Wednesday, 17 May 2017

A Wishlist For WWE 2K18

Image Source: WWE 2K18 News
Written By: Mark Armstrong

WrestleMania is well in the rear-view mirror now, the ratings have entered their usual spring slump, and Brock Lesnar is resting on a farm somewhere in Suplex City. All of which means that it must be time for the official announcement of the annual WWE videogame!

In all seriousness, late May/early June is usually the point where WWE and 2K begin to hype up their next videogame. Of course, it's hyped up to be the best game of all-time, even if its new features and innovations (and, more notably, its flaws) prevent it from meeting high expectations. Case in point: 2K17 was billed as a beast of a game, only for fans to discover that Showcase was removed, MyCareer remained a slog, the Promo Engine only reached part of its potential, much of the content was recycled from 2K16, and it was rife with glitches. So, whilst the most recent title delivered a lot of entertainment, it had too many limitations for it to be considered anything more than a really good game.

The good news, however, is that wrestling fans - or, at least, fans of wrestling videogames - never completely lose optimism that the next game will be better, and so anticipation has been building for a while concerning WWE 2K18, which is likely to hit stores in October. The development team has been hard at work for months already, and 2K even put out a series of forum topics earlier this year requesting fan feedback and ideas, so hopes are high that 2K18 might be a game to remember.

But what would make 2K18 an all-time great? How can WWE/2K improve upon recent games? Here's my wishlist for suggested changes, improvements and concepts which could make 2K18 stand out from the crowd.

Single-Player Modes

The first aspect of the game which requires the development team to don their thinking caps is the single-player feature set. The removal of 2K Showcase from 2K17 had a big, negative impact upon how much fans enjoyed the game, so Showcase (the ability to play through classic matches through a specific theme such as a wrestler, a feud or even an era) simply has to return. The Brock Lesnar Showcase mode which 2K had hoped to implement in 2K17 could be featured this time around now that Kurt Angle will be in the game (more on him shortly), but The Undertaker is another strong candidate, considering the recent end to his incredible career at WrestleMania 33; Taker has so many memorable moments to choose from that you could definitely build a game around that. Then there's the rise of The Shield and their singles careers, the NXT revolution, a vintage feud in Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels - there are tons of options, and no matter which ones 2K pick, there has to be at least one or two which the team could build the mode around. In a nutshell, 2K Showcase has to return.

But I don't think that would be enough. I believe that a return for the fondly-remembered Season mode is long overdue, and the 2016 revival of the Brand Extension makes it a great time to do so. You could play through a season on Raw and a season on SmackDown (and maybe even one on NXT?), working your way through simple yet exciting storylines. Perhaps you'll be cast as Randy Orton as he joins The Wyatt Family to destroy them from within. Maybe you'll be the focus of the United States Title Open Challenge. It's possible that you will simply look for the basic achievements like winning Money In The Bank, surviving the Elimination Chamber or winning the Royal Rumble and becoming WWE Champion at WrestleMania. Whatever the case, there's a load of storyline possibilities which, with convincing voiceovers from stars on both brands, creates a fun mode which writes itself. It has been so long since the glory days of Season mode on the SmackDown and SmackDown vs. Raw games that the return of this option would create massive anticipation for the game; it is a perfect companion to 2K Showcase, and those two modes alone would make 2K18 something special.

As for MyCareer: three games in, and the mode has only slightly evolved, with the prevailing emotion being one of boredom rather than excitement when playing through it. If 2K want this mode to remain in the game, it either needs to remove the filler content, especially from the early stages of the mode, or the interface and general experience needs to have a fresh coat of paint to make it interesting and worth the hours that a player needs to complete it. I think the general concept is good, but I don't see why it should take 10-12 hours or more when only a fraction of the content is actually entertaining. Personally, I wouldn't mind if MyCareer was scrapped altogether, but I would sooner see it revamped and/or streamlined so that this mode, which many players now avoid, becomes a highlight of the game.

A lot of fans want to see the return of General Manager mode. GM mode provided so much fun back in the day, and after the 2016 Draft brought back the roster split, there could be no better time to do this. However, Universe mode provides around 70% of the elements which GM mode used to have, along with innovations that the old option never did, such as renaming brands, changing shows, holding new PPV events and swopping titles. Therefore, I would like to see the elements of GM mode incorporated into Universe mode in 2K18. Give the player more control over the twists and turns, create a sense of competition between the brands, add the likes of TV ratings and PPV buy rates. In short, combine the Universe mode of 2K17 with the GM mode of the SvR era, and you have one fantastic mode which rounds off an incredible selection of single-player options for fans. It wouldn't take a lot of effort, and it would mostly be reviving old concepts rather than bringing about new ideas. I don't see why this can't be done, so hopefully this will actually happen.

The Roster

Now, we come to arguably the biggest draw of any WWE game, the roster. On the one hand, 2K17 had 177 playable characters in total, of which the DLC delivered quite a few new faces. On the other hand, many of the legends were recycled and, aside from DLC, none of the retro names were making their series debut. That being said, besides those who have left the company (Jack Swagger, Stardust, Simon Gotch etc), there are few wrestlers on the 2K17 line-up who fans would actually want to see taken out of the game. Problem is, WWE has added many new faces in the last 12 months, so for all of these (or even most of them) to make the grade, along with some new legends, a lot of wrestlers will seemingly have to fall by the wayside.

Or do they? After all, the FIFA series has hundreds of clubs with twenty-something players each, and has done since the PS2 era. Plus, the power of modern consoles provides tons more memory to potentially include loads more wrestlers; so is it really unreasonable to believe that 2K18 could have north of 200 wrestlers, or even a figure close to 250?

Let's consider the new faces who should make it in 2K18. Bobby Roode is an obvious one, and other strong contenders are TJ Perkins/TJP, Rich Swann, Kassius Ohno, The Authors Of Pain, No Way Jose, Ember Moon, Tyler Bate and others. Then there's the old faces who are likely to return to the series such as Rhyno, Curt Hawkins, Jinder Mahal and, of course, The Hardyz and Kurt Angle (who, incidentally, is the perfect candidate for the pre-order exclusive treatment; an America-themed promotional campaign for Kurt seems inevitable). Now consider legends who have never been in the series such as Tito Santana, Rick Martel (who was meant to be in 2K17 via the Hall Of Fame DLC), The Rock 'N' Roll Express (2017 Hall Of Famers), The Midnight Express (who could face Rock 'N' Roll in this year's HOF DLC), The Nasty Boys and Hacksaw Jim Duggan (who was in Legends Of WrestleMania, but hasn't ever been in the flagship series). I would love Owen Hart to debut in 2K18 but it seems incredibly unlikely. As for Hulk Hogan: his return to WWE is only a matter of time, so I would say that there's a good chance Hogan turns up in 2K18 (hey, he was featured during the opening video to WrestleMania again this year).

The main thing with the roster, though, is the sheer number. All of those names I have outlined and others would take the line-up to more than 200, and I really hope that 2K realises the roster should never decrease, especially at a time when so many wrestlers are vying for a spot in the game (they really are, if only for the royalty pay-checks). I'm hoping the roster size explodes this year, and that the 2K18 line-up really is the best roster ever in a WWE title.

Another thing that 2K should do is to freshen up the attires of the legends. The current roster will be fine, but we've had the same attire for the original Sting for three years now, we haven't had the modern-day version of Shawn Michaels for years, we haven't had the dreadlocks-wearing British Bulldog for ages, and so on. The thing with alternate costumes is that they can always be reused because fans will always want to use them over and over, but it shouldn't be at the expense of giving the characters new looks. In other words, give us HHH from SummerSlam 1998 (that cool-looking purple costume) instead of his boring costumes from earlier in his career. Give us old-school Brock Lesnar, old-school John Cena and even old-school Randy Orton. Give us Ricky Steamboat from WrestleMania III instead of WCW attires for the second game in a row. In a nutshell, the attires for most legends were lazy re-uses in 2K17, so I am hoping that the development team will freshen things up next time around. That goes for the roster too, obviously, although as I mentioned earlier, there are hardly any wrestlers who anyone would actively want to see taken out of the game (and on that note, Roddy Piper not being in 2K17 made no sense, so Hot Rod has to be back this year too).

Creation Suite, Arenas & Areas

Then there's the creation suite. I felt that this was the highlight of 2K17 due to the plethora of options and incredible depth to each mode. Therefore, I'll quickly summarise possible improvements in this department. We should get the return of Create A Finisher and possibly Create A Story (if Universe and GM mode are merged, as I suggested earlier). More slots for created wrestlers and arenas would be most appreciated since the totals haven't increased for a few years (it's been 100 for wrestlers since 2K14, with a dip for new-gen in 2K15, and it's been 50 for arenas since the mode's introduction back in WWE '12). Create An Entrance could benefit from the same advanced options being applied to stable entrances, and likewise for the new Create A Victory option. More authentic show themes for Create A Show would be nice (e.g. the Raw Attitude Era theme wasn't the real song). And let us create new attires for existing wrestlers in a manner which doesn't reduce the number of slots for completely new created wrestlers, otherwise this option is largely redundant. Oh, and allow users to go above the limit of downloading 20 created items per day, since the frequent loss of server signals already make the process longer than it needs to be for the otherwise superb Community Creations feature.

I mentioned earlier about how the development team were a bit lazy when it came to the roster and legends' attires, but they were even lazier when it came to retro arenas. Only a dozen were available prior to DLC, and basically all of them were rehashes from previous games. Some were logical, like Raw from 1998, but others were head-scratchers; why have the likes of Capitol Punishment 2011 and Fully Loaded 1999 over vintage WrestleManias or Royal Rumbles? The DLC added a couple of new/old venues, but overall the line-up of arenas (and their number, which was around a dozen or so smaller than that of 2K16) was a real let-down. It may not seem like a big deal, but entering classic settings from years gone by is one of the best parts of the game, and considering how WWE is now holding more PPV events and weekly shows (such as 205 Live) than ever before, the game will nearly be cracking the 30-arena mark before even getting to the old-school venues. So, I hope that this area of the game gets a lot more attention (perhaps via 2K Showcase) and that we'll get loads more vintage venues, and a few that we haven't enjoyed in a game before, either. Let's face it: how long have we had to wait for the old-school Survivor Series arena to make it into the flagship series?

Backstage areas and related weapon use formed a large part of 2K17's appeal, and the backstage and crowd-area chaos was a big positive for the game. In this department, the message is to simply build this up again to reach the heights of past games, along with environmental grapples and animations. Remember The Boogeyman hiding in the back of a hearse in the parking lot? Or the chance to tag-team with a stranger in a bar so that he would direct a pool ball towards your opponent's face? More of those ridiculous yet visually brilliant moments should be in 2K18, and if there are more cool backstage areas to battle in, then this becomes more likely to happen. It'd be nice to see the WWE 2K series follow the lead of Mario Kart by including some classic backstage areas from old games, such as the Kitchen from the original SmackDown or the Train Station from SmackDown Shut Your Mouth.

Match Types

A part of the game which needs serious improvement is the selection of matches. For PS4/Xbox One versions, the game has still yet to reintroduce match types which remain on the PS3/Xbox 360, such as Inferno, I Quit, First Blood, Championship Scramble and Special Guest Referee, not to mention format alterations like Tag Team Table, the Match Creator option (which, with a few minor tweaks, allowed you to stage Finisher and Flaming Table bouts, amongst others) and the simple ability to change the rules of basic bouts so that you could, say, make a match No Disqualification without it being billed as such.

However, even more annoyingly is the fact that no completely new match types have been added for years. You have to go all the way back to SmackDown vs. Raw 2010 for a completely new match type to be added in the series via the aforementioned Championship Scramble (although SvR 11 debuted Match Creator, and WWE '12 introduced the 40-man Royal Rumble which is no longer in the game). Some older stipulations were brought back in WWE '13 and 2K14, but there hasn't been one completely new match since the series went to new-gen, which for an annual franchise based on an industry which has dozens of potential stipulations to consider, that is awful, especially considering that the multitude of match options was once a trademark for the series.

2K should definitely make this a priority in 2K18. Firstly, all of the basic alternate formats (like Tag Team Table) should be in, since this wouldn't require much effort. Secondly, all of the stipulation bouts which remain on the PS3/Xbox 360 versions should make it to PS4/Xbox One, along with Match Creator and the ability to adjust simple rules. Lastly, there should be a couple of stipulation matches either debuting or returning. Casket has amazingly only ever been in one game, and that was 17 years ago! So, in the year that The Undertaker has retired, this particular bout really should be back in the game. The Asylum match (weapons on top of a steel cage) wasn't to everybody's liking when it happened last year, but it would be a lot of fun in a videogame, and as a recently-introduced stipulation, it would make sense to throw this one in. Finally, an Ambulance match has been rumoured for years but it has yet to materialise; given that its rules would be slightly similar to those of the Casket match, the emergency-themed match would be a good way to round things off, and even these additions would only scratch the surface of what fans would want to see. But it would be a big step forward, after years of steps backward or complete non-movement in this area.

Audio

Unusually, one of the issues when it comes to enjoying recent WWE games may be the fact that the audio during matches is more in line with real-life WWE television. By that, I mean that whilst it's great to have commentary, the standard of the announcing has always been lower than that of actual programming, partly due to the overly-scripted nature of their discussions, partly because they sound less energised than they do on TV, and partly because the announcing only occasionally reflects what is actually happening in the ring. In reality, great commentary can enhance the enjoyment of a match; in the 2K games, the opposite happens.

It's easy to suggest that the announcing could be better, and it should. However, perhaps an alternative option should be explored, whereby gamers can toggle between different options for audio during matches. The first option would be the standard announcing, though it'd be great to have the choice between different announce teams (since I'm assuming that both Raw and SmackDown announce teams will be in 2K18). The second option would be to have no commentary, giving the feel of actually being at a live event where the crowd chants provide the soundtrack.

The third option is more radical, though: how about the return of old-school background music (BGM), generic rock tracks or music of a different genre, which could play during matches instead of the normal announcing? Remember that in almost all of the classic WWF/WWE games (particularly No Mercy and Here Comes The Pain), we had BGM instead of commentary, so this hark to the past is not as mad as it may appear. The fourth and final option would be to have the game's actual soundtrack playing during bouts, a tactic which was used alongside commentary in the games around 2004-2005.

It may seem like a trivial thing, but let's face it: the announcing is one of the most criticised aspects of WWE games, and has been in almost every same title to date; however, it would be a step backwards to remove the commentary altogether. Therefore, it would be a wise move to provide these audio options, allowing gamers to choose the match soundtracks of their choice. If this happened, I guarantee that matches would suddenly become a lot more enjoyable, and those who do prefer the more realistic audio in recent games would still have that available to them. A win-win, in my opinion.

Gameplay

The biggest bug-bear I have with 2K17 is how slow the matches are. I like the idea of the games providing a sim-feel, ensuring that the bouts feel like real-life matches, but the action is just too slow. Even the more methodical performers in WWE, like Big Show and Braun Strowman, move quicker than wrestlers do in 2K17. What's more, the animations for longer moves (such as the People's Elbow) feel contrived and deliver less impact than the same moves did in games dating back just a couple of years, and the pacing of even minor things like referee counts and last-second kick-outs reduce what should be moments of high drama. Going back to my point about audio, the pace of matches was much quicker in past games, including all of the most fondly-remembered games.

To tackle this problem, I suggest a new Pacing option. Slow Pacing would deliver the speed and movement that we are seeing in the likes of 2K17. Medium Pacing would bring us a speed found in such games as SmackDown vs. Raw 2010 or WWE '13, where the matches aren't high-speed, but also aren't fought at a snail's pace. Finally, there's Fast Pacing, where all of the moves, animations and running techniques are sped up a tad, delivering the high-octane, arcade-esque experience found in the earlier SmackDown games, during the heyday of the series (which is not a coincidence). Those who prefer the modern slower pace would be accommodated, as would those who reminisce about the arcade days, and also those who want something between the two. We already have the Match Experience option, which ranges from quick-fire bouts to lengthier WrestleMania-type struggles, so why not the Pacing option?

Two suggested improvements for the price of one, now, which would both enhance the fun aspect of a match as well as making matches more realistic than ever before. I like the current control scheme used in the game, but it does have its detractors who, again, pine for the more simplified days of Circle and a direction pulling off a big move. So, how about having an alternative old-school control scheme, which is effectively an updated version of the controls from the pre-2007 SD games?

The other idea is harder to implement, and I'm not sure of the best way to do so, but it would make matches so much more authentic. Let's take the example of a typical match between a babyface and a heel; we'll cast John Cena as the face, and Dolph Ziggler as the heel. In recent games, it was generally a case of back-and-forth action, with the more skilled player triumphing in the end, regardless of the face/heel alignment or the tactics used by each wrestler. The Comeback option delivers potential late drama in a match, but otherwise that's the structure of a typical match in the game.

Now consider what could happen if this was the Basic Structure, and if we also had an Advanced Structure. In the Advanced Structure, the matches would follow a pattern much more suited to real life. In other words, the face and heel have an initial feeling-out period before the face takes control and builds momentum with a few nifty moves. With things going his way and the crowd behind him (well, supposedly if we're using Cena as an example), the face hits his first signature move and prepares to hit a finisher, only for the heel to use an illegal tactic (a poke to the eyes or a referee distraction) to swing things in his favour. The heel then controls the match, and locks the face in a wear-down submission hold which could slow the face down to the point where the heel, Ziggler, could prepare to hit his finisher and win.

At this point, though, the fans are trying to will the face - Cena - back into the match and, after he heroically escapes the submission hold, he builds momentum again (or perhaps he's cut off by another dastardly heel tactic). Either way, the match builds to the face pulling off his Comeback sequence (Cena's Five Moves Of Doom) leading to the first serious finisher attempt. The heel may block it with one last wicked villain tactic (say a roll-up with his feet on the ropes), before the face hits his secondary finisher (the STF?). This either sets up the heel to win with a finisher (albeit with a villainous use of the ropes again) or the face to hit his main finisher and win the match.

Of course, this doesn't include the other potential big moves and finisher kick-outs, and it is a very basic skeleton of a match. However, at least in a face vs. heel situation, this is what happens in 95% of regular-rules matches on WWE television and at house shows. If the development team can find a way to implement such a system into the game while making it fun and user-friendly (i.e. avoiding a situation where the player is sitting idly by for minutes while he waits for his player to regain control), this would truly replicate what happens in WWE. As stated, I'm not sure of the best method that 2K can use to make this a reality, but the matches would be so much more realistic if they could find a way, and for those who don't like it, the Basic Structure could allow them to play out matches in the usual fashion.

Miscellaneous

I've covered the main areas, so I'll conclude by providing a bunch of largely unrelated suggestions or areas which desperately need looking at. For starters, 2K17 was rife with glitches even after the patches, so 2K simply has to ensure the game is properly tested before its release and before new content is made available (Jerry Lawler flubbing his recording of a line about The Godfather's career, and then saying it again correctly, somehow made it into the game for the Hall Of Fame DLC). What's more, the installation process is unbelievably long; back in the PS2 days, games didn't require installation at all, and even on PS3/Xbox 360, it only takes a few minutes. It can literally take a full day, if not longer, to do the same on PS4 and Xbox One, and there's absolutely no need for it. When you have to open a game the day before you plan to play it just so that you actually can play it, that is ridiculous. This might be the thing that I hope 2K improves more than anything else, at least when it comes to playing the game for the first time.

Elsewhere, customised entrance tunes aren't going to happen while the consoles themselves prevent the ability to import music, so how about having an online WWE jukebox of all of the wrestler themes from the game, along with dozens of others for old names not in the game, and let gamers choose their favourite songs for created superstars from there? I still believe that a Cloud-like option, allowing you to save wrestlers, arenas and created items from past games with the chance to import them into future titles, would be a great idea, and it would allow 2K to include far more new content each year. Admittedly, the chance of this happening is low, but it's possible. I'd also like to see more minor options in 2K18 along the lines of those seen in 2K17, albeit with a little more logic. For instance, if we can pick a referee, let us pick from some real-life officials, and let us pick commentary teams and ring announcers.

In addition, online videos such as those produced by SmackTalks reveal that there are tons of hidden features and nuances in 2K17, so why not promote some of these beforehand, perhaps via an in-game challenge? Ask us to find the top rope RKO, or the secret Wyatt Family entrance, or Easter Eggs like vintage PPV posters in arena skyboxes. There are a lot of great things in the game which 99% of players (even those who devote hours to the franchise) would never discover, so 2K should make the most of this, otherwise their hard work is for naught. Also, the game no longer has a tutorial for new players, and the days of a hardback strategy guide are over, which means that first-time players may be blown away and would struggle to get to grips with a fairly complex game. Simple tutorial videos, perhaps narrated by a WWE personality, would go a long way.

I'll round things off with a few quick ideas: a chance to completely simulate the body of a match (big moves, interference, false finishes) would be cool, as would the chance to have actual arenas in the game such as Madison Square Garden, the All-State Arena and the Citrus Bowl/Camping World Stadium. Downloadable content should feel less like a chance to charge fans for the remaining content and more like an incentive to own bonus or fresh content, not to mention the ridiculous price for DLC overall when you consider that not all of it is included in the Season Pass. Some integration to the WWE Network would be logical, especially if Showcase mode returns (you could play a match in the game and then watch it on the Network). It is well overdue that we have eight (or preferably ten) on-screen characters during matches; anybody who has been playing WWE games since 2002 has never had the chance to stage full-on Survivor Series tag team elimination matches. Finally, bring back the old Locker Room feature because, as ultimately pointless as it was, it was still awesome, and lends itself to a ton of flexibility and creativity, especially nowadays on consoles with more storage space than ever before.

Actually, one more suggestion: make 2K18 the best wrestling game of all-time. Admittedly, the chances of this happening seem as likely as Roman Reigns becoming an universally popular babyface at this point, but really, there's no reason why this shouldn't be possible. The current games are certainly not bad (well, besides 2K15), and some of the games in recent years were the best in many years. The feature sets are much larger than they used to be for the most part, and the graphics blow away anything from the likes of No Mercy. The problem is that there hasn't been a "Best Wrestling Game Ever" contender for over a decade, and the common feeling shared by most is that the development team are happy to add bits and bobs while raking in the money rather than going all-out to truly deliver the absolute best wrestling game possible (the ton of glitches in 2K17 alone suggest that the latter wasn't their mindset with the most recent title). It's largely about making tweaks here and there, adding options here and there, and generally tightening things up while making the player experience as fun as possible. If 2K concentrated on that, and listening to the opinions shared by most longtime fans of the series, then 2K18 really could be an all-time great.

I've given my ideas - possibly too many! - so let's see if 2K use them. Even if they don't, let's hope that the concepts that they do use help to make WWE 2K18 a true wrestling classic.