Once upon a time, wrestling games could be considered system sellers. Just after the turn of the century was the peak for wrestling games. As the years went by, wrestling games focused more on improving visuals and adding features to make them more realistic, even though wrestling is scripted. Once 2K took over the realm of the WWE franchise from THQ, it attempted to fully implement a simulation complete with player ratings. Once all development moved in house with Visual Concepts for WWE 2K20, the results were disastrous. 2K decided to take a year off to work on the series and this opened the door for an arcade-style wrestling game that we haven’t seen since WWE All-Stars. This brought about excitement with early footage seemingly looking relatable to this older cult arcade wrestling favorite. WWE 2K Battlegrounds was born, but ultimately fails to reach those expectations.
WWE 2k Battlegrounds is being touted as a “social party brawler” with a focus on multiplayer. The art style deviates from realism much like All-Stars did with an animated action figure style full of colorful graphics and over-the-top moves in the ring. There’s a big emphasis on couch play with friends up to four players. Online is also up to four players with an exception of one mode, but the remaining four aren’t in battle. King of the Battleground is a mode that needs to exist in wrestling games going forward. On paper, it’s excellent. This is an ongoing royal rumble match that feels like a take on a battle royale mode. You jump in and wait in a queue on the outside of the ring with the on-screen players up to eight. The goal is to eliminate players over the top rope and last as long as you can. Players can use WWE Superstars and Legends or their own creations.
This can be an extremely fun mode. When there’s a ton of action going on, it’s easy to get lost especially if multiple users have the same wrestler (try four AJ Styles in the ring at once) The action will slow down and get choppy and players will start flailing around randomly. On the outside, you’re free to move around and can punch opponents, but that’s it. You can’t do anything else or try to affect the match in the ring. Once someone is eliminated, depending on your spot in the queue, you get transferred in. There’s also a men’s and women’s mode depending on the gender you choose, as men and women cannot face each other in the game. There were less on the women’s mode, which made it more playable. The killer is the connection. There’s lag with button inputs and sometimes action don’t execute. It comes down to perfect timing to get the upper hand due to the limited move sets. Even trying to switch the opponent you’re looking at is inconsistent. When this mode works, it’s really fun, but the server issues seem to be par for the course with 2K titles. It may not be as much as a limitation on PC, but 2K provided us the review code for PlayStation 4. The other online option is a tournament where you will work to progress to unlock rewards, which is what ultimately fully kills this title.
Saber Interactive is known for two other titles: World War Z and the NBA 2K Playgrounds series. NBA 2K Playgrounds was much like the NBA Jam series, but you would be paying to unlock new NBA players. As for World War Z, there really isn’t any microtransactions on that title. In fact, it has been offered for free with cross-play and is easily accessible. So I’m not sure if the microtransactions come from 2K or from Saber. WWE 2K Battlegrounds is basically completely behind a paywall. The game does retail for only $39.99 with the Deluxe Edition coming in at $49.99 and adds The Rock and Stone Cold as playable characters. The game is designed around grinding, albeit not much of a challenge. The term “social party brawler” becomes obscure when only about a 15 of the 70 characters announced have to be unlocked with either real money or Battle Bucks. It ruins it and feels like a demo out of the box. It’s not too terrible to earn some Battle Bucks early on, but as you level up, it takes longer. There have been another 60 WWE Superstars announced for free DLC. There’s no details on if they are instantly available or if it’s just another paywall option. That would make literally about ten percent of the full roster available out of the box. The current roster is also outdated by about six months as you will see some Superstars who are no longer in WWE while others are missing.
The mobile game design is also apparent in Battlegrounds. On top of the microtransactions, the game features daily challenges and each Superstar is separated into a different tier. When unlocking or purchasing Superstars, they’re literally in action figure packaging. Yes, there are WWE Superstars that can be unlocked from doing the campaign mode. While there are multiple exhibition match types such as 1v1, tag team, triple threat, fatal fourway, cage matches and a Royal Rumble, there isn’t a whole lot to be touted as a “social party brawler” in comparison to what is available for single player. The campaign in Battlegrounds is neat thanks to the excellent art in the comic strips. The story revolves around Paul Heyman wanting to start his own brand as he goes out and finds Stone Cold Steve Austin to recruit talent. You will play different scenarios as these different characters as you progress through a tree that turns into a mundane grind. The AI is basically a pushover through all of this and not much of a challenge as you garner Battle Bucks and get an opportunity to explore the control scheme. This is the best way to unlock other Superstars in the game outside of going through the online tournament.
Players can create Superstars in Battlegrounds and even create arenas. The problem with this is the creation suite is severely limited. I don’t like to spend a huge amount of time on creating things in games, but this is limited to less than that. Each Superstar does not have their own move set. Instead, there are separate groupings that share moves such as Powerhouse, Technician, High-Flyer, Brawler and All-Rounder. There’s a separate campaign for your creations called Battleground Challenge where you level up your creations as you grind through matches. What’s used to improve your player, you ask? Battle Bucks. You basically have to make a decision unless you want to spend money on either unlocking other Superstars or leveling up your creations. It also costs money to expand your creation slots. The arena creator is straightforward as you’ll edit everything from the ropes to the ring apron and pyros. Again, not a lot of collection here to work with.
The action in the ring can be fun when playing offline. I do think the best way to play WWE 2k Battlegrounds would be with friends or family. The control scheme is variable enough, but the lack of grapple options can make things stale. Arenas will have interactive environments like launching off of a helicopter or throwing an opponent into a gator’s mouth (no blood). Weapons can be grabbed under the ring and simple combos can be pulled off. It comes down to timing to pull off matches. Reversals are either timed on hits with the right bumper or using quick time events to counter grapples. Each Superstar will have two Finisher that are mapped to L2/R2. There are also powerups that provide boosts such as a better pin, fire hands or the ability to block better. When the fighting is in rhythm, it’s quick and entertaining.
Graphically, the art style was the way to go with Battlegrounds. The caricatures of all the Superstars look cool and the arenas with the crowd help create the game’s identity. When a Finisher or Special move is pulled off and it’s over-the-top, the animations look cool. Time slows down and there are a ton of colors added along with a camera angle change. There are still occasional hiccups and a strange bug where the game just bogs down until you pause it that occurs. For the most part, the looks fit the bill of the lightheartedness and arcade style.
Battlegrounds may potentially boast the best commentary team of any wrestling game ever. Mauro Ranallo and Jerry “The King” Lawler are the commentators for the game, but due to the loud sound effects, get drained out. Lawler would come through the DualShock 4 controller at times, but he sticks out more during matches. You will hear Ranallo’s Mama-mia catchphrase, but it’s a better combination than Michael Cole and Corey Graves in the main 2K series. There’s no voice acting in the game, but theme music exists for all Superstars. The game also doesn’t have full entrances for the Superstars and the music will cut off at a weird point when the entrance ends.
There’s an opportunity to have fun with WWE 2K Battlegrounds. Playing with friends or family who aren’t fully up to speed on how wrestling games works should make for an enjoyable experience. King of the Battleground needs to be introduced to the main series, but its execution is off here thanks to system performance and connection issues. The comic strip art in the Campaign Mode is good, but the mode itself becomes a grind much like the Battleground Challenge for created players. Then you have to decide if you want to use the Battle Bucks to unlock more Superstars or level up your creations with a skill tree. Ultimately what kills the experience are the microtransactions. While the game might be $40, literally 80% of the Superstars are locked with some that you can’t even pay for (John Cena). There was a lot of potential here but it doesn’t come close to the arcade experience that WWE All-Stars had. It’s hard to tout WWE 2K Battlegrounds as a social game with the focus on variety coming from the single player portion.