Review: ‘WWE 2K23’ gets the hot tag and cleans house on its competition
Well, wrestling-loving gamers, here we are again. WWE 2K23 is finally here — two games since its hard pivot from the WWE 2K20 dark ages — trying to assert its dominance in a landscape where the series is slowly losing its monopolistic chokehold as the only major source of quality wrestling games. The wrestling offerings made with smaller budgets may lack the presentation and visual flair of the big dog that is the WWE 2K phenom, but said titles focus on different aspects, styles, and promotions of the wrestling industry at large, whereas 2K has been slipping in its efforts to cater to its massive fanbase and their expectations.
That’s to say nothing of the general advancements of the current console generation, as the novelty of a visual spectacle overall is reaching a state of homogeny where players expect much more when it comes to graphical fidelity. As a result, the WWE 2K series no longer has the benefit and allowance of “Well, where else are you going to play a good wrestling game?” Visual Concepts certainly had an uphill battle to contend with, having been involved with WWE 2K20 — a true disaster that almost put the very future of the series into doubt. Then came the soft reboot that was WWE 2K22 after a year was skipped to make as polished a final product as possible. It had a solid foundation but was a little scant on features and modes.
Let’s not bury the lede any longer: WWE 2K23 is a significant upgrade to its predecessor in almost every way imaginable. First and foremost, this year’s 2K Showcase is centered around one of wrestling’s most polarizing figures: John Cena. Rather than stick to the script of simply playing as Cena through some of his most grueling, unforgettable victories, however, Visual Concepts read the room and decided it’d be more interesting to follow Cena’s biggest losses, with players assuming the role of Cena’s most prominent rivals.
On paper, this is an inventive twist from Showcase’s established format. On the other hand, it’s a mode that proves to be long-winded to the point of being exhausting. Cena narrates the beginning and end of the matches players will partake in, which does add a nice personal touch as Cena speaks about where he was in his career and how these big-time losses affected him. However, for those who are familiar with Cena’s career, the entire mode reads more as tiresome — especially when you’re forced to follow certain objectives in a match that leads to an in-game cutscene, which then leads to inter-spliced footage from the real-life match. This wouldn’t be too bad if the game didn’t snatch control away from the player to show off footage a person could easily look up online. These aren’t brief clips, either. Some can last for about two to three whole minutes, during which you can basically put the controller down and do something else before you’re allowed to continue.
In fact, there are some notable (yet understandable) omissions to the Cena showcase that were painfully felt — made even worse by the fact that there are multiple instances where you’re wrestling the same person in a different era. Instead of following the real-life events as they (roughly) transpired, perhaps the focus of the mode could’ve been a “What If?” style of original matches where players can turn the clock back on matches Cena should’ve lost but didn’t. I wouldn’t dare say this idea is objectively better, but rather than playing as Brock Lesnar, Undertaker, and Kurt Angle, I would’ve loved to have avenged Wade Barrett (and, subsequently, his Nexus faction), R-Truth, Rusev, Bray Wyatt, or any one of the fallen WWE superstars Cena bowled over when it would’ve been more interesting to see his rivals defeat him. I know, I know, fantasy booking at its finest. But a man can dream, eh? Maybe a future HHH Showcase could utilize a similar approach! (And come on, 2K, no WM36 Firefly Fun House match?!)
Moving on, we’ve got the return of Universe mode, where players can create their own WWE shows from top to bottom, including brands, superstars on said brands, and even the specificity of how certain rivalries play out over time. Here, players can either choose one superstar and allow themselves to climb up the ranks to feud with whoever they want or go for any titles they desire. For those craving more direct control and who particularly don’t like the randomness of the first option, there’s a sandbox mode available where you can meticulously control every little aspect of your brand/s to your heart’s content. Personally, I love the chaos of choosing someone and just going with whatever insanity happens, but to illustrate my thoughts and feelings on Universe mode this year, I’m going to briefly sum up my short playthrough as The Hurricane.
Hurricane joined NXT and was immediately booked to be in random triple threats and Fatal 4-Ways for about a month as he established himself. Carmelo Hayes was his first feud, which Hurricane ultimately won after some stellar matches. Then, the game kindly asked what I wanted the superhero to do next, and I figured he’d suffered enough during his first few months and brashly asked for a title shot. Now, I thought that “title shot” meant Hurricane would be set on a path to getting the North American championship, the brand’s mid-card belt, which would’ve made sense because he’d just shown up, and the NXT champion, Bron Breakker, was as far out of our league as could possibly be.
Instead, the game decided “Okay, Hurricane will face Bron Breakker at the next pay-per-view!” That’s great on the surface, I suppose, but I couldn’t say that process made Hurricane’s momentous PPV win against Big Bron satisfying at all. There’s a supposed “power ranking” system in place, but Hurricane just kind of catapulted himself to the top. Oh, and Breakker must’ve been so devastated about losing that he stopped caring about the belt entirely and went on to listlessly feud with others. The Hurricane? Well, he was destined for a four-month feud with JD McDonagh — a feud where the AI kept doing the same pre-match and post-match attacks and actions, and since some NXT PPVs are scattered throughout the year and the game refused to end our rivalry until we had a blow-off match on a big stage, Hurricane and McDonagh kept fighting every week. It didn’t matter how many times McDonagh fell; we were confined to this brawl-heavy hell indefinitely.
Perhaps this is more my fault than the game’s. Maybe if I wanted match/feud variety, I should’ve gone to Smackdown or RAW where the rosters would’ve been deeper and the game had more wiggle room for its myriad chaotic variants. You could easily make that argument. But how would you explain Hurricane and Carmelo Hayes’ eventual tag team, creatively named the “HurriPals,” and the fact that WWE 2K23 refused to acknowledge the team until Hurricane got tired of being the John Cena to McDonagh’s Randy Orton in terms of wrestling each other infinitely and went to Smackdown? For some reason, the NXT pairing wasn’t booked as a team until Hurricane’s Smackdown debut… where Hayes wasn’t even on that roster. So, yeah, Universe mode needs a bit of fine-tuning, but there’s the possibility for a great, engaging mode down the road.
Where Cena’s 2K Showcase underwhelmed and Universe mode started off promising enough but devolved into incomprehensible insanity, GM mode touts significant improvements to last year’s re-introduction of the long-awaited mode. With more general managers to choose from, players can now go to war with up to three other brands. Additionally, mid-card belts, tag team belts, and multi-man matches round things out to make the mode a verifiable hit among fans who wanted GM mode to be at its absolute best.
MyFaction is… MyFaction. The collectible card game mode introduced in 2K22 makes its return, complete with the obvious inclusion of newer superstars and the fact that you can now compete against people online. This mode may not have quite been my cup of tea, but for those who wanted 2K to expand upon it, there’s more than enough there to keep players coming back for more — including the mode-specific unique attires for some superstars.
One standout surprise that captivated me more than I ever thought it would was MyRise. This year, there are two specific paths: one called “Legacy,” and the other “The Lock.” The former features a storyline where you control the niece of a popular WWE Legend, and you’re trying your best to leave your aunt’s shadow. The latter’s a story not so detached from a Cena or Lesnar — you’re the supposed next big thing, and the weight of the world is on your shoulders as you deal with jealousy, doubt, and betrayal. Believe it or not, the two storylines are endearing, alternating tonally between “silly and goofy” and “serious and tense.” Only the WWE 2K games can get away with these creepy, (often) poorly-voiced character models interacting and manage to make it oddly intriguing. Or maybe that’s Stockholm Syndrome finally setting in after years of playing these games.
In any case, there’s an impressive amount of effort put into MyRise this year. Branching paths, side quests with their own internal sense of continuity completely separate from the main story, and even — dare I say — competent character development. This ain’t The Last of Us, of course, but I was stunned by how invested I was to interact with everyone and do as much as I could. I even found myself wondering how the decisions I didn’t make played out, which is a rarity for the series. I’d go as far as saying that outside of the core gameplay and GM mode (and something else I’ll touch upon soon), MyRise is easily one of the best things about WWE 2K23.
While I didn’t tinker with the creative modes too much, I had a chance to look through them and was awestruck at the sheer volume of content and possibilities for people much more creatively inclined than myself. This year, you can customize superstars, entrances (and victory motions), move-sets, championships, the Money in the Bank briefcase, arenas, shows (to use casually or in Universe mode), custom matches, images, and even titantron videos. If there’s one word that sums up the suite of creation components, it’s “awesome.”
The gameplay has never been more fun and challenging. The best thing the 2K series has ever done is introduce the light attack/heavy attack/grapple counter system, adding so much depth and unpredictability to each match. There’s a new timed pin kick-out mechanic (with the old — inferior — button mash system as an option) that is more intuitive and leads to more drama than ever before. And who would I be if I didn’t talk about the fabled WarGames match type?
Let me say this: The 4v4 maximum is for the best because, for those who wanted 5v5, it would be functionally impossible to keep up with anything. As it stands, you have 3v3 or 4v4, and WarGames is pure bliss to play. Incoming players can grab weapons from under the ring as they enter the two-ring structure, and when the weapons start flying and bodies stack up, few things are as thrilling as doing whatever you can for your team. When the last person enters and the announcer makes that “WARGAMES” call, it’s on. And, the best part is that you can play WarGames online. Come on. You can’t tell me that’s not a slam dunk of a prospect.
WWE 2K23 has some of those familiar, funny bugs and glitches, yes (but not nearly as bad or plentiful as a certain 2K iteration). Some character models look incredible while some look mind-bogglingly bizarre. Some modes fall flat while others knock it out of the park. But, overall, for the first time in several years, this series feels like it has its heart back. It’s easy to become jaded by year-to-year releases and harp on the fact that “not enough has changed.” But in WWE 2K23’s case, while it certainly isn’t perfect, it’s an absolute joy to play and it’s, at least, making meaningful changes across the board to cement itself as the wrestling gaming experience on the block. This entry fully regained a long-lost fan of the series, and though I plan to take my time to enjoy this gem to the fullest extent, I never thought I’d find myself genuinely giddy to see what WWE 2K24 has in store for us next year.
This review is based on the PlayStation 5 version of the game. A copy was provided for review by 2K Games.
WWE 2K23 stumbles slightly with occasional glitches and a mode or two that doesn't quite hit the mark, but it ends strong with stellar gameplay, a captivating MyRise/GM Mode one-two punch, and a brutal, chaotic inclusion of WarGames that simply says, "Acknowledge Me."