WWE 2K Battlegrounds
Last year’s WWE 2K20 was the kind of game that the series both needed in terms of freshening up some of the concepts, but also wound up doing more harm than good due to a ton of glitches. The lack of polish led to all manner of rumors, including that the series would be put on hiatus – which wound up leading us to where we are now with WWE 2K Battlegrounds. It’s somewhat ironic that an arcade-style NBA game doing well in NBA Playgrounds would indirectly lead to WWE’s game franchise being freshened up in the process, but that’s what happened. Saber did such a great job with Playgrounds that even as a non-basketball fan, I’ve greatly enjoyed both the original and the sequel more than any basketball game since NBA Jam’s heyday in the arcades. 2K taking publishing duties over for it led them down the rabbit hole of an arcade-style game for WWE to help fill the void left by the lack of a mainline WWE game, and that should help with franchise fatigue.
WWE 2K Battlegrounds is very much an arcade-style experience in the same kind of way WrestleFest was almost 30 years ago – only in a more over the top way. It takes the company’s roster and puts a more exaggerated spin on their look and moves while still keeping things pretty accurate to the real-life people in many ways. Apollo Crews has exaggerated proportions, but still looks enough like himself for the style to work. The same holds true for guys like Cesaro and Shinsuke Nakamura who have more standard looks and aren’t really exaggerated, and use a more realistic moveset for matches. Each style of character has a different overall feel, with shared movesets to some degree for things like fireman’s carry throws and launchers, but with different specials.
Battlegrounds does a surprisingly good job of allowing you to replicate a more true to life match flow by having things like basic punches, kicks, and throws with combos for the strikes to flesh things out. There are some flaws in the execution of basic throws because you only have one basic attack no matter what direction you press and it’s a missed chance for things like body slams or press slams to be done from this position to help better-match the ebb and flow of a match. As it is, you still have basic moves and then moves you can trigger with the left trigger and a stick movement that are more elaborate. Some will be as simple as blinding a foe with dirt being blown at them, while others are a goofier version of John Morrison’s Moonlight Drive neckbreaker – which is hurt a bit by so many people doing the move here. Ditto the RKO being a killer move for Orton in other games and something that is just used by a ton of people off a launch attack here.
The various character classes basically amount to having big hulking brutes toss folks around, flyers who can do a lot of long-range attacks using the ropes that have pretty small timing windows for counters, brawlers who are great with hand to hand, while technicians are perfect for submission-centric matches and all-around are decent at everything and excel at nothing. The game uses some trigger-based mini-games for both submissions and climbing the cage, which itself has some unique twists. To escape the cage, you collect money that’s either fallen in the ring (ala PWG or lucha libre) or is in big money bags on the cage. You fill your money bar up and then you get to the top and hit the triggers to both win or prevent your opponent from either escaping or taking you down.
The mini-games make platform choice interesting because each one has their own pros and cons. The Xbox One controller has DIY mods available for hair triggers – so using that kind of setup for this game is perfect because it lets you avoid the long trigger pull for the mini-game. The same holds true for playing either docked or in portable mode on the Switch since its triggers are digital, and the Joycons have the least amount of travel and net you the fastest response times. Playing on the PS4 with both an Xbox One-style controller and Dual Shock 4 felt natural, but the constant back and forth for triggers definitely felt better on an Xbox-style controller. You can’t go wrong picking up the game on any platform, but there are some things to keep in mind.
As expected, the Switch version does suffer a bit visually – but nowhere as much as some might expect. Saber Interactive’s work on the Switch has always been great before and that holds up here too. In docked mode, the game actually has a brighter color palette than the PS4 – which is a nice surprise. Every version plays smoothly, and while there is a bit of detail loss in ring gear both in docked and handheld, it’s about 95% the same game visually in docked mode. In handheld mode, the Switch version has detail loss for gear and everything goes from losing a bit of detail to a bit of a blur – but the framerate is rock-solid even in four-player cage matches with the electrified fencing and all, so it’s still a very playable wrestling experience on the go. Other than some rough edges for things like missing animation when you’re grabbing money from cages, the graphics look pretty solid across the board.
The core game is a lot of fun and thanks to the carry mechanic, there’s a lot of neat stuff you can do. You can toss folks into and out of a broken ring, throw them towards their partner to force a tag, or grab them from a full-nelson position and set up some double team attacks. There’s a reasonable amount of depth in terms of moves being able to be done in various parts of the ring – but the reduced movesets definitely hurt the matches a bit. The overall feel of most is about the same if you stick with one kind of character type – so the key is to mix it up a bit to keep things fresh. Playing as a technician can yield faster wins – especially with itchy trigger fingers, while brawlers are fun to use for a punch, kick, and weapon-based battle.
The battlegrounds themselves are a lot of fun and have things like trains moving around in the New York area, to more interactive elements that can help you or hurt you. The swamp stage has a giant gator that the marketing has revolved around and with a fireman’s carry toss, you can either be eaten or toss a foe into the mouth of a waiting gator on either side of the ring. The Detroit auto shop is my favorite stage overall as you can not only destroy the ring to various degrees, but still do things like throws to and from it, and dives off the broken ring to the floor. This kind of interaction feels like something the main games would benefit from down the line.
The sound design is solid and the new commentary from Mauro Ranallo and Jerry Lawler feels fresh – which is a welcome change of pace from prior games where it can feel a bit too similar to past entries. Everything here is new and Jerry Lawler’s voice is just perfect for this kind of game – and it’s pretty fitting to have him here since he was also a commentator in WrestleMania the Arcade Game 25 years ago, so it keeps a thread to that game’s history alive here. There aren’t a lot of other voice samples, but the soundtrack is solid and the rock-heavy tunes fit the fast action. Superstar themes sound good during intros, but it can take a while to get a decent amount of the roster unlocked. There’s a lot of virtual currency needed for them and they’re in various tiers. Fortunately, the game is pretty generous with leveling you up quickly – but unless you’re doing a lot of cage matches on repeat, it can take a lot of grinding to get a full set of top-tier talent.
Overall, WWE 2K Battlegrounds is a great game marred by a few rough edges. Some, like animation issues, can be resolved with patching and don’t affect the core game. Like NBA Playgrounds before it, the grind-heavy nature of unlocking talent is something that hurts the end product – although it does feel like a solid template for the game if it winds up being a “games as a service”-style game because you can definitely unlock every character and cosmetic outfit with in-game currency. Thankfully, it’s a lot of fun to play the game and its plethora of modes both offline and online. Online tournaments are a riot and allow you to test your mettle against a variety of foes online and earn a lot of in-game currency for doing so.
WWE 2K Battlegrounds is definitely not the perfect arcade-style WWE experience, but it’s a far better game than I expected going in with minimal bugs and issues. As a workprint for the future, it’s rock-solid and can easily lead to the Battlegrounds games being a great breather between simulation-based entries in the series going forward. Hopefully we’ll see things like customizable movesets be added into future installments – but as it stands, this is a great way to enjoy some pick up and play WWE action on any gaming platform you have.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
This review is based on a digital copy of WWE 2K Battlegrounds for the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch provided by 2K.