WWE 2K23 review: Reality in the ring

(PS/Xb/PC) *** Age: 16+

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Ronan Price

VIDEOGAMES build their structure around pretence – you simulate being a soldier, pose as a race car driver, fake it as a detective. But in an even more metaphorical sense, wrestling games make you play pretend at a game of pretend.

The fans know WWE is a staged soap opera (um, they do, don’t they?) and tune in by their millions for the storylines as much as the meticulously choreographed violence. So it feels odd that WWE 2K3 – like all the wrestling titles that went before it – hands you the agency to win at will. Obviously, at some points you will encounter a guiding story arc but – for the most part – you’re free to be a chump or a champion as you see fit.

The 2K WWE series reached a nadir of quality in 2020, leading to a fallow year in 2021 where the game was re-engineered from the ground up before returning reasonably successfully in 2022. You could describe 2K23 as an incremental improvement but nonetheless a welcome one whose only real offence lies in its fondness for microtransactions. Their presence carries less weight than in, say, EA’s sports games but they’re always there, hovering on the margins.

The showmanship (indeed the showwomanship too) and presentation has gained a new lifelikeness, from the elaborate entrances down to the details of tattoos. Grappling and fighting blend smoothly into one another, with victories tied to inflicting as much damage as possible on specific limbs until you’re ready to pin your opponent to the canvas.

A new set of tutorials featuring WWE favourite Xavier Woods does a decent job of clueing you into the basics, specials and counters. If you fancy yourself a manager and a manipulator, pick from MyGM (general manager mode) or Universe (where you control the entire company). This is where 2K23 feels closest to its real-life inspiration, with all those manufactured rivalries and exaggerated preening.

But if all you want to do is kick seven shades out of a bunch of tough guys, head straight to War Games, a four-on-four bout featuring two rings. Here amid the chaos, you can beat people over the head with a Stop sign and set up outrageous and probably illegal tag moves while competing to remain the last men standing.

With almost 200 fighters in the roster and looking more shiny than any wrestling game ever has, WWE 2K23 allows the series to finally punch above its weight. More to the point, when you win, you know it’s down to you and not because some scriptwriter deemed it so.