By Vince Ingenito,

Ever since 2K and Visual Concepts picked up the long-running WWE video game series, fans have wondered: how will the game change? Can Visual Concepts – working with longtime developer Yuke’s – do for WWE what they did for NBA basketball? How will WWE 2K15 feel in the ring when my hands are wrapped around controller? At long last, I have the answers I’ve been looking for.

If I were forced at gunpoint to describe what I played in one word, it would simply be “different.” Now don’t freak out, that’s not a euphemism of some kind. I’m not grasping for a polite way to tell you that Yuke’s and Visual Concepts screwed the pooch. In fact, I really dig the direction 2K15 is taking the franchise. It’s a very clear step down a path that few wrestling games have ever walked. I’m here to tell you that WWE 2K15 is, for lack of a better term, a wrestling sim.

Don’t get me wrong: it hasn’t turned into something so complex to play that casual fans won’t know what’s going on. But the balance, pacing, and weight of everything has been tuned to fall more in line with the actual performances you see on Monday nights. Some of this comes down to little things, like the height of the ropes (which has never been accurate, by the way). But there are also a good deal of big things – new systems and mechanics that drastically change the way you play wrestling games.

Take the grappling system as an example. Just go ahead and eliminate any thought you had about walking up to your opponent at the start of a match and just delivering a DDT or a backbreaker because they failed to counter it. That’s just not how a match in the WWE starts, so when you press the grapple button in the early stages of a match in WWE 2K15, it initiates the new chain wrestling system.

Wrestling fans know the drill: the two wrestlers go right into a classic collar-and-elbow lockup to jockey for position. It starts like rock, paper, scissors – with each player pressing one of three face buttons, and the winner advancing to a more advantageous position. From here, both players play what is essentially a lock-picking game, rotating the right stick until they find the “sweet spot,” and holding it there to improve their respective situation. During this time, the player with advantage can land strikes, or even wrench whatever limb they’ve grabbed a hold of. It’s a lot more like the opening stages of a real match than running right up to your opponent for a spine-buster the moment the bell rings.

During this period, you can still do running or standing strikes, as well as Irish whips, so you still have options, but the full extent of the grappling game doesn’t open up until some decent damage has been dealt. Speaking of strikes, I criticized WWE 2K14 for how silly its super-speedy attack chains looked, but I won’t be able to say the same of 2K15. Strikes come out at a speed more in line with how actual people punch and kick, making attack chains more deliberate and satisfying to land. It makes exchanges a lot less breezy, but is a fight between two 300+ pound men supposed to be breezy?

Grappling has undergone another key change: the four intermediary grapple stances are gone. Once you’re out of the opening chain-wrestling phase, you just press or hold the grapple button along with a direction to launch right into a move. You can still do a basic headlock to set up rudimentary moves, and the returning limb targeting system, but your core grappling moves will come right from standing. Again, this just makes sense. Once the “feeling out” period is over, how often do guys put one another into a specific hold before doing a suplex? They don’t; they just do it.

Many subtle elements serve that same theme of, “Does that happen?” Animations were captured in a full, regulation-size ring this year, and all the in-game rings were rebuilt to proper scale to compensate. It changes how wrestlers look compared to their surroundings, how fast they get to the ropes off an Irish whip, and how they climb the turnbuckle. All these subtle things that have been wrong for so long are finally right, and while no one thing truly pops, the sum of it all is a more believable match.

It doesn’t end there, either. 2K15 packs a new stamina system that you absolutely must manage if you want to succeed. Running in circles around the ring to escape your opponent might seem like a fun way to troll someone online, until you’ve burned your wrestler out to the point of no return and you’re throwing spaghetti-armed punches for the rest of the match. That might not sound like the fun you want to have with your wrestling game, but it’s the exact kind of thoughtful limitation that I’ve been missing – the kind that has always kept matches from truly mimicking the storytelling and psychology of the matches I grew up loving.

For some fans, these changes are going to sound scary, but for me, they’re exactly what I’ve been missing for years. The central question I always ask when playing any game is, “What meaningful choices am I getting to make right now?” And as much as I’ve played and loved WWE games over the years, the answer has usually been, “Not many.” But with this departure in form, I think that’s going to change for me this year, and that has me excited to play more.

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