"I draw strength from the spirits of the dead." ~The Undertaker
Let's address the elephant in the room, the giant one wearing the wrestling trunks of another brand. A peculiar but definite part of the curiosity about WWE 2K14 is the switch from the now unfortunately defunct THQ to 2K, which thankfully has a pedigree for sports titles. Any change of publisher for a longstanding annualized franchise can be worrisome for fans, so there's no doubt that there will be eyes like hawks on this installment, though it should be said that 2K shouldn't be held too accountable. Yuke's was in the midst of developing "WWE '14," as it were, when 2K stepped in to save the project. Luckily for the publisher, Yuke's didn't need a management shake-up to finish its already solid production.
The headline event for this year's brawler in the squared circle is 30 Years of Wrestlemania, which can be thought of as a cross-hybrid between the Attitude Era tribute in WWE '13 and the retro star-studded roster from WWE All-Stars. Put another way, it's the natural progression from a mode that highlighted the history of one beloved era in professional wrestling into one that highlights every era, by capitalizing on the single yearly event that ties them together. Moving from the Golden Era with Hulkamania and the Ultimate Warrior, to the New Generation Era with Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, to the Attitude Era with Stone Cold Steve Austin and Mankind, and through to the Modern Era with John Cena and Daniel Bryan, 30 Years of Wrestlemania features the most memorable matches in its days of yore and does so without sparing any expense.
If you're at all a fan of WWE, you'll appreciate the authenticity of each match—including a video archive, photo album with exclusive shots, and the grainy filters that will make you think you're playing on a CRTV—as the mode challenges you to reenact every fight by completing historical objectives. While there is no penalty for ignoring historical objectives and immediately winning by pinfall or submission, hitting all of the key points in a match isn't overly difficult and it unlocks retro characters and costumes for use in regular play. Filling in the blanks in the already fantastic roster with up to 72 wrestlers in total, without mentioning all of the DLC packs slated for the next few months, is worth nailing all of those optional goals. If you don't care to complete any of this, you can purchase dirt-cheap The Accelerator to unlock everything and alter the attributes of roster wrestlers.
Also embedded within this mode is The Streak in recognition of The Undertaker's godlike (or is that hellish?) 22-0 run at Wrestlemania, from Jimmy Snuka in WrestleMania 7 to CM Punk in the latest WrestleMania 29. Defeating the streak is, at it should be, extremely challenging with The Undertaker set to a difficulty seemingly beyond Legendary, with him being able to reverse almost everything you throw at him and having an almost demonic aggression. Skilled veterans who have clamored for an optional boss fight over the years will welcome this challenge and fight for the top score on the weekly leaderboards. The other option of defending the streak isn't as well-thought-out, though, as it tasks you to defeat as many wrestlers as you can with The Undertaker in a Gauntlet-style match. It would have been more authentic to have you recreate his badass matches and moments throughout Wrestlemania history instead.
Most everything else will be familiar, from W Universe, the create modes, and the combat. The only few differences are the catch finishers which can now be setup through an Irish whip and the changes in the reversal system have now broken up the continuous countering. However, most successful reversals give the power to the defender by not allowing the attacker to counter back, so anyone who has the timing down has the upper hand. Strike combos have been made faster so they're more difficult to counter, but by and large the combat system boils down to one mechanic with a single button.
The bevy of creation modes have been carried over with only a few tweaks, namely the expansion to 100 slots and being able to use superstars as a fixed facial base for created characters. The textures for hair, though, are still awful and the additions to CAW parts are minimal at best. With the next-gen consoles arriving soon, the next WWE installment should consider doing a complete overhaul of the graphics, or at the very least have some kind of import option so that all of the hard work doesn't go to waste the very next year. The lack of a more story-driven mode for created superstars is also disheartening, since shuffling them into the procedurally-based W Universe still feels dissatisfying for how many hours, if not days, it takes to create a full, original character.
WWE 2K14 is a safe start for 2K Sports as a publisher for the series, but it lays a fairly strong foundation for future entries and leaves room for growth as the franchise moves into the next-generation. 30 Years of Wrestlemania leverages the best that the WWE can offer, providing both an extraordinary tribute and a phenomenally packed roster. Though the narrow focus on reversals should be reexamined, WWE 2K14 delivers a strong enough punch to fight another day.