WWE 2K20 had some well-documented issues, and that’s perhaps putting it lightly. So with a two-year absence and an apparent back to the drawing board approach, you’d expect the latest entry in the grappling series, WWE 2K22 to come out throwing its hardest lariat. Well, from what my short hands-on time with the game has revealed so far, it seems as if it’s come out Cesaro swinging… mostly.
At first WWE 2K22 doesn’t quite feel like the radical evolution for the series that was promised. Sure, everything feels more polished and refined, but that’s to be expected from an extended development time, but it’s when compared to the last entry in the series, though, things begin to shine and the evolution pushes through.
Beyond the graphics and sound, which are notably improved, the real progression feels to be in the overall presentation of the WWE product. Clever adjustments in things like the camera angles and lighting really help bring the simulation closer to the television experience. The ring feels smaller, and more in proportion with the wrestlers that are inhabiting it. Minor tweaks for sure, but they all contribute to that wider, aforementioned quest for the ultimate WWE experience.
There’s also attention to detail that really helps bring the whole package together. Little details such as music hitting the instant a pinfall is registered, real faces littering the screens of the pandemic era’s Thunderdome, and audiences reactions and responses feel far more in tune with real WWE. And I couldn’t help but smile when the audience began singing along with Shinsuke Nakamura's entrance theme, just like you hear every week on Smackdown. That’s not to say this attention to detail hasn’t been there before, but this time the general presentation feels like it’s been a core focus, especially when it comes to tying this all together in the ring.
Perhaps the largest advertised change for WWE 2K22 is the new gameplay engine, apparently built from the ground up. Again, this is something that on the surface doesn’t feel like the overhaul that’s advertised, but after a few matches (and after shaking off those old gameplay habits) I began to experience a new level of fluidity.
Gone is the lengthy and cumbersome grapple system, and in its place are dynamic combos. Don’t worry, we’re not talking complex, Street Fighter-style quarter circles here, but through combinations of your light, heavy and grab attacks you’re now able to pull off striking and grapple sequences with ease that would feel at home on WWE Television. It can be as simple as pressing light, heavy and then grab and you immediately can hit a flashy pumphandle suplex. The most exciting thing about this development is how welcoming it is likely to be for newcomers. I myself have played a lot of matches against newcomers in the past, often resulting in an endless series of strikes and no real flash. but now, I can see no reason why a beginner couldn’t deliver a devastating DDT from the off.
That’s not to say button bashing is a viable tactic though. Along with reversals, WWE 2K22 now comes loaded with three other defensive options; blocking, dodging and breakers, the latter being a first for the series and an important variation on reversals. A break is created if you and your opponent hit the same attack button at the same time, which prevents someone from spamming an attack button and encourages variety in your decisions. Unlike WWE 2K20, you now have unlimited reversals which — at least for me — created endless swings in match dominance, focusing the action on the drama instead of who could store more reversals. I am, however, slightly concerned about how easy I found it to reverse when faced off with AI, so much so that I almost felt like I could never not reverse something. Based on my small amount of time with the game, I feel like the reversal window could be even smaller to really elevate those moments.
I’ve only scratched the surface with WWE 2K22’s in-ring gameplay, but what I’ve played so far feels like it’s struck a sensible balance between depth and being welcoming to newcomers. Like some of my favourite fighting games, I quickly found myself examining the combo lists, trying to memorise my favourite moves, and the game reciprocated that dedication by allowing the matches to constantly feel dynamic and dramatic. Well, at least in a singles or tag team scenario that is, where the space allows for expression. As with previous entries in the series, 5 plus wrestlers in the ring still creates a chaos of interruptions, but it definitely felt like that targeting system was improved, which is a very welcome addition.
In my time with WWE 2K22 I was also given the chance to try out the all-new, fan-requested GM mode. This time called MyGM, a mode that’s been absent from the series since 2008.
MyGM puts you in charge of a WWE show, with a pre-selected or custom character as your avatar. The version I played lacked the custom creator, but I was still allowed to choose from on-screen personalities such as Adam Pearce, Sony Deville and Stephanie McMahon. You’re then invited to book the lineup for your chosen show on a weekly basis and must deal with feuds, contracts, demanding superstars and all the nuances of putting on a successful wrestling show.
My time with MyGM was short, and it’s clearly a mode that requires lengthy playtimes to get the most out of. I did however enjoy my brief session and already began to feel progression. The majority of my decisions, whether it be to build a GM vs superstar feud with Shane McMahon and Montez Ford, or increase the spend in the show’s production, felt valued and reciprocated by the weekly ratings and fan response. Match criticism does feel extremely weighted to pairing pre-assigned wrestler types together, though, instead of smartly critiquing on a case-by-case basis. I got told that Drew McIntyre vs Roman Reigns wasn’t a good match pairing because they’re both powerhouses and sorry, that’s just bullshit.
It’s hard to know how deep and involved MyGM can be at this point, but I am concerned it could be a little shallow, particularly with the limitations on card sizes and duration of your weekly run, which is capped at 50 weeks. It’s certainly nowhere as detailed as a game like Football Manager. It does, however, create a product that feels like a WWE TV show, specifically when you spectate the matches and get to see the AI put together dramatic swings in the action, all from your unique, spectator camera angles. It’s especially good when you know your pre-arranged run-in is coming up.
From my short time with it, WWE 2K22 feels like an improvement across the board. It’s hard to know if these new systems will have the desired depth over time, but what I’ve seen so far shows great attention to detail in presentation, a welcoming step for newcomers and dedication to accurately reflecting the drama of a classic WWE match.
Dale Driver is a Senior Video Producer for IGN and a lifelong WWE fan/apologist. Be thoroughly bored by following him Twitter at @_daledriver.