'WWE 2K23' Review: Almost Ready for the Main Event

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WWE 2K20 was reckoning for WWE 2K franchise developer Visual Concepts. So much so that it took a year off to make the best game it could possibly produce in order to please all the gamers within the highly critical WWE Universe fanbase. WWE 2K22 did a praiseworthy job of wiping away the stink of Visual Concepts' previous effort and instilled hope into fans looking toward the series' brighter future. With a return to an annual release cycle, WWE 2K23 arrives with fans hopeful for the best but fearful of things being a bit too samey in comparison to its predecessor. Even though there is some truth to this year's WWE simulator being similar in parts to WWE 2K22, I still left my session with WWE 2K23 more satisfied than I figured I would be. Now it's time to enter the squared circle and take in this final verdict for my WWE 2K23 review. *proceeds to ring the timekeeper's bell*

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'WWE 2K23' Review

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Right off the bat, I have to hand it to the Visual Concepts team when it comes to handling this year's character models. I've always been used to past games in the series featuring wrestlers that either look as close as possible to their real-life selves or awkward-looking models that belong in a cheap wax museum. Maybe it's just me, but every member of the roster in WWE 2K23 didn't make me stare too intently in shock at how off they looked. Legends like Booker T and Lita look their very best, while newcomers such as Bron Breakker and Carmelo Hayes make a strong debut in the digital wrestling realm. Even during those instances where you mingle with Create-A-Wrestler models and WWE legends turned backstage agents during MyCAREER, you'll be amazed at the improved facial and body animations put on display by them all. Here's hoping that the next WWE 2K game goes current-gen only and pushes the series' visual fidelity even further.

On the topic of this year's roster, it's way more up-to-date than I would have imagined. While the omission of several NXT stars and newly rehired main roster members from WWE 2K23's launch roaster is a headscratcher, the promise of them being added as DLC makes that less of an issue and more of a "be patient 'cause they're coming soon" type of situation. What's available on day one in WWE 2K23 is a nice mix of modern-day greats, up-and-coming NXT rookies, and Hall of Famers. However, there's still the annoying issue of a single wrestler having multiple versions of themselves being listed as separate playable characters. Looking through this game's massive roster and having to cycle through EIGHT versions of John Cena is an example of that recurring annoyance - here's hoping different iterations of a wrestler get attached to a single roster spot in future series installments.

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Last year, Showcase mode provided players with a playable journey through the high-flying career of Rey Mysterio. This year, cover star John Cena is the focus of that career-spanning mode. But in a cool twist, you'll actually take control of Cena's biggest rivals in a bid to relive and play out the events of his most devastating losses. I actually think this change in the mode's progression is pretty cool and freshens up the Showcase mode formula since you get to play with a nice mix of wrestlers instead of having to stick to a single superstar. Being able to land a match-ending Pedigree as Triple H and a Phenomenal Forearm as AJ Styles are just two examples of the satisfying outcomes produced by this playable trip through Cena's illustrious career.

While I enjoyed my time with this latest version of Showcase, a sense of disappointment crept in once I finally completed it due to the absence of some pretty major matches. When I think of Cena's biggest losses, my mind instantly races to him being defeated by CM Punk at Money in the Bank 2011 and Daniel Bryan at SummerSlam 2013. I understand that both the aforementioned wrestlers are currently signed to AEW and couldn't possibly be featured here, but this Cena Showcase still feels incomplete without those historic bouts in tow. Choosing to go with Cena's loss to Randy Orton at Hell in a Cell 2009 instead of the much more important one at TLC 2013 also stuck out as an upsetting decision for me. And finally, not being able to take control of Shawn Michaels during his almost hour-long Raw bout with Cena in 2007 stood out as the biggest missing portion of this Showcase match layout.

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One of my favorite changes to this year's WWE 2K mode format comes from MyRISE. I love how two distinctly different storylines are applied to your rising superstar based on their gender. I found the male plotline to be pretty funny in parts as it dealt with an incoming hot prospect that has to deal with a gimmick change that doesn't exactly fit him but is willing to stick to the plan in order to rise up the WWE ladder. The women's plotline follows a second-generation superstar who has big shoes to fill as her aunt is a legend in her own right. The side mission format, where you play out random matches and storylines that vary from dull to intriguing, is still kept intact here. But the main threads of both career mode storylines are a lot more enthralling when compared to WWE 2K22's playable road to superstardom. The many twists and turns that come from the decisions you make in this mode lead to some pretty shocking results, which evoke the feel of a strong storyline being fed to you across several episodes of WWE TV.

For the most part, Universe Mode remains the same. It's not exactly a destination mode for me, so having it be nearly identical to last year's iteration of the legacy mode isn't a huge dealbreaker for me. MyFACTION makes its return here - while it can be fun putting together your own custom male and female stables with the cards you amass over time, playing through a series of matches and trying to complete an overwhelming list of achievements in order to unlock new card packs still feels like a job more than a leisurely pastime. The fact that alternate retro models of certain wrestlers are still locked to this mode is still a major annoyance that needs to be remedied in the next WWE 2K game.

And finally, MyGM also comes back for another round of roster management and creating one's own match cards under a single WWE banner. I like this year's version of the mode a bit more than WWE 2K22's rage-inducing introduction of the fan-requested feature - the addition of more selectable match types, secondary championships, new brands to manage, game-changing "Shake Up's," etc., offer the sort of improvements that made MyGM experience more pleasurable here. But I still can't help but feel like this mode is still an unfair undertaking since the AI in control of Raw always seems to be a step ahead in match ratings and overall show performances no matter how you perform. It just seems next to impossible to emerge as the #1 brand in WWE and hold onto that position for long in MyGM.

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As I continued gathering all the positives and negatives of the game for my WWE 2K23 review, I spotted little things here and there that either pleased me greatly or left me wanting for more. I'm more than satisfied with the game's newest collection of signature moves, up-to-date entrances, and the way in which it lets you alter the actions of each superstar's AI behavior in order to make them act more like their real-life counterparts. The debuting WarGames match is a damn good time, I must say - going wild in the double cage during a multi-person war became one of my go-to match-type destinations the more I played it. Speaking of match types, I'm still left feeling dissatisfied with WWE 2K23's exclusion of classics, such as the Inferno, Gauntlet, and Casket matches that ruled during the glory days of WWE games. The in-ring action still excels, though - the more arcadey control scheme and faster match pace introduced in WWE 2K22 kept me coming back for more random local multiplayer bouts in WWE 2K23.

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