Platforms: PS4 (tested), Xbox One, PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: Out now
Professional wrestling is dumb. As a semi-regular viewer of World Wrestling Entertainment's product I can vouch for its ridiculous pomp and pageantry with some credibility. It's nonsense, but it can also be hugely enjoyable nonsense.
Playing 2K Games' fifth annual swanton bomb into the squared circle can be summarised with the same sentiment, but crucially – and in spite of additions that would seems to suggest the contrary – it neglects the soap opera silliness that makes WWE's weekly product so much more than watching various athletic men and women engage in predetermined grapple-fests.
That's not to say that the technical aspect of pro wrestling isn't important, and it's on that particular front that WWE 2K17 displays a level of in-ring prowess and physical storytelling that eclipses the rest of a rather bare-boned package.
The WWE 2K franchise's gradual move toward realistically paced, methodical bouts fulfils its potential here, with match control ebbing and flowing between combatants in a way that evokes a standard clash on an episode of Raw.
While matches still tend to revolve around a QTE-like reversal mechanic that feels more archaic and unresponsive with every passing year, the larger pool of contextual animations adds visual variety to the many counters.
Multi-person matches also enjoy a much-needed overhaul, with manual targeting set as standard, as well as a new recovery system that sees wrestlers on the receiving end of a particularly powerful move roll out of the ring to catch their breath.
Much like the segmented reversal bar, the recovery bar adds a welcome tactical edge, as players can cash in early to re-enter the fray at the cost of a debuff or wait it out for a boost, risking losing valuable momentum or the match itself.
Other additions to gameplay include an alternative button mash-heavy submission mechanic – although it is somehow worse than the 'chase the wedge' mini-game, and the reintroduction of backstage brawls. Despite being limited in scope, breaking out into the locker room, manager's suite or beyond the arena barricades adds to the spectacle of the more violent match types.
The increasingly extensive creation suite is rounded out further (quite literally with the new buttock sculpting toggle in create-a-wrestler) with an abundance of fresh sliders and an encouraging, if meagre, create-a-victory mode. Universe Mode also gets some noteworthy tweaks and offers micromanaged fun when taken in short bursts.
WWE 2K17's sparkly headline promo feature, however, is an absolute shambles. In theory, an interactive version of the grandstanding soliloquies and back-and-forth verbal battles seen on WWE TV seems like a natural fit. That still may be true, but the system here – which presents timed, incongruous multiple choice options – is dreadful in execution, with one dull milquetoast response following the other.
The inherent issue with the promo system ties into the WWE 2K series as a wider product, and is exemplified by this year's "improved" MyCareer mode. Rather than rely on focused storytelling and substantial feuds, MyCareer again descends into a grinding marathon where rivalries, per-per-view events and even championships come and go without any kind of depth or logic to its RNG factory-line obstacles.
With the omission of the nostalgia-laden daftness of a Showcase mode, MyCareer instead takes the spotlight. In doing so, its hideous blemishes are more visible than ever, with ranking tables taking aeons to climb, interminable load times, and the general fact that positioning your character as a face or heel is an arbitrary distinction on the road to brain-numbing tedium. The ill-fitting, business-like approach is endemic of a broader misunderstanding that sees the melodramatic feuds of WWE smothered by tick-the-box busywork such as monitoring fan popularity, or performing unreasonable feats to please the Authority, or just beating the same chumps in singles matches for hours at a time with zero story progression.
As an example of how 2K17 botches what could and should be the over-the-top moments, in a game that strives to meticulously recreate the rise of a WWE Superstar from the Performance Center all the way to Wrestlemania, it was more than a little jarring to see my newly-promoted greenhorn main event his first ever PPV.
The wholesale problems with this unauthored approach stretches to smaller niggles too, and none more so with the commentary, which is as woeful as ever. While likely a victim of timing, the recordings of Michael Cole and company still refer to the female wrestlers as "Divas", months after the term entered its overdue retirement. As a result, hearing the boorish Jerry 'The King' Lawler chime in with how he loves to see two divas "go at it" seems grottier than ever.
With graphical bugs and intuitive menus a growing trend in recent WWE games, wrestling fans' video game equivalent of Fifa – which tellingly nailed its own attempt at a story mode, The Journey, on the first try – is resting on shaky foundations.
WWE 2K17's adherence to 'realism' brings notable gameplay improvements, but ultimately comes up short when it comes to the main event. MyCareer continues to be an unpolished, unfocused chore and is indicative of a WWE game that forgets that why two testosterone-fuelled titans enter the ring is as important as the action between the ropes.