Spend more than a few moments with an enthusiastic wrestling fan—or “smark,” the rather regrettable industry term that they love to affix to themselves—and you’ll probably find yourself drowning in a sea of secondhand slang and jargon, desperately grasping for a textbook or wiki to bring your head back above water. Indeed, don’t let the flashy costumes or daring acrobatics fool you; the extreme ardor that some fans display for the squared circle is rooted in the same base nerdery that produced fantasy sports and the emerging field of “bracketology.”
Considering this, it’s fitting that WWE’s yearly wrestling video game largely follows the long-tenured model of the annualized sports franchise, best represented by NBA 2K and Madden. First, construct a static yet durable base game, suitable for incremental change. Next, populate it with everyone’s favorite players, managers, and other figures. Finally, lay on thick, glossy coats of fancruft and customizability to keep the ravenous fanbase at bay. Take that to the bank, and have fun counting your millions. Unfortunately for smarks the world over, the development team over at Yuke’s has tripped on that first step every year for the better part of two decades now.
The fact that WWE 2K17 plays rather badly shouldn’t surprise anyone. That the sheer act of grappling feels akin to two faulty automatons fumbling against each other in a shared act of rebellion is, unfortunately, the level of expectation that one brings to a modern wrestling game. Clumsiness is the game’s signature, and it permeates like a foul stench. Even the act of standing up from a blow takes seconds too long, your oily avatar stumbling and falling as he regains his footing, dramatically holding his head from merely one punch. As with the rest of the developer’s games, the tenor and pace of the action is dictated entirely by the all-powerful “reversal” button, which reduces even the most heated matches to a matter of timing single-button presses.
To be clear, the slipshod quality of the base wrestling isn’t the result of inevitable decline of an aging template, nor the waning interest of a once-talented developer. No, despite its considerable popularity, the series formerly known as SmackDown! has always crept just a bit below the admittedly low bar set by the rest of the wrestling subgenre. Even back in 2003, when WWE SmackDown! Here Comes the Pain sizzled sales charts and fan forums alike, it couldn’t quite compete with the bizarre charm of AKI Corporation’s own Def Jam Vendetta, a wrestling game that featured rappers like DMX and N.O.R.E. pile-driving each other on rooftops. That game might have featured zero actual wrestlers, but it had something that Yuke’s never could quite manage: a decent grappling system, made famous by 2000’s widely-acclaimed WWF No Mercy, still widely considered the best wrestling game ever made.
While Yuke’s has never managed to bring depth to their wrestling games, they continue to convey a sense of breadth by layering buckets of glossy content over these games’ hollow cores. And now, WWE 2K17 represents the latest in the wealth of examples that prove that, for the fans, this inch-thick coat is all you really need. Dozens of arenas to saunter into, titles to defend, wrestlers to compete with—it’s almost enough to distract from the fact that the base game remains loathfully retrograde, a bloated monolith that is, much like the World Wrestling Entertainment itself, due for a much-needed shake-up. For some, that might be enough. For the rest of us, there’s WWF No Mercy.