WWE 2K23 has a lot to prove. Not only is it no longer the sole star-studded wrestling game on the market anymore, it’s also releasing with a legacy of games that ranged from okay to awful behind it. It’s a game that really needs to win. Jobbing out would be a disaster.
I was able to play a preview build of the game last week which let me grapple with the standard one-on-one match, the new Wargames mode, as well as the brand new showcase feature which takes you through John Cena’s career. Alternative match types as well as online play was not available in this build.
Let's start with that core gameplay — the fighting itself — found in the standard wrestling format. WWE 2K23 has a foundation of fairly fun combat where you slap, punch, kick and grapple your way through your opponent. Each wrestler has their own arsenal of attacks and unique moves that you’d see in a real life show, as well as a selection of devastating signature and finisher attacks that deal loads of damage.
Animation-wise the game does a good job at portraying the visceral movements of these performers — it’s something the series has always done well — and continues to excel at here. Especially with cinematic finishers, you get the impression that making these actions look as authentic as possible is one of the development team’s highest priorities.
I’m also proud to report a lack of bugs from my time playing! There was some slowdown initially, apparently due to the hardware we were using to test out the preview build and not a fault of the game itself, but it’s a far ways better than WWE 2K20’s performance. I jumped back into that title soon after trying out 2K23 and there’s a real tangible leap in quality. On the other hand, WWE 2K22 showed signs of a team still learning a new engine, but WWE 2K23 feels like they’ve found their footing with a wrestling game that doesn’t tear both its quads sliding into the ring.
Wargames is a major new addition and one that has been marketed heavily. For non-wrestling fans it’s basically one big cage over two rings, where two teams clash against each other in a hardcore, hectic brawl. For the layman, it’ll just be a big fancy cage match. But, there are some cool moves you can do in the space between the rings, and there’s a brash craziness to the match once everyone is let into the arena. A cool modern addition for up-to-date wrestling watchers.
Speaking of, John Cena has his own dedicated showcase in WWE 2K23 to go alongside his 20th anniversary in the ring. This mode is comprised of famous fights from his career, putting you in the shoes of his opponents as you fight to complete a series of mini-objectives that play into what happened in the real-world match.
Perhaps the coolest part of the John Cena showcase is the cut between gameplay and original match footage. You’ll pull off one of those sub-objectives, something like landing a dropkick off the top rope, and it’ll shoot straight into the actual footage of that happening. This is less of a genuinely challenging battle but more of a celebration of key moments. At it’s best you feel the hype of a tense match, but at it’s worst you’ll find yourself ticking off boxes and waiting for the cool videos to kick back up again.
I do like that John Cena wears a fancy suit and introduces us to each match in-character, and I do think for longtime fans there’s a lot here to get excited about. But, for me, the matches did drag on a bit too long. I was 10/14 objectives down in the 2006 Cena versus Rob Van Dam ECW fight and ready to move on.
You could argue that since you’re playing as Cena’s opponents — an attempt to keep things fresh from match to match — that John Cena’s big milestone mode is a saga of him getting slapped around for hours, but I do think it was the right choice to make. People don’t need to win back-to-back 20 minute brawls with the guy to know he’s talented or popular.
From what I played, WWE 2K23 was a fun-enough romp which appears to be getting the wrestling game series back on track. It’s a game developed during COVID and following some genuinely rough predecessors. Sitting down and consuming a slice of it, you almost get the feeling that the game itself is going, “okay, look, I know we’ve had a bumpy ride but check this out." If nothing else, it made me excited to see how these games can be expanded on in the future, especially now that the team behind them have settled down and started proving their mettle with the new engine.
All this game needs to do now to nail the landing is handle online play successfully — a laggy experience regardless of player connection quality would really shoot this game in the foot. But assuming we get the same level of quality from prior instalments, WWE 2K23 appears to be a good showing for the series. Not quite a Heavyweight Champion yet, but you can see a path opening up for a chance at the belt.