WWE 2K15 was, for all intents and purposes, a year of growing pains. The series needed to evolve graphically for its debut on new-gen consoles, but its massive overhaul of the engine meant that content suffered, with a lack of creation modes and a thin roster that could barely hold the game together. But in hindsight, WWE 2K15 was a necessary half-step in the right direction toward this year's WWE 2K16, which with the assistance of what might seem to be insignificant tweaks to the gameplay is undisputedly the best WWE title to come from 2K and Yuke's to date.
Beyond the fuller roster, the most important change in WWE 2K16 is the introduction of a limited reversal system. One of the core issues with the last handful of Yuke's WWE titles has been its infinite reversal system, which essentially boils every match down to players reversing each other until the person with the best awareness of hit detection wins. Against an AI opponent, it's simply based on the luck of the draw. Even in the most intense WWE matches "in real-life", reversals don't happen every second or even every minute, which knocks a chink in the armor of the game's simulation. But now, if you choose to stay with WWE 2K16's default options, matches are far more strategic than before.
Each wrestler has a number of reversals he or she can perform as represented by a segmented bar, similar to a special gauge in a fighting game, below the stamina meter. How quickly this reversal bar regenerates and how many segments it has will depend on the chosen wrestler's reversal stat, but it's typically anywhere between three and five. This means that you need to decide where to pick your battles throughout the match: Is it worth spending a reversal on a measly gut punch, or is it better to withstand the punishment and save the reversal for the opportunity to counter a hard-hitting signature or finisher move later down the road? If you return to prior habits and run out of reversals, then the opponent will know that you've let the door open for unmitigated damage. Coupled with the tier-based stamina system, WWE 2K16 is far closer to the flow of an actual match and reversals are now never taken for granted.
The introduction of working holds in addition to a new pinning system help transform the gameplay for the better. Chain grappling, as a short mini-game that appears occasionally at the start of a match, makes a comeback but it's always felt like a gimmick that's tossed to the side once the real match begins. Working holds change that by allowing you to essentially initiate the grappling mini-game over again with the purpose of recovering stamina while sapping stamina from your opponent. At the right moment, winning a working hold exchange can turn the tide of the match and force your opponent to drop to a lower stamina level. As a minor improvement, pinning is more automated this time around. Instead of holding the button down and releasing when it hits a dead zone, the bar automatically fills (once for each count by the referee).
However, the new submission mechanic, based primarily on the same system in UFC Undisputed 3, is far less successful. During a submission, the attacker represented by a red bar that runs around a circle must chase the defender represented by the blue bar. If both bars overlap, the attacker takes the advantage; if not, the defender does. Between two human players, this system is fairer since the playing field is evened out. But against an AI opponent, even on the easiest setting, this system is excruciatingly difficult. It doesn't help that the only tutorial for this system is buried in MyCareer and that there's no explanation for the sounder strategy of chasing the defender by going in the opposite direction. While the past submission system is based on button-mashing, it was much simpler and more contextually sound as a means of translating the struggle in a submission hold.
The combat system still has a few lingering issues too, particularly with targeting the right enemy in matches with multiple opponents. Hitting the wrong enemy happens often since targeting generally focuses on the nearest opponent. Winning a match almost always requires you to use a signature or finisher move before pinning, even if an opponent has critically red limb damage... though don't be surprised if an opponent kicks his way out of the pin anyway. A few in-match glitches rear their ugly heads with the referee freezing, or the star-rating for a match staying at a standstill, or opponents getting themselves disqualified for bringing in a foreign object or literally running around the ring until they're counted out. (I'm looking at you, Kevin Owens.) But thankfully, these mishaps are rare.
On the upside, the production value for WWE 2K16 is vastly improved over its predecessor. The character modeling looks even more impressive and realistic than before, and the flow between animations is much cleaner. Everything from the lighting of the arena and the reactive audience, to the material of Stone Cold's vest, are a sight to behold. The roster itself has been bolstered to a healthy size of over 120 playable characters, including the now infamous inclusion of Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator. It's disappointing that the Four Horsewomen—Sasha Banks, Charlotte, Becky Lynch, and Bayley—haven't made the cut and won't be available as DLC down the road, but the community has already filled in this gap by sharing their work in the Create-A-Diva mode (which was absent last year).
The main historical showcase this year features the ascent of Stone Cold Steve Austin, who graces WWE 2K16's cover. It's understandable if you feel like the showcase should have highlighted the current roster of WWE talent instead, especially since WWE '13 already poured through the Attitude Era by having players take the role of more than just one WWE Legend. That said, this mode is more than serviceable, and the game does expand upon Stone Cold's career after WrestleMania 15. While some of the in-match objectives repeat themselves, this homage to The Texas Rattlesnake is full of nostalgia and will please diehard fans.
MyCareer has been naturally extended from last year's incarnation, giving your created wrestler 15 years to not only win Wrestlemania, but also be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. After learning the ropes at the W Performance Center, featured in WWE's reality TV show Tough Enough, you must climb the popularity ladder toward various belts to become the #1 Contender and ultimately win a match with the current title holder to move on. Along the way, you'll follow simple rivalry-based feuds, gain potential tag-team partners, contend with The Authority, and form your wrestler's overall personality by answering simple interview questions.
With over 30 individual stats and the rather low amount of SP and VP earned after each match, you can bet that MyCareer will be a massive grind. The onslaught of single matches is a slog, and rivalries tend to lead to your worst enemy wasting a week hitting you from behind or interrupting your match with distractions. By running into a match, you can become a guest manager in support of whomever you like, and the options for being a manager are much closer to reality. However, if you're on the receiving end of a guest manager, it can be aggravating since one simple distraction will leave your wrestler wide open to your opponent's attack like some kind of confusion spell. I must also remark that the modeling for interviewer Renee Young is terrible, and the interview segments with her can be as unintentionally hilarious as Lady One Question.
In general, the creation modes have been greatly expanded in the number of available parts, as well as the welcome addition of being able to create an arena, a show for W Universe, and a new championship with a shiny belt. You can modify the material of a piece of clothing too, but the system needs to load for every change in selection so it takes 30 unnecessary seconds to select the metallic option in the menu. It's strange since the new preview function for clothing is a fantastic UI addition and could have easily been adopted for the materials menu.
The new face-morphing feature allows you to mold eyes, mouths, and noses to your liking and the face-photo feature, which will soon have an mobile companion app, translates a photo into a facial facsimile for further editing. The only trouble with this is that they have removed the traditional parts for facial selection, so you won't be able to pick different types of eyes, lips, ears, and mouths. It's difficult to create symmetry with the face-morphing editor as well. It would have been better to have the option to use either the traditional system or the new system.
As for W Universe, match generation has more flexibility and customization, with additional cutscenes and numerous branching possibilities. Depending on each show's results, wrestlers will earn positive or negative status effects, impacting future bouts, and tracking rivalries is easier this time around. 2K has also acknowledged a bug where players can't seem to manually set title matches correctly, so expect a patch for this soon.
Online modes, on the other hand, are hit and miss. Being sent into a training arena while you wait for other players serves as a good warmup before the real deal. Many have reported servers being down, though, and even when you're able to get into a match, it can be marred by severe input lag. The lack of a lobby system doesn't help matters, either. But when matches do have a competent connection, the experience works fine enough, though you might still find players who run around the ring all day. You're better off hopping on with friends and playing online ranked tag matches.
With the new limited reversal system and a much higher overall production value, WWE 2K16 is the competent fighter we always knew it could be. The fuller roster and a wealth of creation modes mark this year's installment as a notable comeback for the series. Only the submission system, the occasional glitch, and some issues with the UI for creation modes hold WWE 2K16 back. Otherwise, WWE 2K16 crushes its predecessor with the impact of a Stone Cold Stunner.