“Even Stronger” is the perfect tagline for WWE 2K23. Last year’s reinvention laid a solid foundation, and every aspect of it has been refined for the better this year. Combat is flexible without becoming burdensome, and the MyRise campaign mode focuses on telling more focused stories without compromising its open-ended gameplay. MyGM is more user friendly and lets you invite a larger number friends to get in on the action, too. Even the 2K Showcase, which has maybe the most glaring inconsistencies of all the modes, subverts expectations in creative ways. The pickings are slim for full sim-style pro-grappling alternatives, but WWE’s flagship game has never been more deserving of its spot at the head of the wrestling game table.
2K wrestling games have been largely hit or miss when it comes to how they look and sound, but 2K23 has to be the best “hit” this series has had in years. There are still several characters who’ve adopted newer looks and attitudes than the ones captured here, but with only a handful of exceptions everyone at least looks good. Cover boy John Cena and the son of a son of a plumber, Cody Rhodes, are standouts on the high end, which ironically makes some of the low-end models like poor Dana Brooke feel like that much more of a missed opportunity. New lighting effects and reflections give an overall boost that make stages shine and title belts sparkle. Menus are clean and colorful, a step up from last year’s bland layouts, all without sacrificing legibility. Visually, 2K23 is a grand slam.
Literally no one should be surprised that combat in the squared circle of 2K23 is much like it was in 2K22. This is an annual sports game, after all, and the wheel has not been reinvented, especially when last year’s big overhaul was widely considered a huge success. The simplified grappling layouts and a combo-based striking system add a bit of depth to each of the close to 200 wrestlers that are either available to play at launch or unlocked with in-game currency. There are a few noticeable changes, though: the pin minigame now has an optional stick-flick mechanic instead of simple button-mashing, which is one of my favorite improvements. 2K22 had a timing-based button press alternative, but flicking a stick up at the right time mimics the dramatic kick out in a very satisfying way, which stylishly solves the problem of fatiguing yourself in real life by bashing a button manically. It would have been nice if the philosophy of removing button-mashing were consistent, though. You still need to mash to recover back to your feet after getting dropped, and when fighting your way out of submissions.
Stamina – and specifically the lack there off – is a way bigger deal.
Stamina – and specifically the lack there off – is a way bigger deal as matches go on. Without it, it’s tough to run faster than a crawl, and you become way easier to counter and beat down. Spamming offense relentlessly risks tiring you out early, and the only way to regain your energy is to hang back and idle for a few seconds. Knowing when to slow your roll and when to hit the gas can give matches between evenly skilled opponents a fun rhythm.
The payback system, a set of special abilities individual characters have that can have massive consequences on matches, has been expanded as well. Each wrestler can have up to two abilities, giving them more flexible options in a pinch compared to last year. They’re still only one use per match, but now you have a secondary scenario in which you can turn the tables. Using your Resiliency to instantly win a pin or submission minigame doesn’t have to be the only trick up your sleeve anymore.
Some old payback options that were missing last year are back as general defensive options that you can spend a portion of your special bar to use. Being able to instantly recover from attacks or play possum for a quick hit or surprise roll-up pin helps keep you in the match even when you're on the wrong end of a mud-hole stomping. The risk-reward relationship of the special bar makes you think as well: these defenses can be used to great effect to stop taking damage during vital moments, but if you fill that bar completely, either by dealing or receiving damage, the Signature move you unleash could do more to turn the tide in your favor. This is the kind of resource management usually only seen in traditional fighting games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, but it fits like the perfect pair of boots in 2K23.
Being able to instantly recover from attacks or play possum helps keep you in the match.
This year’s 2K Showcase focuses on John Cena’s biggest losses, which is an interesting take on the marquee game mode. Cena’s spent so much of his 20-plus-year career winning that it’s refreshing to see him run down the monumental Ls he’s occasionally taken from greats like Kurt Angle, Brock Lesnar, and Triple H. I enjoyed the winding trip down memory lane, though there were a few notable bumps in the road. A few omissions are understandable, as some of the major names involved are currently contracted outside of the WWE and not willing or able to play ball, but it was strange not to see folks like JBL and The Miz. Cena himself also provides some moments of reflection on the ones that made it in, but they are oddly sterile and surface level considering he is known for being a deep thinker when it comes to pro wrestling. His monologues between matches offer no real insight beyond largely juvenile “I went in there and tried my best” mantras, which is a shame because it doesn’t do some of his best character work any justice.
The structure of the Showcase is similar to past ones, but there’s a great twist: since this is all about Cena losing, you get to play the gauntlet of matches as his opponents. This keeps the action fresh from match to match, but it will mean you’ll need to relearn character movesets every time, which could be a little jarring – especially when different versions of the same character (The Undertaker circa 2003 versus 2014, for instance) may have similar moves but mapped to different buttons. Thankfully, the objectives you're given do a good job of laying out exactly what's being asked of you, down to the exact button combinations needed to execute a particular maneuver.
Since this is all about Cena losing, you get to play the gauntlet of matches as his opponents.
At the same time, the interlacing of old WWE footage into gameplay doesn’t feel as clever as it used to, especially when the live-action video has awkward music playing over it with no commentary, fake crowd reactions, and censored referee and commentator faces. Also, the objectives are a bit inconsistent with how it attempts to get you to reenact some of the old classic matches. Sometimes you’ll need to hit a specific move, and when you do it will trigger an old clip to fill in what happens next. Other times you just have to stand someone up and attack, and the match will play out a whole sequence of moves like AJ Styles hitting his signature Pele kick and crushing Cena with his patented Styles Clash that would have probably have been more fun to do yourself than they are to watch. On more than one occasion a simple attempt to attack or grapple started a clip that led directly into the end of a match, with no further input required.
The tail end of the showcase throws a few fun curveballs that you won’t see coming, but the overall package remains an earnest but rough attempt to do the impossible. It would seem that you can’t truly recreate specific wrestling moments and capture the drama and magic in a playable way.
The other major single-player mode, MyRise, is split into two separate stories. Of the two, I preferred The Lock, which has you jump into the boots of a global sensation whose talents have finally elevated him to the WWE. Its tale about the conflict between attempting to be yourself versus trying to be what the machine of the WWE wants you to be clicked with me more. The Legacy, a story about debuting in the shadow of your Hall of Fame aunt, is also a solid tale about living up to expectations, and the various ways that old rivalries and bad decisions in and out of your control can make that challenging.
The conflict between attempting to be yourself vs what the WWE wants you to be clicked with me more.
Both modes give your progression to the top of the card some real focus. Where last year’s MyRise often felt like I was just running around doing quests simply because they were there, this year the main thread wrangles you into very clear-cut chapters. Instead of running between different locations to find the proper NPC or scrolling through the in-game social media feed to start beef with people, your main and side objectives are laid out clearly in the story progress menu, and all of the appropriate people to talk to in order to initiate these quests are all in one area. The story is also separated by acts, and the progress menu will show you all the distractions you could get into before moving on to the next one.
The open-endedness of last year’s MyRise still exists, though. Between matches during the main storyline you can interact with accessory characters and make choices that can determine how story arcs end, or what kind of side quests you end up on. Some of them are simply one-off matches that net you some points for customizing your character, while others can be whole multi-match feuds. I wish that the back and forth you have to do to start many of the side feuds were more than text blocks on a fake social media platform, but the parts that are voice acted feel more consistent across the board than last year. I'm not sure any of this will make you a MyRise fan if you weren’t already, but a strong story mode is a wrestling game staple, and I’m glad it finally feels worth the time again.
For folks looking for more of a sandbox approach to superstardom, Universe is back and, with the exception of some slight tweaks in the story building tools, it's practically identical to 2K22’s version. For Classic Mode fans, this means you can have a field day tweaking every single detail of your own version of the WWE, from the shows you produce, the stars and feuds between them, and even the belts they can win and defend. Its top-down approach is a little too big for my tastes, with too many knobs to twist and not enough reward outside of the satisfaction of simply doing the thing. I preferred Superstar Mode during the relative time I spent with Universe, so I could put my created grappler through an endless career of rivalries and title shots.
GM Mode is my preferred management sim mode, and this year’s version is even bigger and more robust than ever. Besides giving us more brands to control, managers to work with, and power cards to choose from, now up to four players can try to out-promote each other across multiple season games. New surprises like the Shake Up – big, game-altering passive abilities that you can select after big shows – helps keep your opponents on their toes. Bonuses like lowering the stamina cost it takes for wrestlers involved in certain kinds of matches may seem like a small buff, until you realize that it means you can pull more risky matches off more often, pulling in better match ratings and more fans with fewer injuries.
Finally, little quality-of-life changes help make it easier to see the benefits of certain actions over others. Something like popularity bonuses you’ll receive for booking a certain arena were in the previous game, but it's much clearer here. Specific match types can also accelerate the ferociousness of a rivalry better than others, and now that's clearly identified as well. But figuring out how to make popular, highly rated matches over long periods of time is still a steep learning curve.
WWE 2K23 features several franchise advancements, including a unique new take on the 2K Showcase, the WWE 2K introduction of the fan-favorite WarGames, and expansions to several marquee game modes. In addition, fans can also look forward to a deep roster of WWE Superstars and Legends including Roman Reigns, "American Nightmare" Cody Rhodes, Ronda Rousey, Brock Lesnar, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, and more. Incredibly realistic graphics, animations, camera angles and lighting, plus accessible controls and a new optional pinning mechanic will add to the highly immersive experience.