gameplay to actual match footage. Older matches also feature era-specific lighting that sells the idea you're playing a match from yesteryear, something I loved in last year's Rey Mysterio Showcase. Cena also provides narration in well-produced sit-down interviews and video packages. With a stellar career spanning 20 years, Showcase has the potential to offer a strong catalog of matches and moments to relive, and its premise should be especially satisfying to the “Cena Sucks” crowd.
I partook in several WarGames matches, both alone and with human competitors in multiplayer. Visual Concepts faithfully recreates WWE’s spin on this former WCW staple, which, for the uninitiated, consists of two rings joined side by side with a jumbo-sized steel cage wrapped around both. Two teams, either 3v3 or 4v4 in 2K23, face off, with the match beginning one-on-one before members from each team take turns joining the match one at a time at regular intervals. Pinfalls or submissions can’t take place until all competitors enter, and the first team to score either wins the match.
I had a lot of fun with this match. Playing as one of the starting wrestlers puts the pressure of dealing as much damage as possible before potentially getting double-teamed by an opposing teammate entering the match, depending on whether or not you have the turn advantage. I also felt the same anxiousness wrestlers express on TV when watching teammates get destroyed while I await my turn to even the odds. In a great touch, superstars entering the match can bring weapons into the ring. It isn’t WarGames without a few chairs, stop signs, and tables, after all.
2K also captures unique spots you only see in this match. At one point, I saw Cody Rhodes jump from the top rope of one ring to the other, then hit a springboard elbow drop. You can also gorilla press opponents from one ring to the other and slam them on the metal plate between the rings. Of course, you can climb to the top of the cage where you can slug it out with anyone who pursues you or risk it all by taking a death-defying leap. WarGames offers a fun and unique destination, even more so if you can wrangle five other friends. It's a welcomed addition to the package.
Although they weren’t available in my demo, other modes from last year’s entry return with expansions. MyGM adds new general managers and more options for building the best shows and brands possible. The story-driven MyRise, in which you take a custom-made rookie from the Performance Center to Wrestlemania, is back with different storylines for the men’s and women’s divisions. MyFaction now supports online multiplayer, providing a new avenue to build, manage, and battle four-person factions. Universe mode boasts a reworked story system, among other updates. Lastly, the robust Creation Suite now includes cross-platform community creations, and custom arenas can be played online.
WWE 2K23 rides the positive momentum of its predecessor and the Triple-H-led resurgence of quality in WWE TV. Here’s hoping that engenders an equally entertaining product when fans step into its ring on March 17.