A spin-off that shows the main franchise how it’s done.
It’s been an unsteady few years for the WWE 2K franchise. For such a violent, grandiose, and emotionally engaging sport, it seems like the perfect match to translate to a game. Instead, the series has taken annual downturns that culminated in the buggy, nigh-unplayable mess that was WWE 2K20, forcing the rare occurrence of an annual franchise skipping a year. In its stead is WWE 2K Battlegrounds, an arcadey, over-the-top spin-off of the WWE 2K series that does the best job at translating what makes the WWE so engaging to a game in a few years. It’s effectively Saber Interactive’s NBA Playgrounds in a WWE skin, but it’s the type of fluid, fun gameplay that makes stepping into the ring as enjoyable as any WWE 2K game in recent memory.
It’s immediately apparent that Battlegrounds isn’t your typical WWE game, not only in its lack of any major bugs, but also in its cartoonish art style and over-the-top animations. Like in Saber’s other recent games, it actively shuns any realism it may have implied. Character models are hilariously disproportionate, with oversized heads and massive hands dominating their surface area. Almost every attack, throw, intro, or special ability animation is exaggerated to reinforce visual satisfaction and fun over anything else. You can throw opponents dozens of feet in the air or feed them to a crocodile, and even real life signature moves from superstars like The Undertaker or Triple H have a unique punch that other games in the series have lacked and make it addicting to watch, even if you see the same moves over and over again.
"WWE 2K Battlegrounds is effectively Saber Interactive’s NBA Playgrounds in a WWE skin, but it’s the type of fluid, fun gameplay that makes stepping into the ring as enjoyable as any WWE 2K game in recent memory."
When it comes to pure gameplay, Battlegrounds does share a lot of characteristics with its main series. Of course, it’s still a wrestling game, so you’re entering the ring with the objective of putting your opponent through as much pain as possible until you can pin them or force them to tap out. Your normal punches or kicks can turn into combos that, when landed in the correct sequence, knock your opponent down and give you a chance to end it. But like in real wrestling, throwing punches isn’t always the most fun or efficient way to win. The right stick lets you pick up an opponent and throw them either across the ring or into the aforementioned stratosphere, and holding the triggers allows you to perform a special, more powerful punch or kick that uses stamina. Once you’ve gotten to a certain point in the match, you can also perform a signature finisher move, which are the most powerful and by far the most fun to watch.
Adding complexity to gameplay are your character’s three power-ups that build up throughout the match. Lowest-level power-ups give you small boosts like dealing more or taking less damage for a period of time, but higher-level boosts can go all the way up to giving you unblockable attacks. These boosts are prominent enough to make gameplay a little more complex, but I appreciate that they don’t become a crutch. Even with a top-level power-up, you can still be knocked down and pinned, and while it’s definitely a noticeable boost, seeing your opponent use a power-up doesn’t mean you’re about to get pummeled.
Though the goal is to pin your opponent, your progress marker is their health bar, which has to be knocked down three times before they can be pinned for the required three-count. In classic one-on-one brawls, it can be unthinkably easy to beat down your opponent, especially when you can start to juggle and trap them. But when you find a worthy opponent, these one-on-one matches are some of the best because they’re the rawest, most stripped-back fights, focusing on the grandiose moves and big hits without having anything else in the way.
"When you find a worthy opponent, these one-on-one matches are some of the best because they’re the rawest, most stripped-back fights, focusing on the grandiose moves and big hits without having anything else in the way."
When fighting any number of enemies, you’ll come across the frustrating counter mechanic, though, which lets you press a button to slip out of an attack and sometimes reverse it. If you master this method, you can win virtually any fight without taking much damage, but it’s all too easy to press the wrong button because the timing is so sudden and short, especially when you’re mashing to get up from the ground. It’s a minor flaw in an altogether good combat system, but it can easily snowball into your getting juggled repeatedly as you struggle to guess which button is about to pop up.
Other modes are undoubtedly fun and put unique and interesting twists on the game that keep it from becoming stale, but when they become more complicated, the game’s cracks start to show, specifically its unintuitive controls and wonky AI. Two-on-two tag teams often boil down to a one-on-one showdown because it’s easier to manage having a single opponent, and the AI rarely switches out members if you don’t do so first. Any match with more than one enemy is where the game gets particularly shaky. The lock-on mechanic is most frustrating, so gauntlet matches, where you fight a series of enemies who appear when another is knocked out of the ring, quickly become difficult to keep track of, and because they can take so long, the ability to get knocked out of the ring without notice can be a heartbreaker, especially after a long build-up. Royal Rumbles, too, become hard to manage, and the enemy AI seems to prioritize hitting over winning, rarely ever trying to pin anyone and all but asking you to take the victory.
Steel cage matches are ones whose best matches are great but whose worst are nearly unplayable. Your goal is to collect bags of money along the sides of the cage, avoiding electric shocks at certain intervals, and, when you’ve reached a certain financial threshold, escape the cage before your opponent can do the same. In the best matches, these are some of the most fun because they offer the most tangible rewards for knocking down your foe, but more than once I came across matches that almost broke me, including one where the enemy was down for so little time, even at her lowest health, that I had almost no opportunity to escape whatsoever until her AI forced her into the electric shock. It feels like the AI is made less smart to make up for a lack of balance in some areas, and, while it usually works, its breakdowns are ever more noticeable.
"Other modes are undoubtedly fun and put unique and interesting twists on the game that keep it from becoming stale, but when they become more complicated, the game’s cracks start to show, specifically its unintuitive controls and wonky AI."
You’ll likely be spending most of your time in Battlegrounds in the campaign, which is both the most substantial and best mode offered. It runs through the story of seven different wrestling wannabes, each of whom is recruited by Stone Cold Steve Austin to participate in the “Battlegrounds” WWE events in their hometowns until they can prove their superstardom and be invited to WWE Smackdown. Told through comic book-style panels and illustrations, it has no spoken dialogue and places little emphasis on the characters themselves, choosing instead to emphasize the gameplay and let you get to the heart of the game quickly.
From the start, you can see the entire story progression, which has a linear critical path that took me around 7 hours to complete, giving you both a good introduction to the gameplay and a wide-ranging look at every type of fighter, game mode, and environment the game has to offer. You have the Brawler Billy Huggins who fights in the swamps of Florida to the tag team Technicians Cassie and Polly Velle who fight in their Boot Camp, and everything in between. Branching from the main path are numerous optional fights that lead you to other rewards, such as additional skills, which can only be unlocked in the campaign, and money. There are a few major difficulty spikes, especially later in the game, but the overall campaign is easily the most cohesive and well-rounded part of Battlegrounds. It’s substantial enough to keep you engaged without being overwhelming, and the branching paths give you a little bit more if you want to keep upgrading your characters.
The Battleground Challenge is the other major single-player mode, but this acts effectively as the endgame for your personal character. You can create your own character, which, like in previous games, allows you to create almost anything you can set your mind to, though with a few more limitations. After this, you have another massive tree of branching paths that all lead to particular rewards, mostly money. It’s not the place to start playing Battlegrounds, but if you’re looking for something to keep you coming back and letting you progress, this is where you’ll find yourself. Aside from this, the Tournament and King of the Battleground modes are standard online modes that don’t spice things up too much but give the game a little more staying power if you want to fight in online multiplayer.
"It’s difficult to get out of talking about Battlegrounds without mentioning the microtransactions, which are notably intrusive in some areas."
It’s difficult to get out of talking about Battlegrounds without mentioning the microtransactions, which are notably intrusive in some areas. You can upgrade your character’s power-ups, but only with the money you gain throughout the game or buy through microtransactions. And while you are given a handful of real-life WWE superstars, you have to buy the rest of them to use them. It also holds back a significant number of its cosmetics and battleground creation elements behind its currency. You can earn the money necessary to unlock anything through gameplay, but the amount of time needed to do so is astronomical, which, combined with the game’s willingness to bring you to the store to buy some Bucks, makes it clear what it wants you to do.
WWE 2K Battlegrounds is a massive step up for the franchise compared to the main franchise’s most recent entries. Though it’s offering a different experience in its more cartoonish, over-the-top style, it’s as much fun as I’ve had in a WWE game in a long time. Despite issues with the AI and some gameplay difficulties with more crowded game modes, I kept wanting to play Battlegrounds. Even with its intrusive microtransactions, this is the closest I’ve seen to a game fully capturing the essence of what makes the WWE special in a few years. It’s fluid, exaggerated, bug-free, and, most importantly, unbridled fun. It might not be the most impressive new game on the block, but it’s a great way to step into the ring once more.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Fun, fluid gameplay; Engaging campaign; Diverse characters and environments.
Inconsistent AI; Some lack of balance; Intrusive microtransactions.
WWE 2K Battlegrounds is a welcome spin-off for the franchise, giving it the extravagant, over-the-top, enjoyable gameplay that captures and magnifies the WWE’s best aspects.