Branding matters in pro wrestling. Fans know theme songs, t-shirt designs, and finishing moves. All of these, including color, create association by repetition. WWE 2K18 gets this. Color is critical to the sport too. Each pugilist comes to the ring draped by glowing LED video boards, coordinated to their dress. Shinsuke Nakamura is red, AJ Styles blue. Different brands carry specific colors; NXT spurts yellow, 205 Live purple. WWE 2K18 gets this too.
More than all of the above, it’s showmanship that matters most. How a wrestler carries themselves in-ring, on the mic, or even walking bolsters character. Without that, a pro wrestler is nothing no matter how many red or blue lights shine on them. Watching Nia Jax stoutly walk down toward the ring live on Monday Nights presents a domineering woman, powerful, confident, and with a searing mean streak. It’s an instant character. WWE 2K18 doesn’t get this.
The Nia Jax in WWE 2K18 walks as if inflated, arms awkwardly outstretched at her side, zombie eyes zipping around the arena as if stoned.
None of the wrestlers in WWE 2K18’s roster survive. Rather than a live ballet of physical violence, WWE 2K18 is more in tune with watching shambling mannequin people or marionettes with their strings tied between one another. In-ring violence is pale. The sensation in body slamming opposition is nill. Each match looks acted out by dead people, and not a good kind like The Undertaker.
2K took over this yearly franchise from shuttered THQ a number of years ago. Although expertly recreating NBA basketball, the publisher seems flummoxed by pro wrestling. It’s no doubt difficult. Like MMA, the physicality of pro wrestling cannot be faked, an admittedly ironic case. Older pro wrestling games smartly cheated behind a veil of technological limitations. WWE 2K18 is determined to be exacting, no limitations. There’s an obtuse collection of meters, button reversals, button mashing, and stick twisting to pull everything off; it’s a nightmare of too much control, compounded by the dire situation in basic movement.
Someday, showmanship might return to WWE videogames. 2017 is not the year, or the previous years. The Curt Hawkins of videogames – 0-159 in the ring, but gosh darn it, someday, a win will happen.