Twenty-five years ago, Midway's WWF WrestleMania: The Arcade Game saw the light of day. It arrived in arcades at first, then released across the consoles of the time " Sega Saturn and Genesis, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, PlayStation etc " and the PC. More closely resembling the sort of strikes, combos and special moves dynamic seen in Midway's Mortal Kombat series of games than the grapple-based structure of a conventional wrestling game per se, WWF WrestleMania was a fantastic little package.
Ridiculously easy to pick up, fast-paced, arcadey, fun to play with a friend and to watch while awaiting your turn, the game ticked all the boxes (check out some gameplay for yourself). One of the biggest factors for its success was how over-the-top the action was: The Undertaker would smash a tombstone over his opponent's head, Razor Ramon's arm would turn into a large blade, Doink the Clown would attack his rivals with an inflatable mallet and so on. It's worth pointing out that the game featured only three modes (one-on-one, handicap and tag team matches) and eight wrestlers.
Saber Interactive tags in
Flash forward a quarter of a century and in April this year, it was announced that there would be no WWE 2K21, presumably in light of the unmitigated disaster that was WWE 2K20. The latter was, in fact, so bad that we never got beyond the shocking first impressions linked in the previous sentence. Instead, we were told that this year's WWE-themed offering would come in the form of WWE 2K Battlegrounds " a cartoony, over-the-top and arcadey departure from the annual series of wrestling simulations to which we had grown so accustomed. And helming the project would be Saber Interactive, with Visual Concepts seemingly benched after last year's effort.
If the name rings a bell, it's probably " aside from its work on such games as Halo: Combat Evolved, Vampyr and World War Z " because Saber Interactive is responsible for NBA Playgrounds and its sequel NBA 2K Playgrounds 2. A departure from the 21-year-old NBA 2K series of basketball simulation, Playgrounds was easy enough to pick up (but boasted a fair amount of gameplay depth) and gave the sport a distinctly cartoony and arcadey feel that came as a breath of fresh air.
The last time the WWE had gone down the path of exaggerated arcadey gameplay was 2011's WWE All Stars " a stripped-down and cartoony alternative to the Smackdown vs Raw series that was getting increasingly elaborate in terms of gameplay mechanics. Understandably then, expectations were reasonably high that 2K Battlegrounds would be a fun WWE game, something that isn't always a given.
Publicity still from WWE 2K Battlegrounds. 2K
And so it was that on 18 September, Saber Interactive's bid at bringing the curtain down on current-gen wrestling games (of course, next-gen games will release in a form on current-gen consoles, but they'll be a watered-down version) was released on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Stadia and the Nintendo Switch.
What is it about wrestling games that brings terrible wordplay out in force? I don't know. But I do recall being mildly suspicious of the fact that 2K Battlegrounds weighed in at around 6.1 GB, compared to WWE 2K20's 47-odd GB file size. I also recall thinking at the time that such a relatively small size probably meant that what I was downloading wasn't the game's full complement and that there would be a whole host of components that would need to be downloaded after installation.
I was partly right, but it wasn't because there were additional components to be downloaded.
A press bulletin in the buildup to the game's release announced that there would be a gut-busting 130 wrestlers past and present represented in the game's roster, although only 70 or so of those would be available at launch. Upon loading up the game and navigating the colourful and slickly-presented menus, it slowly emerges that only 20 (13 male and seven female) leotarded grapplers are actually available. The rest have to be unlocked one way or another.
This isn't necessarily a problem, as unlocking hidden or secret characters through achievements was one of the incentives of putting yourself through increasingly tougher challenges in wrestling games in years gone by. However, only a handful can be unlocked through the campaign mode. And these include, in a deliciously evil twist, a firm favourite of fans aged 12 years and under across the world, John Cena " who only becomes a playable character once you've completed the entire campaign.
And the ones who are available right from the start can be unlocked in exchange for one of the game's two currencies " Battle Bucks (that are earned by winning matches) and Golden Bucks (that are procured by spending your hard-earned money). Generally, you earn around 400 Battle Bucks per completed match, 1,000 more every time you level up. Completing daily challenges and participating in online tournaments (after you pay the entry fee) are also ways in which you can rack up some more. But, when you look at how locked wrestlers cost 3,000, 6000, 9,000 or 12,000 (for such legends as Seth Rollins, Triple H and the N-word-spewing and Gawker-suing Hulk Hogan) to unlock, it becomes clear just how long you're going to have to grind it out to assemble your dream roster.
And then there's the matter of alternate costumes, which don't cost as much as the base wrestler, but aren't cheap either. All in all, unless you're willing to dip into your wallet, you're in for a long journey and as we'll soon find out, not the most pleasant one.
Publicity still from WWE 2K Battlegrounds. 2K
'It's all about the game and how you play it'
If you've ever played a game of Cluedo between two people or a round of Battleship by yourself, you'll be very familiar with the sort of emotions playing 2K Battlegrounds elicits. There's an initial sense of enthusiasm, with an "Ooh, this could be a nice change from the norm" vibe radiating all around. Very soon, the hmmms begin to set in and swiftly make way for a series of yawns " counting the gaps between which provides more entertainment than the task (and it most certainly is one) at hand " that are each more satisfying than the one that came before.
"But there's got to be more to this," you tell yourself as you try to shake things up a bit. For Battleship, this probably entails shutting your eyes and letting the peg land randomly on the grid. It's no use, you discover and finally resign yourself to two choices: Soldier through so you can assuage your guilt about wasting money or cut your losses and stop playing at once. This realisation takes a shade over half an hour to dawn on you while playing 2K Battlegrounds (as compared to around 20 seconds with single-player Battleship) " which is a shame because there was so much potential in a silly and over-the-top WWE game.
Where do I begin?
Combat is hyper-simplistic with wrestlers assigned one of five classes " Powerhouse, Technician, High-Flyer, Brawler, and All-Rounder. And each of these has its own (extremely limited) set of kicks, punches and throws. Sounds varied enough, right? Wrong, because once you've played a few matches with a couple of different wrestlers, you'll find that with the exception of a couple of signature moves and a finisher, all wrestlers under one category have an identical move set.
For example, Yokozuna (yes, it's good to see him back in a WWE game) and Undertaker play almost identically, since they're both categorised as powerhouses. The same applies to Stephanie McMahon and The Rock (who takes a break from shilling tequila and tearing down gates to throw in an appearance), who are categorised as all-rounders. So while you'll get to use the Rock Bottom, the Pedigree and other instantly identifiable moves, everything else is a blur. Think back to WWF Wrestlmania: The Arcade Game that gave you eight different characters with different movesets, animations and gimmicks to play with. That seems a lot more than the five on offer here.
What's more, you don't even really need to use any of the grapples or throws, because as I realised, simply button-bashing the punch and kick buttons and then pinning the opponent is sufficient to win match after match. Reversal modes are far too random and don't feel earned. In fact, with its reliance on button-bashing, 2K Battlegrounds takes even the slightest bit of strategy out of the picture.
In terms of modes, there's the campaign mode, the two online modes " Tournament and King of the Battleground " and an exhibition mode " that features one-on-one, tag, triple threat, fatal four-way, gauntlet and steel cage matches, and royal rumbles. The latter is less of a royal rumble (that in real life features upto 30 or so people in the ring at any given time and in video games, the norm these days is six or eight) than a never ending four-person elimination match. The only reasonably interesting mode on offer is the steel cage variant that has you collect bags of money to 'buy' (we're sensing a theme year) the ability to exit the cage.
Tournament and King of the Battleground are functional enough (multiplayer games are fun for the first 15 minutes or so, but then begin to wear thin due to the repetitiveness of it all), but it's the campaign mode that is most disappointing " in terms of the story, the ambition on display and what you actually have to do. A series of seemingly unconnected matches tied loosely together by a largely inane story about veteran promoter Paul Heyman joining forces with 'Stone Cold' Steve Austin to find wrestlers to start a new promotion or something like that. Said 'story' is told by means of pages from an extremely average comic strip that details Austin's travels across such destinations as New York, Mexico, the Floridian Everglades and Detroit to assemble his dream team of new faces and take them to the granddaddy of them all, WrestleMania.
Hanging such a ropey story on the drawing power of fictional wrestlers " and not even ones you've created or customised yourself " was always a risky move and it shows. In short, motivating myself to get through the campaign and its increasingly bizarre beats was a struggle. You can always tell that you've run into a problem when neither the gameplay nor the story keep you going. There's a couple of interesting modifiers when it comes to different arenas, which entertains for a while. You can toss your opponent into the jaws of a hungry alligator in Florida, deploy a remote-controlled goat to attack your opponent in Mexico or use explosives to level a ring in Detroit.
'Lights are on, but nobody's home'
When it comes to memorable " most likely because you've been made to hear them so many times " bits of commentary, no one does it better than WWF/E games and this particular line quoted above was one of the gems to come from 1998's WWF Warzone that featured Vince McMahon and Jim Ross behind the announcers' table. But that line isn't just a random throwback to the golden-ish age of wrestling games; it's also an apt way to describe 2K Battlegrounds, which actually looks very good.
Rocking the plastic action figure chic, with character models sporting gigantic forearms and stubby bodies works well for a game of this nature. So too do the blister packs that cover wrestlers you've yet to unlock. I particularly liked that little touch, but wasn't too keen on the wrestler entrances that featured them being dropped onto the stage in a box and breaking their way out. And for the most part, the game looks fine, while being played, except for the rare glitch, like the screen freezing and unfreezing over and over (almost like someone switched on a strobe light). A more common glitch as you give the game more time is the way wrestlers disappear and teleporting to another part of the ring during a reversal.
That brings us to the audio, replete with bland (and almost public domain-like) music, coupled with some of the most mindless commentary experienced in any wrestling game. When Jerry 'The King' Lawler isn't raving excitedly, he's saying the most generic things about intensity and whatnot. Sadly, none of this is in anyway relevant to what's happening in the ring. And when Lawler's doing neither of those things, he's screaming the name of the wrestler you've picked from the wrestler-selection menu at you through the PS4 controller's speaker. If only this was a figment of the imagination.
End of an era
It doesn't matter that the game is being sold for Rs 2,499 " a whole Rs 1,500 less than most new console games. It's still overpriced by at least Rs 2,000. If it's not the super-simplistic gameplay, lame storyline, dearth of modes (what happened to ladder matches or TLC matches for that matter?) and woeful commentary, it's the massive reliance on microtransactions that makes 2K Battlegrounds eminently missable.
It's time for developers and publishers to realise that it's not enough for a game to just not be broken (the way WWE 2K20 was); it must actually be fun to play, challenging to master and entertaining overall. Somewhere along the way, it feels like no one at WWE headquarters is really paying attention to the quality of video games being put out bearing the company's name and featuring the likenesses of its employees. The end of this current generation of gaming couldn't come soon enough for the WWE and it is hoped that if the company decides to pursue the path of video games, it goes back to the drawing board for the Xbox Series X and PS5.
The bottom line is that much like large gatherings, you should probably also give WWE games a miss in 2020. Or maybe you could try and dig up WWF Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game on an emulator, a SNES or a PSOne somewhere.
Game reviewed on PS4 Pro. Review code provided by publisher