Published on September 26th, 2020 | by Paul Stuart
WWE 2K Battlegrounds: PS4 Review
Summary: A would-be better than average arcade brawler hampered by a terrible paywall system.
Most know of the debacle that was WWE 2K20, a game so bad it effectively put the series’ development on hiatus. Thus, back to the drawing board went publisher 2K, and opted for an arcade style gap filler known as WWE 2K Battlegrounds.
They brought NBA 2K Playgrounds developer Saber Interactive along for the ride, which ends up being a mixed decision. Mainly as Battlegrounds is pretty much a re-skinned version of Playgrounds in the best but also worst of ways.
Let’s start with the good. Akin to Playgrounds, WWE 2K Battlegrounds looks and sounds terrific, likewise is ready for pick up and play. Character models are simply stunning, and do a great job of capturing the over-the-top WWE presentation. Wrestler facial nuances – like Playgrounds – are spot-on. Similar kudos are due for the wonderful environments plus player and ring customizations. There’s some serious attention to detail in Battlegrounds, with terrific subtleties lurking all over the screen. It is a treat for the eyes.
Another strong suit is the comic book storytelling in campaign mode. It clearly borrows from the popular WWE line of said comic books, with a nice sense of humor and strong artistry that reeks of quality. Sure, it’s a bit cheesy and leans toward kids, but that’s part of the fun. Each part of the campaign introduces a new ‘up-and-coming’ wrestler, also environment, in tandem. I only wish the campaign portions were shorter and with more of them. (More on this below.)
Audio wise, WWE Battlegrounds also shines. Commentary by Mauro Ranallo (sadly no longer with WWE) and Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler (surprisingly not annoying in this format) is wonderful, nicely synced to in match moves also when special skills are executed. (From doing research on this title, commentary appears patched from prior versions, in a good way.) Accompanying sound effects (e.g. objects smashing over wrestlers, ring bounce, punches and kicks landing, etc.) are similarly strong. The omnipresent hard rock/heavy metal lite soundtrack, however, does get old a bit fast. (WWE remains stuck in the Attitude Era for its steadfast affinity to this music genre, one only they seem to perceive associated with professional sport.)
Gameplay is simplistic…but definitely easy to follow. A sharp contrast to the unnecessarily overcomplicated mainstream WWE 2K titles, anyone can button mash from the get-go in WWE 2K Battlegrounds. Punch, kick, block, pin, submission, etc. are all assigned to single buttons. Power ups execute via D-Pad, special moves – regardless of wrestler – is L2 and one of three face buttons. Finally, finishers are always mapped to R2 + L2. All the while, the game recommends moves to execute at a particular point in a match, to include buttons needed to do so. Thus, WWE 2K Battlegrounds is a great party game where even a non-gamer can pull off a reasonably entertaining match, sans training.
With this simplicity comes a serious trade off…the ‘bad’ portion of our program. Although wrestlers are divided into a handful of archetypes – and despite unique character models – they all play similarly. After an hour in, and even with the feast for the eyes and ears, monotony kicks in. This is the exact same feeling NBA 2K Playgrounds engendered. Thus, matches soon feel eerily similar regardless of wrestler selected and/or node in the branched campaign mode. This means WWE 2K Battlegrounds quickly adopts an identity as an exclusively online or party centric affair.
But here’s the catch: WWE 2K Battlegrounds forces players into single player mode to unlock in game items. ‘Forces’ is being ridiculously kind, as – unlike the NBA game it was modeled after – there is no affordable pay option to unlock every available character and customization to skip the grind. Instead, WWE 2K Battlegrounds is arguably the most offensive paywall-posing-as-a-regular-title in console history. There is no way around paying endless amounts of money for ‘battle bucks’ needed to unlock most of the 70 available (and very well picked) wrestlers. The game only offers 1/5th of these from the start, many of which are simply forgettable. Yes, a fair portion of WWE 2K Battlegrounds’ unlockables are achievable by slogging through its campaign. But few will have the patience to spend 8-10 hours on 50+ monotonous matches and in far-too-long individual campaign sections. For chrissakes: I don’t want to wrestle the same dude 3x in a single campaign section to both progress and unlock a ring customization.
Also – and while WWE 2K Battlegrounds’ presentation is great – there is perhaps too much of a good thing. Once multiple wrestlers are thrown in (i.e. Royal Rumble, tornado tag team, etc.), it is challenging to spot who you are actually controlling. There’s so much simultaneous visual stimulation that overload will inevitably happen. It’s funny how NBA Jam set the standard for how to this right decades ago…yet few seemed to learn from it.
With all this glitz and glamor also comes glitches. Wrestlers often visually pass through each other on overhead power moves, and slowdown is frequent in tournament match types. Not surprisingly, criticisms abound on social media about serious lag during online contests. I wanted to see this last point firsthand, but – for the life of me – couldn’t find an actual online opponent.
In tag team matches, there is a frustrating ignorance by partners to properly assist on cue, also frequent difficulty climbing the ropes based on downed opponent position. These are all, however, not too irritating to remove the fun factor. But they are definitely a price of admission during matches.
As an affordable and fun title, one could overlook WWE 2K Battlegrounds’ shortcomings if not for the always offensive paywall. Why not limit it to exclusive versions of wrestlers, outfits, or rings? Instead, it serves as a constant reminder of the game’s limitations also potential. Assuming this title geared toward a younger crowd, it also puts parents on the spot to dole out obscene amounts of money for their kids to properly enjoy the game. Hence, the only thing worse than a microtransaction cash grab is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Easy on the eyes and ears and fun to play, WWE 2K Battlegrounds is a simplified title that mainly works. Its horrific paywall system, however, immediately kills much of its good will.