As a longtime fan of WWE and wrestling in general, a question I’ve never asked is “Yeah, these choreographed acrobatics are good, but couldn’t there be more of a supernatural element?” What I mean is, I’ve never asked “What would it look like if NetherRealm (of Mortal Kombat fame) made a WWE game?” I present to you the answer to a question no one was clever enough to ask:
If your response to the above is, appropriately, “What the what?!” then let me enlighten you. You see, Bray Wyatt finally got access to the magic lamp and was poised to use it to bring power to his nefarious minions.
But he made the mistake of trusting the Authority to assist him. They betray him.
Trips and Steph proceed to try to use the lamp themselves and fail spectacularly, accidentally opening up portals to different dimensions. Dimensions where their foes and allies are more than just WWE Superstars. Where they are Demons and Centurions and Goat Creatures and Cave Men and Elementals. But we weren’t here for story so the fact that this much effort was put into giving us a reason why Cave Man Big E could fight Roman God Big E is actually laudable.
In any event, this all sounded great to me and for the reasonable price of no dollars I gave it a download. This is my story.
I first wondered how this was even going to work. I have no joystick and no buttons, you’ll see there are no buttons on the screen beyond the faces of you and your opponents and some sort of power bars on the bottom. A fighting game of all things seems like it would require something that I can rotate 90 degrees or press in sequence. Well it goes like this:
Battles are three on three. After a brief delay you can “tag” your teammates by tapping their faces in the top left corner. This delay resets after each tag so once you’re in you have to do something for at least a few seconds before you can tag out again. You attack initially by either tapping or swiping anywhere on the screen. A tap is a quick attack, tapping quickly up to three times combos together and, if timed correctly, adds the ability to swipe in a random direction to get some sort of special ability
This usually creates some distance between you and your opponent and pushes them closer to the edge of the screen. This becomes important.
Swiping creates a power attack, which knocks your opponent back closer to the edge of the screen and, conveniently, usually pushes them out of range of a quick attack even if they are blocking.
Blocking is accomplished, cleverly, by holding any two fingers on the screen anywhere. It shouldn’t work but it does. You’ll end up blocking a lot.
Damage taken and damage dealt are your primary ways of generating “adrenaline”, a resource you use to do signature attacks and finishers. Signatures and finishers do a lot of damage and often some special effect. And when I say a lot of damage I mean a lot. The game is more about biding your time until you can charge enough adrenaline and then getting your opponent into a situation where they don’t block your special attack.
I say all this not because I’m intending to give you a guide but because I didn’t think this would work and it totally does. The adrenaline system, combined with the fact that taking hits generates quite a lot more adrenaline than dishing them out, makes for a nice back and forth that makes it harder to just mash attack until you win. The way the knockbacks work create a tug of war where, if you can corner your opponent by pushing them back then you can start chaining strong attacks with quick attacks and do more damage while you are charging your special attacks.
The special attacks, beyond having various methods like “swipe this direction fast” or “tap here quickly” to add more damage, also tend to have special effects that add an additional element of strategy. One of the earliest characters, Paige, can use her initial special attack to drain opponents’ adrenaline. So a solid early game strategy would be to build Paige adrenaline and save it until your opponent has some adrenaline stored and then tag her in to drain it and tag out to continue a beat down with a more offensive character. It’s fairly sophisticated for what I was expecting to be an excuse to see really pretty versions of WWE superstars.
And yeah, the WWE superstars are pretty. I’m sure the temptation was there to skimp on the art or the engine or both in favor of a more fun game but it doesn’t look like that was done here at all. For one thing they are using the Unreal engine, which creates really smooth physics and interactions.
The environments, common to NetherRealm titles, are characters in and of themselves. Check this out, for example:
That’s not just a random alley in which to fight. It’s the storefront of Bam Bam Bigelow’s Tattoo. You’ll notice the MIZ apparently tagged that wall, using an upside down attitude era WWE logo as him trademark. And someone in this world just runs around with “yes!” stencils. So, while it’s essentially a backdrop that you can’t interact with at all as this is a strictly 2-D fighter, it serves to do a little world building and helps just enough with immersion to serve it’s purpose. And it’s pretty. If you’re into that sort of thing.
The decision making around the special abilities impressed me. They managed to splice together the common moves of the wrestlers with the supernatural elements in ways that made a reasonable amount of sense. Demon Kane tends to set people on fire (his entrance, and origin story, in the WWE incorporates a lot of fire) while Randy Orton, the sly, slithering star of all those vines from last year, becomes reptilian and poisonous.
And everyone’s specials/finishers are very intense versions of their wrestling finishers/trademarks. Undertaker does a leaping spinning version of his Chokeslam and Tombstone’s his opponents so hard that they bounce up and into a waiting casket which he then strikes with lightning. Triple H’s knee and spinebuster are present, as are Big E’s backbreaker and belly to belly. Everyone feels authentic but at the same time fits in the supernatural universe.
A necessary word on the freemium aspect of this title. There is a definite way a free game can do that right and a way it can be done wrong. The game has to make money but it also needs to give some method with which an enterprising cheapskate can earn rewards as well. This game leans heavily in the direction of not making money which, you know, is great for the player but doesn’t reward people that want to give the hard working people that make the game some monetary compensation for their efforts. If you’re curious about dollar figures, it costs 14 dollars to get a random “gold” character and 23 to get the gold character of your choice. A team is made of three characters and generally people who play a lot want more like six characters. Those numbers would need to be halved at least before they got my money.
While the pricing model is steep the level at which you can earn the “premium currency” is very fair. Earning a gold character can take about 2 hours, if you don’t spend the currency on other things and you can tack on another hour to get the character of your choice. There are of course other things you can purchase with said currency but the time/reward is fair, is what I mean.
All told this was a great diversion. It absorbed my attention for about a week and then became something I did when I had my tablet and wasn’t otherwise engaged. It is satisfying to play, like most fighting games are, but can be challenging/strategic if you want it to be. For your money, and perhaps more importantly for your time, it is worth an attempt.