WWE 2K23 Review: Almost the American Dream
There's a spot in professional wrestling arenas dubbed the "Gorilla Position" which is just about the closest one can get to being part of the action without actually being visible. It's right on the line between broadcast and backstage, and in many ways, WWE 2K22 felt like it existed there in perpetuity.
Maybe that's because it was the franchise's first entry since the disastrous 2K20, tasked with rebuilding its reputation without pushing things too far. Perhaps it's because it marked 2K's first outing on PS5 and Xbox Series X.
Whatever the case, I'm pleased to report that WWE 2K23 feels like a big next step in wrestling games, sprinting from the Gorilla Position like a surprise Royal Rumble entrant, leaving its predecessor far behind. It's a New Day, yes it is.
Ravishing like Rick Rude
We were lucky enough to preview WWE 2K23 earlier this year and were impressed by the visual upgrade - and it really is transformative.
Naturally, the visual pomp of the WWE Universe is in full effect, but while the hair effects are definitely improved over last year's game (which already looked great), it's in the more muted moments where details stand out.
As an example, the ECW One Night Stand match between John Cena and Rob Van Dam has more muted lighting in a smaller arena and it makes it feel a little less colourful by comparison, adding a sense of grittiness that's par for the course in ECW (or was), but that's long been missing from the 2K titles as they (understandably) chase the glitz and glam of the broadcast show.
And what a show it is, too, with updated arena layouts, impressive recreations of entrance routines, and a whole host of characters you know and love.
There are, however, some big omissions from the base roster - Bray Wyatt is a notable miss (he'll arrive in the fourth DLC pack in July), as is Finn Balor's "Demon", but overall the roster is as strong as it has ever been -- and it'll only swell once the incredible CAS artists start building Shrek and whatnot in time.
Back it up on the mat
As Shawn Michaels will tell you, though, good looks can only get you so far before you need to unleash some Sweet Chin Music, and thankfully WWE 2K23 backs up its visuals with some smart tweaks to an already solid foundation.
While WWE 2K22 matches could often devolve into big move after big move, occasionally snowballing into squash matches with alarming regularity ("git gud", Brock), there's an undeniable sense of pace in WWE 2K23 that feels much more like the ebb and flow of a match you'd expect from the WWE.
A big part of that comes down to countering, which feels a tad trickier and less predictable (in a good way), meaning when Cena hit me with an Attitude Adjustment and I countered it, I was almost as surprised as the commentators. It's the kind of system that will reward countless hours of practice, but it's still intuitive enough to pick up with relative ease.
It's backed up by some of the best animations in a sports game today, and while there are the usual offenders that break a little immersion (an arm clipping through a rope and other minor things), wrestlers feel like they tangibly interact with each other. Many animations can be interrupted, too, which means as you spring off the ropes for what would have been a canned animation back in the day, a swift clothesline from a tag partner can really ruin your day.
None of this is truly new, but it's just showing 2K flexing its muscles a bit, tightening up what was on offer before and making it sharper than one of Gunther's chops.
What is new is a revised kickout system that involves stopping a bar at the right time. It's a solid addition, and while I still prefer the button-mashing alternative for the way it makes me feel like a kid again (which is still an option), from an accessibility angle it's great to offer the choice.
There's also the option to lure in your opponent by "playing possum" to go for a quick pin to steal the match, or go for a surprise low blow. It costs parts of your meter, though, which could otherwise be used for signature moves, making it a risk/reward choice - do you try and steal the win, or wait for the opportunity to unleash a finishing blow? It's a massive improvement in in-ring storytelling.
A WWE Toybox
Around the superb in-ring action, there's a whole host of modes as we've come to expect, and whether it's small tweaks or larger shake-ups, most have received some TLC (and we're not talking tables, ladders, or chairs).
As always, much of the focus is on Showcase, which again shines a light on John Cena. Big Match John himself is full of traditionally family-friendly platitudes in his pre-match interviews, and naturally, you won't see him tangle with the likes of CM Punk, but the way the mode jumps from live action to the game engine still feels a little magic even today.
Sadly, the mode suffers a little due to a lack of commentary to really add that excitement and a little more context.
MyFaction, the bizarrely compelling MyTeam or Ultimate Team alternative, is just as fun as it's ever been, but now you can take on a friend's faction online, too. We'd still like to see those superstar variants unlocked for every mode, though.
MyRise takes a different approach this time, offering a pair of storylines. The Lock, which takes an indie up-and-comer and puts them in the WWE, is the strongest of the pair, with a shlocky, sports movie-style plot. The Legacy takes itself a little more seriously, with players taking on the role of a former WWE Legend's niece to grow into a superstar in their own right.
There's less downtime in MyRise this year, with all the decisions you need to make found in the same room. That certainly makes it look a little awkward, but I was thankful I didn't have to roam identikit arena hallways like in prior years.
Universe mode is one that's gotten just a smidge of polish and some fresh tools, but arguably didn't need much more than that anyway. It's similar to last year, but it's still ambitious, whether you play Classic or Superstar modes.
MyGM, on the other hand, is a big improvement on last year. There are new match types (but no six or eight-man matches), but Royal Rumble and Elimination Chamber matches are still absent from the mode. Still, there are multiple seasons now, with redrafts for each brand, and new seasonal challenges.
The big win is MyGM multiplayer, which lets you use card-based abilities to mess with opponents or affect their draft picks. It's the kind of thing that wrestling fans will gravitate to over time.
The icing on the cake is the new 3v3 or 4v4 Wargames mode, with two rings side by side within a steel cage. It's a fun novelty, and the two rings allow for more space for big spots without the claustrophobic confines of a single squared circle, but as a fan of basic, 1v1 bouts I didn't find myself hankering for it as often as I'd expected I would.
It's very clear to see that WWE 2K23 comes from a team that's rediscovered something within itself.
Like a comeback victory, the road has been paved with crushing lows, but WWE 2K23 is the closest the company has come to a Hall of Famer in years.
Reviewed on PS5. Review code provided by the publisher.