Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Switch, PC

A wrestler’s career is often defined by an onscreen persona. These characters, or gimmicks, can be based on the wrestler’s real-life personality (think CM Punk and Stone Cold), or they can be over-the-top caricatures. Most characters eventually grow stale, forcing them to undergo a much-needed transformation. The generic Husky Harris turned into cult leader Bray Wyatt. Former air guitar player Drew McIntyre claimed the moniker of the Scottish Psycopath. Seth Rollins embraced his inner messiah complex and turned against wrestling fans. Sometimes a fresh gimmick change can work wonders — and that’s exactly the case with WWE 2K Battlegrounds.

It’s a shame it took the disastrous WWE 2K20 for such a massive shift to occur — and sure, this may not be part of the series proper — but WWE 2K Battlegrounds is something of a shot of adrenaline for wrestling games.

Cartoon Violence

It’s impossible to get around the look of WWE 2K Battlegrounds. The game is in line with NBA 2K Playgrounds, with character models that consist of huge heads on small bodies. It’s weird, for sure, and it gives the game this kiddie look. Thankfully, it kind of works, jarring as it may be. A lot of times you’d use the word “charming” to describe something with a more adolescent art style. This… okay, this is not one of those times — yeah, the graphics kinda/sorta work, but they won’t appeal to everyone.

If you’re able to look past the character designs, you’ll be surprised by how much fun WWE 2K Battlegrounds is. Unlike the standard WWE 2K games, which have seen the series go in a more simulation-styled direction, the action here is fast-paced, cartoony, and over-the-top. The Undertaker’s chokeslam, for example, sees Taker grab his opponent by the throat before jumping high into the sky and then crashing down into the ring. Even a simple powerslam or hurricanrana results in wrestlers launching each other high above the ring and flipping like crazy.

The insane theatrics work well within the realm of Battlegrounds. It’s fun seeing the wrestlers fling each other across the ring. You’ll brawl in subway stations and swamps in addition to traditional arenas. This makes for some fun, interactive backgrounds. You can hurl your opponents into the jaws of a gator that just happens to be chilling in the audience. Or you can grab onto a helicopter above the ring and drop down to unleash some crazy area-of-effect damage that takes out anyone in its radius.

There’s this retro degree of cartoon violence in WWE 2K Battlegrounds. The camera cuts and outlandish look of the moves work well to create an almost-cinematic wrestling game experience. It all looks really tongue-in-cheek. I mean, you can even drop a car on your opponents if you toss them outside of the ring in the garage arena. There’s nothing serious about this game — it knows what it is and it thrives on its offbeat nature.

Its lighthearted style notwithstanding, there’s still a bit of a learning curve when you first start playing Battlegrounds. Wrestlers are split into multiple classes including all-around, high-flyer, brawler, and others. Depending on the class, pulling off some moves will require different controller commands. Thankfully, the differences are minimal, so commands are mostly the same across the board with a few differences here and there.

At the start of a match, you can only do basic moves. As you build your heat meter by dealing out punches, kicks, and basic grapples, you’ll be able to perform stronger moves. Your heat meter also determines how well you can counter, which is done by pressing the correct button at just the right moment when an onscreen prompt appears as your opponent tries to attack. Once you’ve built your heat meter enough, you can pull off a signature or finishing move. Depending on the wrestler, these moves will be front grapples, running attacks, or flying turnbuckle moves.

Unfortunately, some moves are missing from established wrestlers’ repertoires. Rey Mysterio, for example, can’t pull off the 619, an iconic staple of his moveset. Likewise, AJ Styles can’t perform his patented Phenomenal Forearm. The fact that these moves are missing is a shame considering how cool they would’ve looked with the over-the-top style of WWE 2K Battlegrounds.

Speaking further on the moves, it seems there’s a bit too much crossover between the moves each individual wrestler performs. Sure, it’s cool seeing Edge toss another wrestler into the sky and perform a jumping uppercut or spinning powerslam, but when you see three or four other characters do the same moves, they quickly become kind of generic. Also, Edge never really did a powerslam, so it seems a lot of characters were just given really basic moves.

Adding a novel twist to the combat are special abilities you can equip. These include healing and increased damage for a limited time, among others. You need to build up a meter before using these abilities, so you can’t spam them. Overall, the abilities add a light nuance to the gameplay, and though they’re not game-changing, they’re fun to use.

Match Types and Modes

Wrestling games thrive on their matches and modes, and WWE 2K Battlegrounds is stacked pretty well. The game includes the basics we’ve come to expect like one-on-one, tag, four-way, cage, and Royal Rumble match types. You can play multiplayer matches locally and online, and while playing, I didn’t encounter any connection issues. Unfortunately, iconic gimmick match types like Elimination Chamber, Ladder, and Hell in a Cell are missing.

There are two special online modes. Tournament has you facing a string of online players as you climb a tournament ladder. It’s pretty basic, but it’s fun for what it is, and it’s a good way to jump into some quick matches online. Then there’s King of the Battleground. Here you’ll join an in-progress Royal Rumble match where the goal is to throw as many opponents over the top rope as possible. This is an entertaining endless mode where the challenge lies in how long you can last and how many players you can eliminate.

Campaign is a story-driven mode that follows six pre-made rookies as they attempt to make it in WWE. The stories surrounding each character are actually pretty decent, and they’re presented in comic book stills featuring Stone Cold Steve Austin and Paul Heyman. The writing is good enough, and there’s a bit of humor thrown in for good measure. Seeing Stone Cold wearing a funny hat and ordering a “croco cola and swamp salad” while at a carnival is pretty funny. On top of that, this mode allows you to unlock wrestlers, abilities, and arenas.

Battleground Challenge is another single-player component, and it’s pretty similar to the story mode, except there’s no story. Here you’ll use your created wrestler and take on opponent after opponent, increasing your character’s stats and unlocking new abilities. The concept is cool, but with no story and just a ladder of opponents to battle, it can become stale pretty quickly. It almost feels like the foundations for the much more entertaining Campaign mode.

Aside from the modes, the game also includes daily challenges. These are fairly standard, requiring you to do things like win a four-way match on normal difficulty or perform specific attacks. They don’t serve much of a purpose aside from giving you in-game currency that you can use to unlock more wrestlers and abilities.

Speaking of which, you’ll probably spend a great deal of time grinding to unlock everything. It’s not too bad, and I actually enjoyed having to put in some time to unlock favorites like Daniel Bryan, Kofi Kingston, and AJ Styles. This old school method of unlocking content certainly isn’t for everyone, though, so if you don’t enjoy it, you’ll likely find it tedious.

Create-a-Wrestler

As we’ve come to expect from wrestling games, WWE 2K Battlegrounds includes a create-a-wrestler mode. It’s not as deep as something you’d find in the regular WWE 2K games, or in Fire Pro Wrestling, but it’s okay. Sadly, it does feel stripped down as there aren’t a lot of cosmetic options for created wrestlers’ hair and attire. It’s a shame because if you’re hoping to create a roster of all your favorite wrestlers that aren’t in WWE, you’ll definitely come across some glaring limitations.

You can also create your very own rings, which is a fun distraction. It’s nowhere near as fun as creating wrestlers, but it’s a good little time sink if you want to try and create your own personalized arenas.

The biggest omission from the creation suite in Battlegrounds is the ability to download other players’ creations. If you were looking to fill up your roster with user-created versions of Jon Moxley, Adam Cole, and NXT Women’s Champ Io Shirai, you’re sadly out of luck.

Not Quite a Stunner, but Still a Decent Powerslam

There’s genuinely a lot to like about WWE 2K Battlegrounds. The game has a similar vibe to WWE All Stars thanks to its fast-paced, cartoon-like action. It’s not as deep as All Stars, but even then the gameplay is still highly entertaining.

On the plus side, it’s also not a glitch-fest like last year’s WWE 2K20. That said, the game does stutter a bit from time to time, but these instances are never game-breaking. You’ll definitely notice a bit of slowdown during four-way and Royal Rumble matches, though, which feels like a problem lifted straight out of 2000’s WWF No Mercy on the Nintendo 64.

WWE 2K Battlegrounds is flashy and hard-hitting. It’s a lot of fun, and there are plenty of offline and online modes to enjoy. Though stripped down, the creation modes are still okay, too. The wrestlers’ movesets are limited and borderline generic, which is weak, but pulling off the moves and seeing the WWE Superstars hit stupid heights just to slam each other into the mat is certainly amusing. The presentation is kind of hit-or-miss — it’s not awful, but it’s definitely not great.

Ultimately, WWE 2K Battlegrounds is a sidestep in the right direction. Do we need another game like this next year? Probably not. But with the proper adjustments, this good little game could lead to a great installment in a couple of years. What’s more, if 2K takes the good aspects of this game — namely the smooth animations and faster-paced action — and incorporates them into the standard WWE 2K series, we could see an improvement there.

Don’t let the lighthearted, almost-sickly sweet look fool you. WWE 2K Battlegrounds is a solid offering and probably the best WWE game in years.