I reviewed WWE 2K20 last year and, needless to say, I was severely disappointed. It was, for lack of a better term, a botch of epic proportions. Bugs and glitches riddled the title, and numerous criticisms and complaints were levied against Visual Concepts and 2K. So, when WWE 2K21 got canceled and WWE 2K Battlegrounds was announced, I was a little hopeful even if there was some trepidation.
Mind you, Saber Interactive (who also developed the NBA Playgrounds games) actually did quite an admirable job, at least at first glance. The switch from the sim-style mechanics — those that characterized WWE video games for the better part of a decade — to an arcadey affair is a welcome change of pace. Lest we forget, many of us grew up on the same arcadey-style offerings from the NES, SNES, and PlayStation/N64 eras. Examples include WWF WrestleMania, WWF In Your House, WWF Raw, WCW vs. nWo: World Tour, and Yuke’s SmackDown! series. WWE 2K Battlegrounds rekindles that torch. Unfortunately, there were several missteps and questionable decisions as I’ll outline in this review.
Cartoony combatants and arcadey moves
First, let’s talk about what WWE 2K Battlegrounds does right. Graphically, the athletes here are rendered in the most cartoonish ways imaginable. Think of it as something akin to WWE All-Stars with a slight touch of “Big Head” mode, like caricatures of the fighters themselves. Still, it manages to work thanks to the action and special effects involved.
Freed from the restrictions of realism, superstars now use power-ups and crazy combos. Fists are covered in flames, lightning is cast from your fingertips, steel cages electrocute, people fly and flip through the air, and motorcycles are swung around with impunity. There are even interactive sections in various arenas that result in zany instances. You could have a goat charge an opponent, or you could throw your foe outside the ring to get crushed by a car or eaten by an alligator. I’m not kidding.
Suspension of disbelief is refreshing because we’re talking about pro-wrestling. This is a carny, corny, cartoony, and crazy business — one that’s marked with memorable characters, gimmicks, and personas that are larger than life. WWE 2K Battlegrounds encapsulates those qualities owing to its goofy, bombastic, and over-the-top presentation. You’ll find a lot of entertainment, and maybe a few laughs, as you play. So, where does it all go wrong? Well, it has a lot to do with its limitations.
Brawl with limits
WWE 2K Battlegrounds‘ tagline is “Brawl without limits.” Sadly, its limits are readily seen the moment you start playing. There are only five “classes” — High Flyer, Technician, All-Rounder, Brawler, and Powerhouse — and, barring signatures and finishers, superstar movesets are restricted based on their class.
For instance, Dolph Ziggler and Shinsuke Nakamura are both classified as Technicians, so they’d have the same combos and basic grapple moves. Meanwhile, behemoths like The Undertaker, Big Show, Bobby Lashley, Braun Strowman, and Yokozuna are considered Powerhouses. They’ll perform the same suplexes and clotheslines, and the main difference comes only once you’ve filled up your “heat bar” (which lets you perform a signature or finisher).
This is one of the more egregious issues in WWE 2K Battlegrounds. While it’s good to suspend your disbelief when wrestlers are blasting their rivals with super attacks like they’re from Dragon Ball Z, when that concept is extended to the idea that wrestlers are “similar to their counterparts,” then it’s not a good sign. I’m reminded of Mortal Kombat: Armageddon — it boasted a gigantic roster where everyone had “samey” attacks and animations, coincidentally hampering replayability and engagement.
Controls and in-ring action
With limited movesets, it’s no surprise that the matches themselves will become standardized, trifling affairs that lack depth. You’re using the same old combos and the same old tricks regardless of the character you’ve selected. Heck, there were even a couple of moments when my wife called my attention and I started blindly pressing “X” during a match. When I looked back, the AI (set to hard difficulty) was still getting beat up. The AI does attempt to backpedal away from you for some reason, while the mindless and shallow button-mashing becomes boring after a while.
Speaking of mashing buttons, WWE 2K Battlegrounds‘ control scheme is somewhat tough to get used to. I was using my Logitech F310 gamepad and something just felt off. For instance, recovering from a downed stance requires you to mash the “A” button. But, attempting to reverse a move requires any of the four buttons (X, Y, A, B) depending on which one appears. It was a bit weird to go from past games where only one button was used for reversals, and then switching to this system.
Additionally, there were a few minor concerns such as the Irish Whip seemingly not detecting directional input, and how running back inside the ring no longer works. Instead, you’d have to press LB to get on the apron and gingerly make your way through the ropes.
WWE 2K Battlegrounds‘ roster
Moving to another limitation, well, we’ve got WWE 2K Battlegrounds‘ roster. To be fair, 2K has announced that there will be roughly 130+ characters in total (seen in the image below). However, nearly half of them are post-launch content. You’ll also notice a lack of NXT folks on that list (i.e., The Undisputed Era, Keith Lee, Shayna Baszler, Johnny Gargano, and more). The only good news here is that future inclusions will come as free updates/unlockables and not as paid DLC.
As for the 70 superstars available in the base game, a vast majority will need to be unlocked. Off the top of my head, you start out with only 17 male wrestlers and 7 female wrestlers — I’m not counting Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Ronda Rousey, and Edge who are either part of the Deluxe Edition or, in Edge’s case, is the pre-order bonus. Surprisingly enough, popular superstars like Becky Lynch, Bayley, Sasha Banks, Seth Rollins, John Cena, Triple H, and many others are initially locked.
If you thought of duking it out versus lots of folks from the get-go, then you’d be wrong — you’re going to have to do a bit of grinding. That grind will come from a variety of content or features such as WWE 2K Battlegrounds‘ campaign mode. You could also spend Battle Bucks (in-game currency from regular play) or Golden Bucks (premium currency purchased using cash).
Grinding for the not-so-young bucks
To be clear, you’re not required to purchase Golden Bucks with real money at all. Battle Bucks, the in-game currency, would be fine, yet it can take a while. For instance, unique superstars and alternate attires cost from anywhere between 3,000 and 12,000 Battle Bucks. Sure, there are some “daily deals” that let you obtain pairs or trios of superstars or attires, and with a small discount to boot. However, superstars are just the tip of the iceberg — you have to consider custom character (CAW) slots, outfits, animations (signatures and finishers), arena themes, and more.
Anyway, the in-game grind will consist of playing matches and completing challenges. You could also partake in multiplayer tournaments and the “King of the Battleground” online mode (which I wasn’t able to try during the course of this review).
In the case of matches, you’re given tasks such as performing a number of special throws, combos, arena moves, submissions, and the like. The more tasks you complete, the higher your rating (XP and bucks) once the match is over. At best, your goal is to level-up quickly to gain Battle Bucks (1,500 per level-up), and that’s that. The entire process and core gameplay loop become dull and repetitive after a few hours.
A comic book campaign
Apart from the usual game modes you’ve seen in WWE games — i.e., one-on-one, tag team/tornado tag, triple threat, fatal four-way, Royal Rumble, and the aforementioned multiplayer modes — WWE 2K Battlegrounds has its campaign. It follows the journey of seven original characters, and the story unfolds sort of like a comic book complete with panels.
It’s actually a treat to see these ideas for the campaign’s narrative thanks to the light-hearted humor. Examples include seeing the fiery redhead Jessica Johnson intimidating Stone Cold, and the swamp-dwelling Billy Huggins fighting his mentor Jake the Snake Roberts. There’s even one bit where Paul Heyman mentions getting speared by Edge during a pay-per-view, and Stone Cold just chimes in with “Rebellion in 2002,” and a memorable panel where Brock Lesnar emerges from the swamp.
My gripe here is that many of the matches seem to be thrown together at random as though someone just let the old Universe Mode run amok with its booking. I’ve seen Lince Dorado (not Rey Mysterio) as the “final boss” of the Mexico/luchador chapter, and The Rock joining a fatal four-way versus Luke Gallows, R-Truth, and an original character. Furthermore, there were multiple matches against the same wrestlers while others barely got a chance to shine.
Scant customization options
Of course, no WWE game is complete without customization features, and WWE 2K Battlegrounds does let you create several custom characters (CAWs). In a general sense, customization here is severely lacking too. There might be several shirts, trunks, pants, pads, or accessories, but you can’t change their colors. You don’t even have the means to add lettering, icons, and other designs to existing options.
Moreover, there’s no Community Creations system, so you’ll just have to make do from scratch instead of being able to download what other players have come up with. The game does have a custom battleground/custom arena feature with selections that remain scant.
Before I forget, your CAW doesn’t play a role in the actual campaign. Instead, you’ll level them up via the “Battleground Challenge” mode. Your creation starts at 60 OVR, and you’d need to take a look at the mode’s 166 nodes for matches, stat boosts, and other power-ups.
Technical troubles and audio
From a technical standpoint, I haven’t encountered any major glitches save for characters disappearing for a split-second when they reverse suplexes or other grapples. Still, I did have trouble with the resolution. My display’s native resolution is 3840x2160p (4K UHD). It appears the resolution kept resetting to 720p whenever I restarted the game and, even without restarting, all my screenshots were at 720p. Eventually, I had to tweak the executable file after reading a Steam post about it.
Additionally, the motion blur effect can be a little annoying especially when you’re trying to take screenshots of the action. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to disable this completely either. I should also mention that you have to remain online while playing (even single-player modes) so that your progress gets saved.
Lastly, speaking of being repetitive and limited, I guess it’s only fair to mention the repetitive and limited voice lines from this year’s commentators, Jerry “The King” Lawler and Mauro “Mama Mia!” Ranallo. The saving grace here is that Ranallo’s enthusiasm comes across in a less hokey way than The King’s. Oh, and there’s only one track that plays on a loop while you’re browsing the game’s menus.
Battlegrounds needs better grounds for purchase
In any case, WWE 2K Battlegrounds does give you some semblance of entertainment. For instance, the light-hearted campaign can be a hilarious treat. Likewise, the in-ring bouts are over-the-top, and the animations and attacks are ridiculous and a joy to watch. Moreover, its simple and arcadey nature tends to be refreshing after a decade of sim-style wrestling games. These are just foundations to remember should this kickstart yet another long-running pro-wrestling franchise for 2K.
Sadly, the lack of customization options and unique moves is downright mind-boggling. Worse, the core gameplay loop revolves around unlocking even some of the most popular superstars who were readily available in older titles. I would call it “artificial padding” — it’s designed to keep you playing over and over, increasing your investment until you’ve discovered everything. That’s probably the trade-off since there isn’t much in the way of single-player content akin to Universe Mode, GM Mode, or even championships. As such, it’s just one match after another, using restrictive and bland class-based movesets, and shallow gameplay that will become a chore the longer you experience it.
If you decide to grab WWE 2K Battlegrounds via Steam, then it might be worthwhile to give it a go with friends (local MP) or online competitors. However, it’s not as engaging as it should be from a purely single-player standpoint. You’ll notice a lot of “yowies,” but it’ll provide you with very few “wowies.”