WWE 2K24 preview: Head of the Table (again)
WWE 2K23 was a very, very good wrestling game. Between a mammoth roster, a sizeable visual upgrade, and a seemingly endless number of modes, it was a wrestling toybox unlike anything else (check out our review).
WWE 2K24 has the unenviable task of following up, then, and while it's much the same this time around, there are some small improvements that make this closer to the WWE broadcast product than ever. If developer Visual Concepts can adjust some wonky AI, it's likely to be their crown jewel.
Showcase is back this year, and while last time out we were tackling John Cena with a variety of matches featuring the invisible man himself, this year 2K has widened the scope considerably.
'Showcase of the Immortals' is packing some of Wrestlemania's biggest matches across the last few decades, and there are certainly plenty to choose from. Each comes packaged with a slick presentation from Corey Graves and archival footage, and they're the best opportunity yet to see 2K's "Slingshot" tech in action.
The idea is to blend live-action video footage with gameplay, and it's surprisingly effective. We've seen it before, sure, but here it's more of a focus, with a lengthy list of objectives to complete in each match that help set the tone of the battle and lead you from big spot to big spot.
That helps every match feel like a series of moments, and while it's possible to go way off script, it's just as fun to relive classic moments.
In our preview, we got to take on Ultimate Warrior as Rick Rude (Wrestlemania 5), as well as play two matches from Wrestlemania 39 - Rhea Ripley vs Charlotte Flair, and Roman Reigns vs Cody Rhodes.
Each of them features its own flow, with objectives like unleashing a Superman punch as Reigns to hitting Riptide with Rhea, and as a relatively lapsed WWE fan, I loved the inclusion of footage and Graves' commentary over each vignette.
Call an ambulance, but not for me!
Even while reliving these matches, opponents feel ready to rewrite history. More than once I ended up losing to Ultimate Warrior, the powerhouse surprising me with big reversals to reverse the match's momentum.
Last year's game felt like one where I could comfortably beat down on my opponent for a good 75% of the proceedings, but WWE 2K24 feels much more tuned to the rhythm of a real match. Aside from the reversal chains and surprise finishers, each match feels like it tells a story.
Adding to that is the "exchanging blows" minigame which sees superstars square off with big punches until one player can't hit the rhythm anymore. It's the kind of thing that wouldn't have felt out of place in the classic Smackdown Vs Raw series, although I did find it went on a little bit long.
Similarly, the button-mashing minigame returns this year and feels as unwieldy as ever. Maybe I'm not as dexterous as I used to be, but hammering buttons as quickly as possible feels like it lacks the nuance that so much of WWE 2K24 offers in its grappling.
You'll need to mash those buttons with the new Ambulance Match, too. Pummelling an opponent and throwing them in the back of the ambulance is one thing, but you'll also need to close the doors and each requires, you guessed it, mashing those buttons. In one match I had Roman Reigns utterly destroy an opponent, racking up multiple finishers, chair shots, and even hurling a baseball bat at them (2K24 has throwable weapons now).
After closing one door with ease, the superstar burst out of the other door after a minigame that felt like it went on for ages. Here's hoping that can be tweaked before launch, especially since throwing opponents from the top of the ambulance is great fun and I'd love to come back to it.
While 2K is naturally pushing the Ambulance match, as well as a new multi-level backstage area with plenty more items to lob, I found playing a miniature, ten-superstar Royal Rumble to be the optimum way to get a feel for its in-game storytelling.
I've always found the Rumble a little flat in WWE games because in reality, it's a match built around pacing out its bigger spots - something that's traditionally difficult in a videogame where everyone is going for the win.
In 2K24, though, I kept coming back for more. In one match I was on a hot streak, eliminating multiple opponents before an errant superkick from one opponent, aimed at another wrestler entirely, sent me flying over the top rope.
In another match, I cleaned house, unleashing finisher after finisher, signature move after signature move, before one surprise reversal shifted my momentum and saw me dumped out unceremoniously.
It felt as close to an unexpected WWE moment as you can get in a lot of ways, and while the AI of the last two Superstars in one match meant they just stared at each other for a good minute, I found myself eagerly watching to see who would come out on top regardless.
I'm a pretty decent WWE 2K23 player, but I came away from 2K24 impressed by just how often I didn't win - and I mean that as a true compliment. It's the closest the series has come to replicating a match's flow in years, and while that may frustrate some who want to powerbomb their way to endless titles, I found myself looking forward to building some storylines.
Add to that a much more expansive Showcase mode, the enjoyable Ambulance Match, and whatever else is going to be shown ahead of March 8, and it looks like the Head of the Table is here to stay.
Previewed on PC. For more on WWE 2K24, check out our interview with the devs.