The WWE games have been going through something of a tricky spell at the moment. Having once got everything so right back in the days of the PS2 and the Smackdown games, the series has been trundling along at a "just OK" level ever since. If anything, things hit rock bottom when the series made the transition to the PS4 and Xbox One with WWE 2K15, a stripped down, shell of a game that was missing many of the features of the games that came before it, especially on the creation side of things. For WWE 2K17, though, 2K are promising to put the fans first - and that's led to a number of changes.
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"We've listened to the feedback that we've got over the years from our fans, not just last year, but throughout the course of this game, what you want the most," Brand Manager Bryce Yang explained, "And we've reacted to that". He's not kidding. The new features list for WWE 2K17 reads like a list of the things fans have been crying out for the return of for years - from brawls through the crowd and better ladder matches, to the return of the legendary backstage brawls. Now making their triumphant return - although, incredibly disappointingly, only as a two player attraction - backstage brawls are arguably more impressive than ever before, as you can fight your way seamlessly around the arena. With a different, more zoomed in camera angle, you'll fight past people mid-way through cutting promos; can wander into an out of offices, and can even brawl all the way back to the ring. While its return is much appreciated, though, we can't help but wish it would support four players for true multiplayer backstage brawls - if Smackdown: Here Comes the Pain can do it on a lowly PS2, why can't an all conquering PS4?
One of the things 2K are keen to promote this year is the fact that WWE 2K17 will have the largest roster for any WWE game, ever (for the full roster, check the official site here), with stars appearing from the present day all the way back to the glory days of old. From today's headliners like Seth Rollins, Finn Balor and John Cena through to the heroes of yesteryear, like Sting, Andre The Giant, Brian Pillman and the British Bulldog, there's a huge selection of characters on offer, with more than 70 in total. There's even going to be several versions of Bill Goldberg, although sadly, only as a pre-order bonus - something made all the more frustrating when he was included as standard in WWE 2K14...
Still, it's not the size of the roster, but what you can do with them that matters, and WWE 2K17 promises several big upgrades and gameplay tweaks. Running down a list, Bryce promises a redesigned reversal system (for what must be at least the third game in a row...), improvements to three way matches and general responsiveness, along with a redesigned submission system - something the series has always struggled to make fair. The new submission system looks a little bit like a lock picking mini game, with a circle dashing around the outside of an inner circle that has a single gap in it - if you want to break the submission hold, it's up to you to push the stick at the right time to steer the circle through the gap.
Both the dynamic MyCareer (for create-a-wrestlers) and the WWE Universe (for anyone) modes have been given a much needed once over, too. While MyCareer has always been the place to go to take your created wrestler from zero to hero, working your way up from the WWE Performance Centre, through NXT to the main TV shows and PPVs, you now have the option of skipping the Performance Centre/NXT section altogether, jumping straight on to the main roster on Raw or Smackdown - something that's much appreciated. Meanwhile, both modes will benefit from the introduction of what's being touted as a "promo engine" - a tweak which will let you choose what you want to say from a list of options mid-promo, and steer your career in the way you want it to go, as Bryce explains: "In WWE, what you say shapes who your character is, and how your storylines play out, so that's what's going to happen this year - based on your promos, you'll have different storylines happen"
And, perhaps most importantly for those of us looking to take our wrestler from zero to hero, the creation suite comes with plenty of new features this year too. Now, not only can you make your own characters, titles, arenas and shows, but you can create your own victory scenes - and, brilliantly, your own entrance videos, which you can edit together based on your highlights from previous matches, something we haven't seen in the games for a long time.
There's still a few question marks hanging over the general direction the game's taking, though. For starters, it has a soundtrack curated by Puff Daddy, who, while he may be a big wrestling fan, is surely an added expense the game doesn't need, taking away money that could have been better spent elsewhere. Then, there's the direction the gameplay's headed. Described by Bryce as "the most responsive, and realistic it's been", there's that word that sets our alarm bells ringing - realistic. "We've been transitioning through the years from arcade to simulation, and that continues this year". Transitioning from arcade to simulation the games may be, but can anyone honestly say the games now are heads and shoulders above their older, more arcade counterparts? If anything the slower, more "realistic" gameplay of the most recent games is one of the main weaknesses - just go back to an older Smackdown game with a few friends, and you'll soon remember how much more fun things could be.
Still, while we're hoping the series may head back towards its more arcadey roots at some point, there's plenty of good news for WWE 2K17, and almost everything else is heading in the right direction. Whether the combination of the incremental upgrades and mega-sized roster will be enough to make this year's game a wrestling fan's must buy, though, remains to be seen. We'll keep you posted.