In my nine years of reviewing games professionally, I don't believe I've encountered a game whose current-gen version differs so starkly to its next-gen version than WWE 2K15. This isn't merely about better textures or an increased number of drawn objects in the background. Sure, the roster and the 2K Showcase mode pretty much remain the same between both versions, but the next-gen graphical overhaul surprisingly extends to the gameplay and lends an authenticity that makes the current-gen version, which I painfully scored two stars out of five, feel hopelessly dated.
In a nutshell, the next-gen WWE 2K15 retains most of the flaws from its current-gen brethren, but the sacrifice here at least was made on behalf of its new modern engine, redesigned with the assistance of NBA 2K15's Visual Concepts. Watch a professional wrestling match on TV or in person and most wrestlers are built so much like titans that they don't have the same swiftness their video game counterparts typically have. In light of that, not only have the character models and animations become far more lifelike, but every strike, grapple, and step has a heft, a sturdy weight that translates the density behind their movements.
Without exaggeration, this modernized engine lays the groundwork for all future WWE titles for this console generation. That said, the loss of several creation modes, the tighter roster and costume selection (unless you include the upcoming DLC season), and the lack of fully customizable match options mar the overall package. So whether this graphical overhaul is worth the price lies in the eye of the beholder. I believe it is.
The graphical overhaul comes with several unfortunate side effects, the most prominent of which is the time it takes to recover from being smacked onto the mat. This was already an issue in past WWE titles, and now that HP and stamina both contribute to how long your wrestler lies gobsmacked, the reliance on reversals to dodge and counter attacks has become the core focus of combat. Since there is no block or evade button, the only real defense you have against oncoming attacks is a reversal, which is already tough as the timing for countering grapples versus countering strikes can vary greatly. It's not rocket science, but there will be more than several times when you'll swear you hit the reversal button at the right time.
Ultimately, if you're not proficient at countering, you can expect your wrestler to be clotheslined to the mat, stomped several times for good measure, and be otherwise used as your opponent's training dummy. Of course, longtime fans of WWE titles are familiar with the combat focus on reversals, so this shouldn't be anything new for them, though it still flies in the face of the authenticity of a real-life match where reversals are rare enough to get a rise out of the crowd. The more lumbering movement also lends itself to a few graphical hitches with frame-rate issues in Create A Moveset, some awkward rope physics, and wonky detection and attack priorities in matches involving more than two wrestlers.
Several other notable gameplay differences include the segmented stamina meter, which regenerates stamina up to the max of each segment, and chain grappling, which occurs at the start of every match to simulate the tussling in real-life matches. It's essentially a competent mini-game that mixes roshambo with a find-the-hotspot idea using the right analog stick. Taken altogether, the redesign gives the franchise a more grounded quality.
Where all of these changes matter most is in MyCareer, the long-awaited return for a mode specifically catered for create-a-wrestlers (CAWs). As you might suspect, the mode enters your rookie into the WWE Performance Center to learn moves and skills, and be berated by Bill DeMott before reaching NXT. After gaining enough in-game social media followers after matches, your wrestler will advance to Superstars HD and finally RAW. The other point of MyCareer is to craft a wrestler whose stats are greater than one created straight out of the standard CAW creation, as you can spend in-game VP earned after matches to increase the cap for various attributes.
The trouble with the mode, however, is that it's not terribly interesting and can't escape feeling like a grind-fest. Spending VP to learn new moves from an existing superstar like Stone Cold Steve Austin or Kofi Kingston doesn't lead to any interaction with that superstar, and any face/heel choices you make are relegated to text-based options. While matches aren't necessarily rated on whether you win or lose, and instead are based on drama, move variety, and back-and-forth, you'll still want to win for the sake of keeping championship belts.
That means a lot of single-type matches that generally play out the same way every time: attack, use signature, use finisher, win by pinfall or submission, repeat as necessary. The PPVs usually change up the match types, but those are the exception. Some side objectives for extra VP and SP would have helped spice up the gameplay here. Still, the grind is worth the effort if your pursuit is to create your idea of the perfect wrestler.
Without a creation mode for finishers and stories, the creation suite is comparatively limited to past WWE titles, but the realistic character modeling mostly compensates for it. Regrettably, many in-depth options for facial tweaking have gone missing, and the loading times for selecting and deselecting item options in CAW creation take an excruciatingly 15-20 seconds. The possibilities for crafting a wacky wrestler with inhuman proportions have narrowed dramatically as well. The new create-a-entrance fails better with a more easily manageable design; uploading and downloading creations are manageable as well and rewards you with more slots as more users download your work.
Otherwise, this next-gen WWE 2K15 works as the current-gen version does. W Universe essentially operates the same, while 2K Showcase adequately features two infamous WWE rivalries, but it doesn't go further than that. The flavor commentary from Jerry Lawler and Michael Cole is far less repetitive, though I quickly muted the 12-song soundtrack apparently curated by John Cena after hearing it for three straight hours in the creation modes. On the upside, online matchmaking has been slightly bolstered by background matchmaking options, and we'll have to see whether the developers can prevent online players from using exploits through upcoming patches.
WWE 2K15 is a smaller but shiner box when compared to its predecessor and well ahead of its current-gen brother. In fact, I would be surprised if 2K and Yuke's continue the current-gen version of the franchise moving forward, but reaching as wide of an audience as possible may sustain it for a while. While it may lack more than several features that we might have taken for granted in the last handful of WWE titles, WWE 2K15's gameplay enhancements are a necessary boon and provides a well-invested platform for its future.