WWE 2K22’s long road to release stands as a redemption story as dramatic as any of the TV storylines. The series took a few years off to regroup following the trainwreck that was 2019’s 2K20, and the time away allowed it to learn some useful new holds. Though it doesn’t catapult the franchise to bold new heights, a revamped gameplay engine and a renewed focus on approachability make it the most entertaining – and most of all, playable – WWE game in some time.
The new engine strips away some of the complicated mechanics that made the previous 2K games a chore to play. Instead, it adopts a more arcade-style approach. 2K22 is not the second coming of the beloved Smackdown series, but the simplified grappling feels more intuitive and allows for faster-paced matches. Grappling is condensed to light and heavy moves mapped to two buttons, which I found easier to remember and execute. Melee combos reward big hits by chaining simple inputs, giving button-mashers a viable form of offense. Speaking of which, I love that pins and submissions ditch the annoying “stop the needle” minigames and return to the more fun intensity of slamming buttons to break free.
To reduce the non-stop countering that often occurs between advanced players, a new counter called Breaker forces you to predict incoming moves by pressing the same button you think your opponent will. Breakers only apply to strikes and grapple-based attacks; a universal reversal still exists for everything else, but I have mixed feelings this new addition. The element of chance means I absorbed strings of offense for guessing the wrong input regardless of my reversal timing which frustrated me at times. On the other hand, it allows both players to actually perform moves on each other instead of only finding cheap ways of interrupting prolonged counter-fests. Plus, even though I often took a beating, I rarely lost. The more skilled player will still win the day regardless of how many powerbombs they eat on the way to victory. Breakers aren’t the perfect solution, but I lean more in favor of them.
2K22 feels easier to play overall but executing certain maneuvers still feels convoluted. The command differences between various springboard and apron attacks could be simpler, for example. A nice tutorial at the start of the game walks players through the basics, but I wish it went further since I still had to look up crucial mechanics like positioning opponents or entering/exiting the ring. Picking up objects can still feel unresponsive, and some actions retain the sluggish, over-animated feel the 2K games have suffered from for years.
By and large, 2K22 looks great. Character models appear largely accurate to their real-world counterparts, smoother animations replicate superstar-specific nuances, and improved cinematography and lighting make everyone look better than ever. I especially love the era-specific lighting for historical arenas, like Halloween Havoc ’97. The roster is horrifically outdated thanks to the inclusion of numerous superstars who departed WWE in 2021, but this works in 2K22’s favor. Names like Jeff Hardy, Keith Lee, and Ember Moon may now perform elsewhere, but getting to use them anyway beats having a more realistically thin roster.
Best of all, I didn’t encounter any catastrophic glitches. Smaller hiccups can still occur like the occasional spaghetti rope or a character getting snagged or warped on geometry, but those fall into the harmless (and humorous) camp. They didn’t happen often enough to spoil the experience. Unfortunately, online play feels unstable at the time of publishing. I’ve had trouble connecting to matches and the ones I have gotten into have suffered from severe lag at times. Hopefully, this is addressed sooner than later but you may want to avoid the online mode in the immediate future.
2K22 has no shortage of modes, the most prominent of which is Showcase. This interactive documentary lets players follow the legendary career of cover star Rey Mysterio by playing a selection of 12 matches. Previous Showcases did a great job covering their respective topics, but 2K22’s falls short of the mark. Although the presentation rocks per usual – the mid-match transitions to actual footage of the fight you’re playing is notably rad – most of the chosen bouts made me scratch my head.
The wide 1997-2005 stretch of Rey’s career only focuses on Eddie Guerrero, in which you wrestle him twice, and one of them is the mode’s sole WCW offering. Rey’s WrestleMania 22 World Title win is absent since Kurt Angle isn’t in the game. Big feuds against the likes of Chavo Guerrero, Chris Jericho, CM Punk, and Cody Rhodes don’t make the cut either due to the listed names working for rival organizations. They’re replaced by less memorable bouts, such as Mysterio’s SummerSlam 2009 Intercontinental Title defense against Dolph Ziggler or a random Raw match against Gran Metalik. I don’t expect Showcase to hit every milestone of Rey’s career, but this feels like an abridged summary of his run that plucked out most of the truly great stuff.
Following Rey’s career may have been underwhelming, but I had a better time building the legacy of my own superstar in MyRise. Creating a wrestler from scratch, including choosing their background RPG-style, had me engaged in my star’s fate from the get-go and the mode is pleasantly dense. From training in the Performance Center to NXT to the main roster, I enjoyed guiding my arrogant Hollywood transplant to the top of the company through choice-driven scenarios, many of which are delightfully cheesy. I won a match to force my opponent to wrestle in a chicken suit for a month and picked fights with big stars on social media to goad them into the ring. Is the writing often stupid and/or campy? Yes, but the same is usually true of the real product. At least this made me chuckle instead of facepalming.
Simple sidequests, such as beating up MVP for enforcing a dress code, can be tackled at your leisure to gain extra stat points, but I mostly enjoyed how seemingly mundane stories spiral into giant angles. I choose to make a name for myself by assaulting a visiting Mayor Kane backstage which exploded into a multi-match side story that concluded in a Hell in a Cell match against The Undertaker. Various story paths exist depending on your choices and face/heel alignment, which offers a nice element of replayability. I don’t know if I’m compelled enough to make another full run, but MyRise had me thinking about what titles to chase and the shenanigans I’d instigate when I was away from the mode. I always itched to get back to it.
The Creation Suite isn’t significantly better than what’s been offered before, but it remains a fun time sink. I lost hours making superstars, championships, arenas, titantron videos, and more. Universe Mode provides more options for playing Vince McMahon as you book shows, matches, rivalries, and more. You can now follow an individual career as well, but Universe is about making your own fun and doesn’t offer enough tangible rewards to keep my interest for long.
Universe Mode feels especially flat compared to MyGM, which gives you direct control of a single brand including drafting superstars, booking shows, and appeasing personalities to win a ratings war against rival brands. This destination satisfied the fantasy booker in me. I had a great time creating quality rivalries and contests by strategically matching superstar in-ring styles and managing my budget to put on killer shows. MyGM offers a granular level of data but offers regular guidance that kept me on track and informed my decisions. Like MyRise, MyGM unexpectedly hooked me and often had me thinking outside of the game about how to build to the next show, what talent to sign next, and how to sabotage my competitor.
MyFaction is another new destination that feels like a separate game in itself. Fans of WWE mobile games like Supercard may feel right at home as you buy card packs (using real and in-game currency) to assemble a “faction” of the best cards based on their stats and other perks. You’ll battle other factions, but the combat unfolds in the ring rather than as a pure TCG. There’s not much more to it than that. There are various daily, weekly, and tower challenges, but it boils down to playing matches, filling achievement bars, and buying cards. Packs are reasonably priced, and you’ll earn enough currency to buy a pack by playing a small batch of matches, but you’ll always go farther using your wallet as per the norm with this stuff. MyFaction adds the satisfaction of watching meters fill up while playing random matches, but it’s not my favorite mode and is worth ignoring if the card aspect doesn’t speak to you.
Is 2K22 the next No Mercy or Here Comes the Pain? No, but it’s a substantially improved comeback that’s more fun to play than WWE games have felt in ages. Plus, the sheer amount of modes, all of which are at least decent, means there’s something enjoyable to gnaw on outside of random exhibition matches or online play. There’s still work to be done, but like a retired veteran returning to put on a surprisingly solid match, WWE 2K22 manages to shake off the ring rust and perform better than the naysayers expected.