There’s so much sweat. WWE 2K23 is a stunning game, but all I can think about is how bloody sweaty everyone is. Wide gross rivulets of sweat cover every inch of exposed skin, and I’m honestly surprised about how the wrestlers can even grip each other without slipping away.
There are a ton of different grapplers from throughout the WWE’s history here, and they’re just soaked in sweat. Kurt Angle? Sweaty, Rob Van Dam? Sweaty. WWE 2K23’s biggest selling point is a John Cena career retrospective that has you fighting against Cena in some of the biggest matches of his career. Win, and you’ll ensure Cena takes a loss. It’s a genius idea, because it lets WWE 2K23 sprinkle in wrestlers from throughout the company’s history in the best shape of their career. They’re all sweaty.
It’s not just a series of historic matches, either. The Showcase mode features matches introduced by Cena himself, live footage set in a sound booth, chatting away about some of his greatest matches and why they were so pivotal to his career. Then you’ll fight against him, completing a series of objectives to let the match play out roughly the same as it did in the real world.
There were two of these matches in the hands-on. A match against Kurt Angle in a 2002 episode of Smackdown lets you control a WWE Champion-era Angle as he batters the young upstart, but the real highlight for me was taking control of Rob Van Dam for a 2006 ECW One Night Stand match, with RVD facing off against Cena, himself the WWE Champion at the time.
This is exciting because I saw that match at the time, and teenage me has a lot of half-remembered memories of the crowd being absolutely wild. This is played out in the match itself, too, with the game cutting from in-game to archive footage at pivotal moments so that when you complete the objective that sees you winning over Cena. It feels like Stuntman – remember that? – but for grappling.
There’s a lot of scripting going on here between the switches between archive footage and in-game effects, with some bespoke moves making an appearance to try and capture the spirit of the match. It’s a cool feature, with the right level of reverence, and it should be enough to get the juices flowing for any wrestling fan. As a lapsed fan, it’s exciting to see matches I remember, and this is probably the best way to revisit them.
This Showcase mode could be the game’s saving grace, because outside of this WWE 2K23 feels clunky, with wrestlers handling like shopping carts, listing from quick time event into quick time event until somehow it comes to an end because you can’t flick the right stick up at just the right time to escape a pin.
I still enjoyed it – playing as (former game journalist) Asuka I had a fun time battering Shayna Baszler. Asuka’s entrance is just as huge as it is in the live shows, and there’s a real sense of momentum to the actual moves themselves, especially when I got the hang of the game. After I won the match, though, I was told it was lackluster as it didn’t have enough drama.
Elsewhere, I took control of Cena himself for a Wargames match. If you’re not familiar with this – I wasn’t – it’s basically two rings enclosed in one big cage. By the end of the match, two teams of three wrestlers will be kicking the shit out of each other, but at the start there’s just one wrestler from each team scrapping, with a new wrestler released every 60 seconds to join the fray. Each new wrestler enters the cage with a weapon, generally, and if anyone leaves the cage it’s a forfeit. It’s a lot of fun, but there was notable slowdown whenever a new wrestler entered the arena, while I found AI wrestlers were frequently trying and failing to grapple me while I was belting their friends. It feels like the game is tighter in the one-on-one matches, although I am gutted I didn’t try out the Royal Rumble mode, which was unlocked in this hands-on build but I didn’t have time to properly check it out.
Honestly, it’s a weird game. If Street Fighter 2 is all about balletic grace, this is more about watching two drunks fighting in a car park. It’s gutting, because wrestling isn’t that, it’s a weirdly joyous mix of incredible choreography and chiseled athletes throwing each other around a ring with seemingly little concern for their own safety. It’s an art – a form of dance combining pantomime villains with (simulated) extreme violence.
If you already love WWE, you’ll be able to enjoy the game despite its flaws, and this lovingly recreated John Cena highlight reel is doing something fascinating that I’d love to see in FIFA or other sports titles. This isn’t a final version of the game, but I’m wary – and secretly looking forward to seeing which of Cena’s other huge matches make it into the Showcase mode.
WWE 2K23 launches on March 17 for PC, PlayStation, and Xbox.