The recent release of the annual iteration of the WWE2K series, WWE 2K19, got me thinking about my favourite wrestling games of all time. It occurred to me that my favourite wrestling game isn’t a WWE game at all, or even one that takes place in a ring; it’s the 2004 PS2 classic, Def Jam: Fight For New York.
As a concept, it was kind of insane. Take the engine from WWF No Mercy, one of the most beloved wrestling games of all time, and add a bunch of rappers and celebrities that were either signed to Def Jam (Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe, Method Man, Xzibit, etc), or Def Jam-adjacent (Carmen Electra, Henry Rollins, Danny Trejo, Kimora Lee Simmons). Take out the wrestling rings and replace them with subway stations and back alleys, add Snoop Dogg as a final boss, and you’ve got a stew going. But what was really compelling about DJ: FFNY was its deep, and deeply weird story. Here were a bunch of characters that you already knew from their real-life personas, plopped into a strange parallel-universe narrative. And it was all playable! It’s the only game that I know of where L’il Kim can beat the piss out of Henry Rollins in a burning factory, or have Carmen Electra suplex Ice-T into an oncoming subway train.
So why hasn’t WWE, a company that had Randy Orton fight Bray Wyatt in a spooky abandoned house this year, and had Matt Hardy throw people into a lake to be “reincarnated”, capitalized on how fundamentally bizarre its product can be, the way that Def Jam did? The short answer is that WWE 2K19’s career mode does exactly that, and it’s one of the best video game experiences I’ve had this year.
You’ll start off by creating your wrestler, using 2K19’s crazily deep Creation Suite. If you’re new to the series, the game simplifies this a lot by running you through a wizard, but if you want to get granular with your character, you can always go back and mess about with their look, their entrance, and their moveset. A lot of moves and creation parts are, unfortunately, locked behind a loot box system where you spend in-game currency to get access to them, but you can get that currency doing literally any match in 2K19, from exhibition matches to Universe Mode to Online matches, and of course you’ll earn a lot by progressing through the story so it’s not that bad. That being said, there’s a lot you can do with the parts you get from the beginning of the game and that’s a testament to the powerful Creation Suite.
The MyPlayer Career Mode focuses on your created wrestler rising from an unknown indie called BCW, through the ranks of WWE. Along the way, you’ll take an excursion to Mexico to face a famous luchador, invade NXT, and get into a feud with Triple H himself. There’s a ton of other very surreal twists and turns to this story (let’s just say that the stuff with Woken Matt Hardy is one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in a wrestling game since that one time Candace Michelle gender-swapped your created wrestler with her magic wand) that I won’t spoil, but I’ll say that all of them embrace WWE’s particular storytelling quirks while keeping it’s tongue firmly in cheek. Unlike other wrestling or MMA video games, I was never bored with this mode as it constantly kept things unpredictable and interesting.
Each stage has it’s own challenges and objectives to complete, and they always feel like they’re there for a reason. Previous iterations of WWE games have you do things like ‘hit 3 bodyslams on your opponent’ when there’s no storyline reason to do that, but 2K19 grounds everything in the narrative they’re trying to push. I found the NXT invasion, for example, really challenging and fun for this reason.
Environments change authentically as you progress through the rags-to-riches story, which adds to the immersion. The BCW stages feature sparse crowds and a bare-bones ring, while the Mexico stages have Spanish commentary and their own lucha flavour. It feels genuinely rewarding to reach the heights of WWE and their massive crowds.
The stilted, oddly composed and delivered dialogue between your player and the other story characters is as WWE as it gets and even though it seems to be written by someone that has never met a human being, it’s hard for me to criticize it here in 2K19 when that’s pretty much what the dialogue is like on WWE programming these days. Unfortunately, your MyPlayer character’s voice can’t be altered but that’s forgivable when there’s so much dialogue to get through between matches. You have some text-based dialogue branches as well, but they’re pretty superficial from what I’ve seen, and you’ll almost always end up in the same place regardless of what you pick.
My biggest criticism of the MyPlayer Career is that, despite this being a year where women’s wrestling is at the forefront of WWE and where Raw Women’s Champion Ronda Rousey was offered as DLC content for 2K19, there’s no option for a women’s Career Mode. It’s a puzzling omission that I hope can either be corrected with DLC or in next year’s game, because fighting your way up through the ranks as a woman would be an awesome showcase for WWE’s women’s divisions, and wouldn’t require that much change from the men’s Career.
Despite the omission of women, the MyPlayer Career in WWE 2K19 has improved by leaps and bounds over the entries in the past couple of years. It embraces weirdness in a way that only the best of the WWE video games have done, and as a result, it’s a more immersive and representative WWE experience than we’ve seen in years. What’s even more amazing is that Career Mode is only one part of what’s on offer in WWE2K19, making it a must-have title for wrestling fans on this console generation so far.