If your relationship with 2K’s pro wrestling series has been as fractured as a bickering tag team over the past few years, WWE 2K19 is unlikely to patch up old wounds. All of this to say: if you didn’t like how it played then, you’re probably not going to like how it plays now. Some minor quality of life refinements improve upon the in-ring action in a couple of specific match types, but beyond this the core system of strikes, grapples, and reversals has remained relatively unchanged. Instead, WWE 2K19’s most notable additions appear outside of the squared circle; developers Yukes and Visual Concepts introduce a deluge of new content and game modes to satiate an aspect of the series that has been sorely lacking in recent years.
The first of which is a redesigned MyCareer mode. It ditches the grindy, glitch-ridden, personality vacuum of the series’ previous career modes in favour of a linear storyline akin to those found in 2K’s own NBA games. Your created wrestler begins his rollercoaster journey with a fictional indie promotion known as BCW, competing in front of roughly 30 people in high school gyms and parking lots. It doesn’t take long before the WWE comes knocking, but this isn’t the typical rags-to-riches tale we’ve come to expect from a sports game’s career mode. You immediately blow your shot at the big time due to outside interference and a little sabotage. This forces you back to the indie scene for a short while before you eventually return to the WWE via some unconventional methods that earn you more than a few enemies.
It’s far fetched and more than a little corny at times, but the writing by former WWE writer Sean Conaway is self-aware enough to poke fun at the frequent ridiculousness of pro wrestling, and every story-driven aspect of MyCareer is elevated by full voice acting. Each WWE superstar (with the exception of John Cena) lends their vocal talents to the game, while indie wrestler AJ Kirsch brings your created character to life with an enjoyable level of authenticity. There are more than a few wooden performances that reveal these guys are much better at playing off a crowd than they are sitting alone in a recording booth, but just having the likes of AJ Styles, Braun Strowman, and Triple H cutting promos and interacting with your character backstage injects WWE 2K19 with more personality and individuality than the series has ever had before.
The structured nature of this linear narrative also allows Yukes and Visual Concepts to delve into the tropes and familiar storylines that comprise a week’s worth of WWE programming. You’ll find yourself engaged in believable feuds and back-and-forth promos; you’ll clash with authority figures, get screwed out of titles, form unlikely alliances, and win when the odds are stacked in your opponent’s favour. The illusion of choice in certain scenes is an unnecessary facet, but this curated experience is much more enjoyable and reflective of the product we watch on TV every week. It’s a substantial improvement over the dull, haphazard career modes of the past.
That’s not to say MyCareer is without its faults, however. The lack of a women’s career mode is still disappointing–a crudely ironic stance when you consider the three-man commentary team mistakenly spends the entire mode referring to every character as she and her. The women’s division is large enough now to encompass all of the feuds and storylines you would ever need, so it feels like WWE 2K19 is still stuck in the past when it should be latching onto the recent resurgence in women’s wrestling, particularly when the WWE itself is finally putting on its first ever women’s only pay-per-view, Evolution, at the end of this month.
Character progression is also a tad too lethargic in MyCareer. By the time you’re facing off against 80+ rated superstars in the WWE, your character will be hovering somewhere around the 50-rated mark. This doesn’t make as much of an impact as you might imagine–there’s never really a tangible sense that your character is substantially improving–but you do spend an awfully long time restricted to only two reversal slots that need time to recharge. For a game that’s stringently built around its reversal mechanics, this is a needlessly frustrating decision, especially when you’re forced to win three-on-one handicap matches and eight-man battle royals, leading to repetitive moments of trial-and-error.
The way you level up has at least been streamlined, with three different skill trees that pertain to your chosen fighting style, plus one extra sub-style. You can improve everything from strength, agility, momentum, grapple speed, and so on, but aside from choosing whether you want to be a high-flying cruiserweight or strong-style striker, among others, your customisation options are incredibly limited early on due to the much-maligned inclusion of loot boxes.
There are no microtransactions for purchasing these loot boxes with real-world money–even with three different in-game currencies involved. But everything from hairstyles, beards, wrestling tights, single moves, entrance music, taunts–right down to incremental cosmetic items like eyelashes and eyebrows–are stuffed into various kinds of loot boxes. This is disheartening because the creation suite is as comprehensive as ever, allowing you to create almost anything you put your mind to, but it’s been needlessly limited in MyCareer due to this focus on randomised loot. You can spend one of the in-game currencies on any of these items directly–casting further bemusement over the inclusion of loot boxes–but the prices are so extortionate that you’re better off bowing to the gods of the RNG. Maybe this strategy makes sense in other sports titles, but pro wrestling games have always been highly customisable, and limiting your options with a game of luck just feels wrong. No one wants to spend hours with a character they’re not happy with.
Outside of MyCareer, the beloved Showcase mode makes its return after a two-year hiatus. WWE 2K19’s charts the endearing, heartbreaking, and triumphant story of fan favourite, Daniel Bryan. You couldn’t pick a better superstar for Showcase’s return: he’s not only a phenomenal wrestler, but an incredibly likeable guy with one of the most fascinating stories in the sport. Before each match, Bryan himself will set the stage and provide context for why each match is so noteworthy, taking you on a journey from one of his earliest contests against an up-and-coming John Cena, to his recent return to the ring after miraculously coming back from an early retirement. The matches themselves revolve around completing objectives to set up the moves and big spots that comprised each match. This can be fiddly at times when the AI doesn’t want to co-operate, but the joy of Showcase mode has always come from recreating memorable moments in WWE history, and it achieves that here.
2K Towers riffs on Mortal Kombat X’s Living Towers, challenging you to complete a series of themed matches that chart a rambunctious course through various opponents, with myriad match types and modifiers keeping things fresh. You might find yourself in a gauntlet involving British wrestlers that culminates in a match with the British Bulldog, before moving onto another that pits you against supernatural characters like Bray Wyatt and The Undertaker. It’s a fun way to run the gamut of match types, and the modifiers keep things interesting by occasionally altering the way you would usually play. There are also some outlandish twists like big head mode and an 8-bit filter to contend with.
Of those match types, both steel cage and Hell in a Cell matches have seen some welcome tweaks. The latter introduces more options for escaping the cage, including yelling at the referee to simply open the door, and new animations let you scale the structure and navigate across it in ways that make for more exciting matches. Meanwhile, Hell in a Cell has been reworked so that it’s much easier to break through the steel edifice to the outside, with context-sensitive actions removing a lot of the awkwardness.
Beyond this, Payback is a new mechanic that gives each superstar two powerful abilities. These might grant an immediate finisher, offer the ability to utilise dirty tactics like low blows and poison mist, or let you play possum to catch an opponent off guard. On paper, each ability sounds like a potential game-changing move that can alter the flow of a match, but WWE 2K19 is still far too dependent on reversals for them to have a significant impact. The timing on reversals is a little easier this year, but it would still be nice if there were more dynamic defensive options on-hand. The only other mechanical change comes from an incremental increase in speed. This isn’t immediately palpable, but the faster animations do give each hard-hitting move some extra heft and impact.
The net code, while not always perfect, is good enough that your timing for reversals and pins is never compromised, while commentary is as egregious as it usually is. The interactions between the three-man booth are stilted and regularly out of context. During Showcase, for example, they regularly reference events years in the future when you’re playing matches from the past. There are also some notable absences from the roster, which can be rectified to some degree by downloading the community’s fantastic creations. Yet you’re currently out of luck if you didn’t pre-order and want to play as Rey Mysterio or the current Raw Women’s Champion, Ronda Rousey. Glitches are a semi-regular occurrence, too, though they’re not as bad as in previous years, often resulting in moments of physics-based hilarity rather than anything game-breaking.
Despite its flaws, WWE 2K19 is a step in the right direction for the long-running series. After two years toiling away with a dearth of interesting single-player content, the introduction of an engaging career mode is a welcome sight that finally captures some of the personality pro wrestling is partly built upon. The in-ring action is still inconsistent and will be as divisive as ever, but it’s easier to stomach when the game surrounding the wrestling action gives you more reasons to play. WWE 2K19 might not reach the lofty heights of wrestling video gaming’s heyday–or maybe that’s just the nostalgia talking–but it’s 2K’s best effort so far. Maybe next year we’ll be on to a true title contender.