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

When it comes to wrestling games, there’s a lot more to consider than your average sports simulator. Controls, graphics, sound and overall realism are important ingredients to get the closest you can to perfection. However, with a good wrestling title, extra attention needs to be paid to the latter. Granted, the term “realism” in a pro wrestling sense sounds like an oxymoron but when it comes to the genre of sports entertainment, realism is judged by the authenticity of the culture. It’s one of those things that if you’re foreign to the world of pro wrestling, it may not make sense.

The magic happens when you’re somewhat in the know of how things play out backstage as well as on camera. It’s how well the game can balance the kayfabe (scripted programming) and the breaking of such (real-life events).

After playing WWE 2K19, it’s evident that an enormous amount of thought was put into making it as true to life in and out of the squared circle as possible. Whereas traditional sports don’t have that obstacle, in wrestling, anything goes. Things that happen in a wrestler’s personal life can easily become a storyline played out in front of millions of people. Above anything else, this is where WWE 2K19 shines the brightest.

The Learning Curve

In all honesty, I never cared for the 2K takeover from THQ’s Smackdown and Raw vs. Smackdown franchises. It always felt like the company was trying to (understandably) craft a wrestling game that could stand next to their other sports releases. Emphasis was on game mechanics like wrestler fatigue, timed move executions and similar details. What wound up happening was that WWE 2K felt great for players into the technical aspects of wrestling but it would miss the mark when it came to the fans who just wanted to be entertained. As someone leaning towards entertainment more than the sports part, I was put off by having such an involved player control experience. To each their own but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

That is to say that the controls while not too hard to grasp in time, will frustrate you. Even on the game’s easiest setting, it’s a chest-heaving struggle to clear the first chapter. The default button arrangement felt awkward and out of place with the bottom button for striking, right button for pins, top for using your signature move and the left for whatever it feels like doing. Just know that unless you’ve had experience in the previous WWE 2K titles, you may be spending some time reconfiguring the controls to feel more natural.

I can’t be too hard on 2K because when you finally do wrap your head around how things work, executing a move feels incredible. The animations nail the dramatic choreography you’d see in a real match. The character movements are fluid and the transitions of one move to another look near seamless. Impact sounds like falling to the mat or landing a leg drop vary in intensity so a move like a regular body slam sounds different from a thunderous suplex.

Not So Colorful Commentary

One of the things that has plagued WWE video games forever is the lackluster commentary during matches. Even with announce table legends like Jerry “The King” Lawler, Jim Ross, and Michael Cole, implementing a cohesive string of commentary is a challenge that has yet to be overcome. In WWE 2K19 there’s not much straying away from the disappointing path. As important an element announce table skills are, we see a slight polishing but lines are still out of place, repetitive, and lifeless. To not emphatically acknowledge a killer move after a reversal is a straight up waste of audio. I don’t expect every reaction to be a Joey Styles signature “oh my god,” but I would’ve liked some extra umph from Cole, Corey Graves, and Byron Saxton when a Superstar drops a massive elbow from the top turnbuckle. Although 2K boasts over 15,000 new lines, it doesn’t seem like it; at least in regular pro match-ups.

The crowd is a little better but again at most times feels out of place. Chants are random as hell and they pop for small things like a sidewalk slam or a DDT but remain somewhat silent when a babyface (good guy) does something big. In one match, I had Roman Reigns nail Braun Strowman with a superman punch to near crickets. It’s highly unlikely that would happen during an actual match. The fact that the moves, while so wonderfully executed in animation, would be met with a reaction that doesn’t fit drastically overlooks one of the things that make watching wrestling awesome. The crowd needs to stand and cheer and the announce table which is missing visually by the way, should be going nuts.

Starting From The Bottom

On the brighter side, WWE 2K19’s MyCareer mode is a great deal of fun to play even if you haven’t mastered the controls. In some instances, the storyline is better than most of the televised programming. You begin with a created superstar with a small-time independent promotion called the BCW that bears a striking resemblance to the pre-WWE owned ECW. It’s headed by an owner who carries similar traits as Paul Heyman. A nice nod indeed. As one of the top guys on BCW’s roster, you get the chance to be scouted by WWE’s talent agent for a run in the NXT.

Right from the start, there’s multiple twists that keeps the progression from being too linear or predictable but in the interest of not spoiling the plot, I won’t go into it any further from that. What I will say is that the game does a spectacular job of giving you the feel of what it’s like being on the small circuit, wrestling in high school gyms with only a few hundred people in attendance. Your Superstar interacts with other wrestlers in dialogue responses that determine the direction of the story. Like many other setups, you can give a humble or cocky answer that will eventually set you up for rivalries and alliances.

Surprisingly, WWE 2K19 tackles the backstage politics of sports entertainment with political jockeying for career growth opportunities and dealing with locker room egos. You even get torn a new one by Triple H for an incident with a fan that goes viral on the web. It’s these small touches of nuance that broadens the WWE universe during play. Not only do you have to deal with work related scenarios but dealing with the general public is a factor WWE worked in. Something that a lot of rookies who hit big time often have trouble dealing with in real life.

Choosing Favorites

There is a fair amount of Superstars to choose from to play in the game’s pro-level matches that range from the most popular like The Rock and John Cena to more obscure faves like Shelton Benjamin and King Booker (one of my first purchases). Some are unlocked through gameplay and others like Stone Cold Steve Austin are obtained through in-game currency at the 2K store.

You can also purchase arenas, moves, entrances and classic championship belts like the infamous yet sorely forgotten Hardcore Championship belt. Unfortunately, I haven’t had enough playtime to see if Hardcore matches are in the game but there’s hopes it will be unlocked or come as DLC with the 24/7 defense rule intact. I’d love to relive Crash Holly’s unrelenting paranoia of losing the Hardcore title to someone like the Brooklyn Brawler while walking to the locker room.

The Boys Club

Earlier this year, WWE television announced the inclusion of a women’s Battle Royal which WWE 2K19 put into the game. The women’s division has had its trouble in the past but thankfully Superstars like Chyna, Lita, Trish Stratus and more have shown that women are more than capable of doing more than Bra and Panty matches. Trinity is in as expected as well as Nia Jax and Beth Phoenix. Hopefully Victoria will join the gang by way of DLC later on.

Players are able to create a female Superstar on par with the men so fans of the women’s division can carry on the tradition of bringing prestige to the belt that was once just a novelty. The downside is that you can’t create a woman in MyPlayer and play in MyCareer which kinda sucks. Women can compete in exhibition, TV shows, and Money in the Bank matches that can give you a shot at the belt without grinding all the way through.

Other new features this year include the WWE Towers mode where you compete in a gauntlet match using a Superstar on the roster or created MyPlayer Superstar to fight through waves of opponents. Each opponent brings along with them different win conditions and if you lose or quit, it’s back to the starting position. The flipside is “Step Tower” where you can relax a bit because your progress is saved.

This year’s WWE 2K release does a lot of things right but still has a way to go in order to lock down the genre with fans. Since it’s the only option at the moment, I’m sure fixing things like commentary and crowd reactions aren’t the most urgent priorities. Casual fans will love the game once the controls are tweaked to taste and hardcore fans can enjoy the slices of wrestling life WWE 2K19 has to offer. It’s when the title can move from a wrestling sim to a sports entertainment game is the time this franchise will truly dominate its class.