No licensed sports series is as close a representation of the real world product it is based on than the WWE games – and that's far from a compliment. Fifa, Madden and 2K's NBA series all recreate the mechanics of their respective pastimes better, but only WWE games reflect the problems and frustrations felt by the fans of what they're try to emulate.
WWE games have long been stale, improving only slightly with each annualised entry and occasionally taking a whopping great step back. As in real life, fans long for yesteryear too. The chaotic thrill of the Attitude Era-based No Mercy on N64, or the just-as-good but not as fondly-remembered Here Comes The Pain and early Smackdown vs Raw titles from the mid-00s.
WWE 2K15 was a mess, the scale of which was wonderfully encapsulated by the developers' decision to cut the ability to create women wrestlers from the game entirely. That was the joke and the game was the punchline. 2K16 is a big improvement, and not just because its creation suite is almost back up to scratch. It shows great promise for the future too, but is still indicative of a series in transition.
The most notable change mechanically is the introduction of a replenishing stock of reversals, a brilliant decision that should be a staple of the series for years to come. It instantly does away with those irritating, seemingly never-ending chains of back-and-forth reversals, and introduces a sense of flow and tactical thinking to all the flamboyant fisticuffs.
This might mean you allow your opponent a chance to get a few attacks in so you can let your stock recharge. Players will also pace their attacks out as to not drain their three-tiered stamina bar too much. There's always been a disconnect between the pre-determined real world product and the games, which exist in a fictionalised world where the fighting is real. WWE 2K16 introduces just enough that sits nicely in the grey area between.
These small factors greatly improve the core wrestling gameplay and in turn make the rest of the game more palatable. MyCareer mode offers more choice and is a monstrous beast to delve into (it takes roughly 12 hours to complete an in-game year, and your career will last many), but isn't as streamlined or focused as the WWE career mode fans dream of.
The Showcase mode this year focuses on Stone Cold Steve Austin, and it's about the only part of 2K16 that's of the quality fans desire. It's a very well put together mode offering a nice history lesson for younger fans and a fun trip down memory lane for older ones. Its quality opens up the possibility for other wrestlers to star in similar modes further down the line.
It's the small problems that hold WWE 2K16 back. There are some small improvements to the disconnect between wrestlers and the environment, but it remains present. For example, you can't enter a ring from anywhere along the ring apron, you need to be more central than feels intuitive. Try to enter closer to the ring post and you can't. The developers at Yuke's and Visual Concepts need to work on many more contextual animations to fix this.
Then there's the commentary. The constant reminder that almost every improvement introduced is only a small one, and that while this entry is an improvement, the series is still stilted and in need of a major overhaul.
WWE 2K16 is the best WWE game for a while, but largely by default. Every successful tweak to the gameplay edges it closer to the license's former greatness, and makes this particular entry a fun multi-player wrestling game for a short time at least. Eventually however its limitations present themselves and – like the real thing – you're left frustrated that not enough has changed.