As may already be evident, I have a long-standing preference for the WCW and WWF videogames released by AKI/THQ back in my youth; however, another WWF videogame series I have been particularly fond of and spent many hours and days of my childhood playing has been the WWF SmackDown! series released by THQ and Yuke’s on Sony’s PlayStation in 2000. Eventually, this series evolved into the WWE SmackDown! Vs. Raw franchise, which was released on multiple consoles between 2004 and 2010. I believe I came into this series with WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw 2008 Featuring ECW (Yuke’s/Amaze Entertainment/THQ, 2007) and bowed out with WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw 2011 (Yuke’s/THQ, 2010) as, by this point, it was pretty clear to me that I was simply purchasing the same videogame every year with additional wrestlers, some new match types, and minor improvements to the graphics and gameplay. As a result, I decided to buy a new title every two years or so and, after enjoying WWE ’13 (ibid, 2012) and deciding that WWE 2K15 (Yuke’s/Visual Concepts/2K Sports, 2014) was far too stripped back on features to justify the price tag, I settled on getting WWE 2K14 (ibid, 2013) and biding my time.
As a result, I have not bought or played a new videogame in 2K Sports’ WWE 2K series for about four years now, and with good reason; as the series made the jump to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, reviews and feedback ranged from resoundingly negative to mediocre displeasure as 2K Sports apparently removed many expected gameplay mechanics and features in what was nothing less than a blatant attempt to sell features seen in previous PlayStation 3-era titles as being “new”. Despite the additions of never-before-seen superstars such as Sting, AJ Styles, and Samoa Joe, I decided to wait it out until the release of WWE 2K18 (ibid, 2017) to give the series a chance to iron out these kinks and to create an ironic sense of symmetry given that the last title I played was WWE 2K14. As such, it took me a little while to become accustomed to WWE 2K18’s control scheme; previously, these titles allowed you the option of controlling your wrestler with the directional-pad (or “D-pad”) and taunting with the analogue stick, which is my preferred control scheme given how it mirrors that of the AKI/THQ titles.
However, WWE 2K18 does not allow you to change the control scheme, meaning that I was forced to control my wrestler with the left analogue stick and taunt using the D-pad which, for an old school player like myself who dislikes change, took some getting used to. One of the other main reasons I prefer D-pad control is that I find it easier to direct and aim my opponent during running attacks or Irish whips; I find the analogue stick makes such aiming harder as the stick is more sensitive. WWE 2K18 also features some new mini games which replace the ones I had grown accustomed to in WWE 2K14; when being pinned, for example, you now have to press X on a little wheel rather than stopping a little bar that bounces back and forth. This is actually a lot trickier than it sounds as it seems the videogame is set up to make kicking out of pins harder than before to, I guess, allow for more “realistic” matches. Additionally, there is no longer the “Breaking Point” submission system; instead, there’s either a tricky mini game involving the analogue stick or you must mash one of the four action buttons when they appear onscreen. I went with the button mashing option but have found that winning a match by submission is not as easy as it used to be, potentially because you can no longer select a match to be either quicker, normal, or epic; this, and the improved attribute system, means that you are forced to work for your submission victory.
Other gameplay changes can be seen in multi-man match; now, when you or another player receives enough damage, they automatically roll out of the ring and you must mash buttons to fill up a bar and re-enter the match. It sounds good on paper and, again, appears to be tooled towards making matches more “realistic” but I found it more annoying than anything else as you could end up stuck on the outside and lose the match. This mechanic carries over into ladder/TLC matches as well, making them considerably more frustrating than usual as you incur far more damage much faster in these matches so you’ll spend a lot of time mashing buttons to get back into the matches. Also, in ladder/TLC matches, you no longer pull down the belt of briefcase using the right analogue stick; instead, you have to play a little mini game where you must fill up segments of a circle by rotating a ball into a small hole using the right analogue stick. It’s fun but quite distracting; I found myself concentrating more on the mini game than the match and, if you get interrupted with only a couple (or, even worse, one) segments left to fill, you are almost guaranteed to lose the match as the next wrestler to play the mini game will probably complete the circle while you’re busy mashing buttons to get back into the match.
The Royal Rumble match is also noticeably different and, technically, more difficult; rather than hitting buttons in a quick-time event as in WWE 2K14, you now have to mash a button when trying to eliminate an opponent. Honestly, I’ve played a couple of these matches and never once eliminated anyone using the button-mashing mini game no matter what their health and stamina. I found the best way to eliminate wrestlers was the tried-and-true Royal Rumble finisher, clotheslining them out of the ring or countering a run attack, or by exploiting a glitch where, if you whip the opponent onto the apron and quickly punch them repeatedly, they simply fall from the ring.
As I always found ladder, TLC, and Royal Rumble matches tedious any way, these gameplay changes don’t bother me that much; you are not forced to play these matches and, on the whole, I would just avoid them. Some good changes have been made to tables matches, though; every time you hit your opponent with or into a table, it fills up a break meter and, once it’s full, you can smash the opponent through it using some new and expanded options. 2K Sports have also introduced a carry system, similar to the one from WWE SmackDown! vs. Raw 2007 (Yuke’s/THQ, 2006), which allows you to smash your opponent off the ropes, turnbuckles, apron, and other objects. They’ve also brought back in-crowd fighting, to a degree, allowing you to smash your opponent through (or hit them over) the barricade at ringside or toss them from the stage area to fight in little areas near the crowd.
Although create-a-story and create-a-finisher are no longer options, WWE 2K18 is still full to the brim with creation options. I honestly spent maybe five days or so setting everything up the way I wanted it and creating wrestlers, entrances, victories, shows, and teams in the expanded Universe mode. As before, Universe mode allows you to create a show, place wrestlers and championships on the show, and then create monthly pay-per-view events for that show. I like to recreate the product as closely as possible so I created a Raw, SmackDown! Live, and NXT brand (with 205 Live and Main Event as minor shows) and, for all the Legends and duplicate wrestlers, a WCW Monday Nitro brand (with some crossover between them all). You can create more than one Universe at a time but I prefer to have it all in one place rather than jumping backwards and forwards all the time; I then moved every pay-per-view event to their correct calendar month and also created some additional pay-per-vews for my NXT and Nitro brands; this is extremely in-depth, allowing you to choose from a whole bunch of preset or created arenas (with scene transitions, an array of screen filters, a bunch of different referees, and more).
You can still create your own championship belts as well, if that’s your thing; given how many old school belts are in the videogame, I don’t tend to do much with this, though. Instead, my focus was on the massively deep create-a-wrestler mode; created wrestlers look more realistic than ever before and you can choose from a whole bunch of options, from wrinkles to scars, facial and body hair, eye colour, veins, muscle definition, and even how much body oil your created wrestler has! There are also a whole load of attire options, including blank attires that you can customise as you desire and also pre-set attires worn by the featured roster; you can change not only the colour of these attires but also the material type, which allows shirts and jeans and the like to be leather, take on a metallic hue, or even glow in the dark! Finally, there are far more options for names for your created wrestler this year and the in-game commentary team will refer to your created wrestler by these throughout their matches.
Although there are many WWE and superstar-related images available to you in this mode, there are noticeably less options for body tattoos this years, unfortunately. This is where the Community Creations option will come into play; you are able to upload images to the 2K Sports website and transfer them into the videogame, meaning you can search in the WWE 2K18 for a whole bunch of professionally-designed images, logos, and tattoos to apply to your created wrestler. You can also download created wrestlers created by others to account for those wrestlers omitted from this years roster, though you are limited to twenty downloads a day and cannot download created wrestlers that feature aspects from wrestlers you’ve yet to unlock or purchase. Speaking of which, WWE 2K18 features an in-ring store mode, as is the norm for this series now. As you play matches, you are awarded virtual currency based on how many stars your match scored; the more stars you get through move variety, countering, and such, the more currency you earn. You can then spend this in the store to unlock Legends, and additional arenas and championships and, make no mistake, this is the only way to unlock this extra content. Previously, in WWE 2K14 at least, you could unlock new wrestlers by playing the 30 Years of WrestleMania mode but, here, you can only do this by purchasing them.
You can do this by playing any match in any mode and, also, through the MyPlayer mode, which is the career mode of the videogame. You have to create a wrestler, using far more limited tools and options, and work your way through training and wrestling on NXT before being called up to the main roster. You can make some limited decisions to decide whether you are a Company Man (a heel) or a Fan Favourite (a face). In my playthrough, I was initially called up to Raw and forced to lose a bunch of matches, so I jumped to SmackDown! Live, where I won the United States Championship, Money in the Bank ladder match, and Royal Rumble match and am currently feuding with Triple H and the Authority on the path towards the WWE Championship. Along the way, you can partake in side quests to earn rewards (new moves, attire, and currency), make a signature t-shirt to earn some extra cash, and perform in-ring promos and run-ins.
Overall, this mode is quite enjoyable but, honestly, it’s a poor substitute for a Road to WrestleMania-type of mode. There are a lot of load times and some noticeable frame drops; you are also forced to walk/run from the garage to the producer and back every single week, which begs the question why they bothered putting in the free-roaming backstage area at all rather than just have a set-up similar to the PlayStation 3-era titles where you had a locker room with a phone and just did everything through text. There are some inconsistencies; I was regularly teaming with Sami Zayn then, randomly and with no explanation, my partner suddenly became Fandango. I was also once asked by Tius O’Neil to attack Primo Colón one week but, when I couldn’t find him, ended up attacking Kassius Ohno. There are also a lot of times when you do more promos than matches, when the match objectives aren’t completely clear (the Money in the Bank match springs to mind), and when your matches end due to interference more often than not but, these issues aside, it’s a pretty decent mode, though I found it more enjoyable and profitable to play Universe mode more than anything.
It’s interesting that the load times for the MyPlayer mode are so atrocious as, normally, they’re not that bad; matches in Universe mode load much faster than in WWE 2K14. I learned from some of my mistakes in WWE 2K14 and don’t have nearly as many custom arenas or created wrestlers, which may help with this, and also towards limiting crashes. WWE 2K14 would crash all the time, usually after a match but sometimes before one, and it was very frustrating. I have had a few crashes in WWE 2K18 but, as the matches and the videogame loads up a lot faster, it’s not as annoying. One bug that is annoying is, when downloading a created wrestler, attached logos and images will sometimes not download, meaning you’re left having to either find them separately or with an incomplete created wrestler/attire.
I haven’t played WWE 2K18 online yet, mainly because I don’t have Xbox Gold or whatever you need to do that but also because online players are trolling, move-spamming sons of bitches; also, the learning curve for timing reversals and having competitive but enjoyable matches that I actually won was quite steep. Sometimes, you’ll have a match and be in complete control and all the opponent has to do is a couple of moves and you can’t recover, then you get hit with one finisher and its over. A good feature, though, is that miss-matched opponents (like Braun Strowman against Kalisto) often trigger a squash match, where you gain full momentum and a finisher after your first hit and win the match in seconds for a decent payday.
The roster in WWE 2K18 is as deep as you could want; there are some noticeable omissions from NXT but, otherwise, everyone you could want and more is in the videogame alongside some decent and surprising Legends. Hulk Hogan and Yokozuna are gone but Vader and the Big Boss Man are back; there are some crazy instances of numerous duplicates, such as five (five!) versions of Sting and separating Finn Balor and his Demon King attire (though the Demon King does still act as an alternative attire to regular Balor) but, mostly, there’s some good inclusions this year. The soundtrack, apparently “curated” by the Rock, is mostly miss rather than hit, with the only decent track being a radio edit version of Disturbed’s Down With the Sickness, though a similarly-edited version of Limp Bizkit’s Rollin’ is used as the entrance theme for Undertaker ’00 despite this particular version of Undertaker’s biker gimmick actually being more associated with You’re Gonna Pay. The in-game commentary is all-new, at least for me anyway, including the three-man team of Michael Cole, Corey Graves, and Byron Saxton; mostly, it is far better than what I experienced in WWE 2K14 but there still times when they refer to women as “guys”, talk inanely about things not even relevant to the match in progress, or ask each other questions that are never answered.
Overall, WWE 2K18 is a challenging and enjoyable affair; Universe mode is bigger and more expansive than ever, with shorter load times and significantly less crashes and glitches (so far), and the star rating system does make it feel as though each match is important and worth something. MyPlayer suffers a bit (though admittedly this may also be because I don’t want to waste my virtual currency upgrading the MyPlayer character unless I absolutely have to as I want to unlock the Legends) but is, otherwise, fun enough for what it is. I would have also liked to have seen, at least, Showcase matches similar to previous titles or themed around a wrestler (this year’s pre-order bonus, Kurt Angle, for example, or Shawn Michaels, or even the cover star, Seth Rollins) to assist with the unlocking of extra content. Creation options are deep and versatile; you can waste hours and even days crafting the perfect created wrestler (I know I did!) or downloading extra attires and wrestlers to fill out the already impressive roster. I am glad that I waited for 2K Sports to add in many of the features they previously omitted and refine their current-generation gameplay engine as it seems to have paid off; matches are far more realistic and challenging than in WWE 2K14, where I could win with a minimum of effort, which is good once you’re used to the control scheme and what is expected of you, if admittedly somewhat detrimental to those who just want to pick it up and play a quick match without any obligation to simulating a real-life WWE match. Based on my experience with this title, I will probably wait until WWE 2K20 for my next entry into the series as I would never recommend anyone buys these titles on a yearly basis but, if like me, you’ve been away from the series for a while, I would definitely recommend picking this one up.