In December 1944, Imperial Japanese Army Lieutenant Hiro Onoda was ordered to take the fight of World War II to an island in the Philippines. Disrupt and destroy the enemy by any means necessary, were his orders. But also under no circumstances was he to surrender or take his own life.
Months later, his squad of soldiers had been overrun and killed but Onoda, following orders like a true soldier, refused to give in. Retreating to the mountains of the Philippines, Onoda waited for his next mission. He waited roughly 30 years, in fact. Living in the jungle all on his own. In 1974, he emerged from the wilderness and hearing of his return, the Japanese government contacted his former superior officer. Yoshimi Taniguchi, who had since become a bookseller, flew to the Philippines and officially relieved Onoda of duty. For the first time, the soldier realised World War II was over. He now had to return to civilization. In 2014, Onoda died in Tokyo at the age of 91. If I had ever met Onoda before he died, my overwhelming desire would have been to give him a blanket, a nice cup of tea and tell him everything was going to be okay.
I have the same parental feeling towards the development team that makes the WWE2K franchise.
Whether it’s Yuke’s or Visual Concepts and everyone in between, I just want to make sure they’re okay. Because everything about WWE2K18 is incredibly sad. No, actually it’s more than that. Depressing, bleak and completely void of hope. I see no possible way for them to dig their way out of the dark pit of despair that they have dug themselves into since 2012.
WWE2K18 and its various modes are so bereft of creativity, soul and joy that after playing it for hours and hours, I began to question not only my liking for wrestling and video games but also my own life choices. How did I end up here playing this game? What could I have done differently? Is this a test to see if I can come out the other side a better person?
Every year, the monstrous beast that is World Wrestling Entertainment promote the latest instalment of 2K’s game like it’s the most amazing thing in existence. Their pay-per-view events advertise it, they spend tons of money making flashy commercials to sell it and talk about it as if it is the most indispensable item to buy this holiday season.
But much like a lot of WWE’s advertising, it rings hollow once you get your hands on it. This year, 2K promised a lot of new changes. Improved gameplay and visuals, a robust career mode and “the biggest roster ever!”. Here lies some of the problem. When you’re struggling to get the clunky controls working to make your dead-eyed avatar execute a move against another emotionless husk over the nonsensical, lifeless commentary, you begin to wonder if it was necessary for the game to include five different versions of Sting.
Nothing in WWE2K18, from the pointless and repetitive WWE Universe mode to the maddening online games, could be classified as ‘fun’. Every aspect smacks of a game that was rushed to meet a release date. The bewildering awful gameplay and the hilariously terrible visuals wrap themselves around an experience that made me wish I was staring at a blank television screen rather than the collection of barely-finished flesh ghouls shuddering about inside a wrestling ring.
Let’s take the career mode, for example. You create a wrestler and are sent to WWE’s Performance Centre for training. One of the first people you meet is The Rock. Well, a vague approximation of The Rock, anyway. He kind of looks like a young Big Show dressed as The Rock. Once you start talking, the problems immediately begin to compound. Every conversation you have in the entirety of WWE2K18, is in text form with little to no sound in the background. Which would be bearable if the conversations made any sense or wrestlers mouths stopped moving after the dialogue finished. Or every wrestler didn’t have the exact same hand animation while talking. Or if a 20 second loading screen didn’t occur almost once per minute. It is staggeringly lifeless.
My trainer, Matt Bloom, tells me I haven’t lost my edge even though I just got destroyed in my first training match and he’s never seen me wrestle before. Hideo Itami’s melting doppelganger says “Sup man?” and Eric Young (who looks like Andy Capp for some reason) gives me encouragement. Which is the complete opposite to these wrestlers’ characters in reality. It quickly becomes clear that all the wrestlers you meet throughout the career mode have no personality of their own. A faceless void could very well be standing there, serving the function of a “character”. And since you can meet dozens of them between matches, any sense of individuality is shattered. It becomes an absolute chore to talk to these creations. Same robotic animation, same pointless conversations, same emotionless faces.
Despite the very occasional hints of life (Sami Zayn’s entrance, Michael Cole briefly mentioning the historic 1999 St Valentine’s Day Massacre match), emotionless pointless robotics is a good indicator of the frustrating in-ring gameplay. It’s unintuitive to the point of madness with no emotional arc to make you feel like anybody, including yourself, could possibly care about the outcome. It’s as if WWE2K18 is designed in a vacuum with no point of reference for controls that translate into deep, rewarding gameplay. Counter-move after counter-move make every match feel like a game of Snap with the first person to hit a button becoming the victor for the next 4-6 seconds. As a result, every second feels meaningless. Again and again and again.
Professional wrestling is about telling stories. But WWE2K treats it like it was boxing. Just two lumps of flesh bumping into each other. Zero storytelling, zero personality, zero reasons to force yourself to enjoy it.
But none of this comes as a surprise. Of course WWE2K18 sucks. It’s inevitable.
That’s what happens when a churning unstoppable machine like WWE forces a team into a windowless basement to turn over an annual video game in roughly ten months. Of course visual assets get reused. Of course the crowd goes dead silent for no reason during matches. Of course reams of baffling glitches flood the internet before the game is even released. Of course the inclusion of almost two hundred wrestlers each with their own entrance is completely ludicrous. Of course Alexa Bliss looks like Kelsey Grammer in a blond wig.
The game industry concerns itself with indie developers burning themselves out during ‘crunch’ but over the last five years, can you name a single person who works on WWE2K? I certainly can’t. Do they even have names? This isn’t a faceless entity we’re talking about, there’s real people with jobs involved here. Trying to do their best while desperately keeping up payments on their houses, cars, kids etc. Working long hours to render Tyson Kidd’s hair as the sweat on their brow obscures their view of the 2K release calendar. Screaming themselves to sleep at night while their kids ask why their birthday cake is once again a stale loaf of bread with a candle stuck in the top.
Naturally, this is all speculation. I don’t know any of these people but I feel for them. Because nobody consciously wants to make a ‘bad’ game. Nobody on a development team sets out to purposely sell a customer on something that barely stands up under the light of day as a functional, enjoyable product. That’s the responsibility of a marketing team.
WWE2K18 is a clear cry for help. It is undeniable that this development team are in deep trouble, both professionally and emotionally. Even before release, the advertising in gameplay videos of WWE2K can’t obscure the obvious pain this team is feeling putting this John Carpenter’s The Thing-esque monstrosity together to the best of their ability. The immense pressure they feel leading up to October every year must be almost unbearable. And all we can do is sit back and criticise.
Well, not anymore.
Dear WWE2K development team,
You don’t know me but I just wanted to send a quick few words to each of you.
It must be difficult to be in your shoes. Trying your best with the tools you have. I’m not sure whether WWE2K18 was a collective effort to raise a white flag in desperation but I certainly got the message.
For any of you who wish to reach out for something as simple as a friend to talk to, or maybe a new avenue to finally admit there’s something wrong: I’m here. I’m a good listener. I will understand and empathise because I can only imagine the harsh process you guys are subjected to every year. Is there much turnover in your team? Is the morale at rock-bottom? (pardon the pun)
Whatever state your team is in, before you start work on WWE2K19 – just be aware that I can offer a shoulder to lean on. Please don’t hesitate to drop me an email or message and I’ll do everything I can to let you know that everything will be okay.
Speak to you soon
This review was originally published on Player 2 on 25 October 2017.