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Best for business

Back in August, when I got to go hands-on for the first time with WWE 2K15, 2K revealed that the series would fall more in line with NBA 2K and feature a career mode for the first time. This past week, I was able to go hands-on with MyCareer mode for WWE 2K15 for about 45 minutes and take a look at life in the squared circle at three separate stages.

First, however, I must say that I was a bit disappointed I wasn’t allowed to play at all with the customization features for which the series is known. Of course, you’ll be able to do this in the final game, but “my” wrestler was pre-made. Although the couple of created characters we played with gave a nice overview of different hair colors, body types, and luchador masks, it wasn’t really the same as actually being able to dig through the creative options.

Beyond this, though, WWE 2K15’s MyCareer mode impressed me in a lot of ways. I began my journey as a wet-behind-the-ears rookie with a 55 overall rating. Without any pomp and circumstance, I was thrown into one of the seven rings available at a digital re-creation of the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, the company’s new home for training up-and-coming superstars.

And who was there, immediately barking orders and telling me how awful I was? WWE head trainer Bill DeMott. Now, Mr. DeMott is a very nice person, and I was fortunate enough to actually meet him at the Performance Center last week. But when you’re one of his students and you step into one of his rings, things change, and my created wrestler had Bill’s ire fall upon his head several times—and it was awesome.

As I worked matches in the ring, I received a one-to-five-star rating based on how I did in the and the show I put on for the crowd (if there’d been an audience besides good ol’ Bill). A match’s ebb and flow is also taken into consideration, so dominating against a jobber might not be best for business when you’re trying to tell a story in the ring. This made the new stamina bar (which I’ve now confirmed cannot be turned off) make a lot more sense, since it allowed my opponent a chance to get in a few strikes and provide at least a little bit of offense as I tried to catch my breath to perform my finisher. After the match, I got points to spend on my wrestler and level up his in-ring abilities, such as arm strength, speed, and stamina.

Once I was done messing around with my rookie, I flashed forward in my career and made it to the main RAW roster. At this point, I’d only been on the show a few weeks. It was immediately evident that no matter whether I won or lost, MyCareer mode would carry on and adjust accordingly. If I was in the midst of a rivalry, matches against other wrestlers weren’t as important, but they helped set up the story—a rival might interfere with our match or try to get in a cheap shot when I wasn’t looking. And even if I lost the match against my rival, I could still elevate my status in WWE and try to become a main-eventer.

Since the WWE had clearly invested a lot in me, though, in order to help elevate my brand, they wanted me to start a feud with an established star—and, in my case, I drew Daniel Bryan. I had the choice of shaking his hand to start a friendly rivalry or giving him a low blow. I gave him the low blow, which promptly started a “No!” chant led by my character.

I then flashed forward one more time to almost seven years into my career. By this point, I’d won a few titles, including the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, and main-evented some pay-per-views. I was still wrestling at a high clip, but then Brock Lesnar decided to show up and demonstrate what he thought of me by F5’ing me in the middle of the ring. This prompted a Twitter feud between Brock’s advocate, Paul Heyman, and me, where I could choose to respond to Heyman via a couple of options—much like I had the choice on how to kick off my feud with Bryan. Meanwhile, in the ring, over the course of several weeks, Brock and I continued getting in each other’s faces—until finally, Heyman said the two of us would meet in a no-disqualification match at the next PPV.

Though I only saw a brief glimpse of MyCareer mode, it definitely feels like something that I could play again and again just to see how my superstar’s career could change each time based on decisions I made. Also, storylines you might see in real life started to unfold organically, which made it feel like I was watching actual WWE programming and not just playing a game. If MyCareer can give me this feeling for hours on end, WWE 2K15 now has a mode to elevate the franchise to the next level—and I can’t wait to really dig into it on the new generation of consoles.

Kicking the tires

The ideas of open-world exploration and story aren’t usually synonymous with racing titles. A spin-off game from Microsoft’s popular Forza franchise, Forza Horizon, bucked the trend, though, and delivered a fun, fresh take on the genre back in 2012. It was welcomed back then as a breath of fresh air, so it’s no surprise that high hopes surrounded the follow-up, Forza Horizon 2.

Primary developer Playground Games committed themselves to making sure Horizon 2 was bigger and better in almost every possible way. Moving from the Rocky Mountain roads of Colorado, the Horizon music and racing festival has now set up shop on the Italy-France border, creating a fictional space that’s not only far larger than the first game but also more diverse. Whether it’s the beach resort town of Nice, France or the fields and old-world charm of Castelletto, Italy, each of the game’s six regions feel unique and exude an authentic Western European vibe.

Also, as we’ve come to expect from every Forza, the cars look absolutely spectacular. The game’s cover car, the Lamborghini Huracán, the 1960s Chevy Corvette Stingray, or even something like the Volkswagen Rabbit—along with more than 200 others—have been crafted to look exactly like their real-world counterparts, and they all shine brilliantly on the Xbox One.

Each car also handles much like you’d expect they would in the real world, but a new addition to Horizon 2 pushes that handling to the limit. Along with the returning day-night cycle, a new weather system makes its debut here. Rain not only changes how your car drifts and takes turns in races and out in the open world, but roads remain slick well after the rain has stopped, providing not only a major new hazard for racers to contend with but also a little welcome variety.

Speaking of variety, each region features wide-open spaces that just scream for you to take your car off-roading and cut corners between winding roads. While you could do that sometimes in the first game, far fewer boundaries will impede you here as fields of roses, wheat, lavender, and dry brush dot the landscape. It became a guilty pleasure to carve crop circles into each respective field, racking up my wreckage multiplier, and then hightailing it back onto the road, looking in my rearview at the carnage I’d wrought. These off-roading segments are also the theme of many races and provide a true sense of freedom, since no barriers hem you in or tell you how to reach the next checkpoint (yes, there’s a suggested path, but you’re often better off ignoring it).

There’s more to do beyond just traditional racing at the Horizon festival, particularly since the game offers rewards for exploring the nooks and crannies of the map with the return of Barn Finds, 10 hidden gem cars scattered about the game world. Forza Horizon 2 also features six new showcase events, allowing you to race head-to-head against a train, several planes, hot-air balloons, and more. The most interesting addition, though, may be the new Bucket List—30 different challenges spread around the map that offer special objectives ranging from the simple, such as driving along the coast in a certain amount of time in a Ferrari, to the maddening, like driving a Bowler Wildcat through a forest back to the Horizon Festival main tent.

On paper, Forza Horizon 2 offers plenty more to keep you occupied compared to the first game, and there’s no denying that it plays wonderfully. The addition of Drivatar AI opponents even adds a little extra flair, with the knowledge that when one of my friend’s avatars tries to squeeze me into a sideboard on a track when we’re up against each other, that’s what they’d actually do if we were playing together. That said, playing the game on Medium difficulty and with only a couple of braking assists, I was still able to take first place in every race I was in and found the clock in Bucket List challenges to be far more of an opponent.

But there’s one thing missing this time around that left me horribly disappointed: the game’s heart. To begin with, the story mode is a shell of its former self. This iteration offers many more races (nearly 700 total across 168 championships, though you only need to clear about 65 races over 15 championships if you want to get right to the final race), but all the charm’s been sucked out.

Much like in the original Forza Horizon, your objective here is to become the champion of the festival. In the first game, however, you had to knock off other championship contenders who specialized in particular cars. They offered a rarity in racing games: nemeses with personality and panache. Here, they’ve been replaced by nothing more than the Horizon organizer telling you how many more races you have to win to qualify for the finale. It becomes just a mundane, soulless countdown of championships—punctuated by the same, dull repetitive commentary—that starts to feel more and more like a grind as you move from region to region, choosing which of each area’s respective 28 championships you wish to take part in.

The popularity aspect of single-player portion has also been removed. In the first Horizon, you had to perform tricks and win races to move up in the popularity standings of the festival. This was another way to prove if you were worthy of a championship run. Here, in order to help streamline the seamless transition to multiplayer, you have a pair of XP bars that can be filled in both single-player and online. As you gain levels from tricks, you receive skill points that can be spent on unique upgrades—of which there are only a couple dozen, and they aren’t nearly as satisfying to acquire as moving up the popularity leaderboard. As you gain levels from winning races, you get new wristbands, just like in the first game. In the original, though, these opened up new races; here, they do nothing except change the color of your XP bar—a sad attempt at carrying over aspects of the first game that have now lost all meaning.

I will say, at least, that the multiplayer transition is impressive. Mind you, it should be noted that I played with only a handful of others online, and it worked fine, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens with the servers when the game actually launches with, I’d imagine, many more people populating them. The idea, though, is that with a simple button press from the menu or map, you can start searching for online games. When you find enough people, it becomes an impromptu race to one of the game’s six regions if you select Road Trip, or you can simply Free Roam with your friends and challenge others on the fly.

If you do Road Trip, when everyone gets to the destination, you begin a series of four events to determine the winner and see who takes home the online championship. You can also play the returning Playground Games, a group of offbeat multiplayer challenges that are less about racing and more about surviving—like Infected, which declares that the last person to be hit by an “infected” car wins.

In many ways, it’s clear that Forza Horizon 2 is definitely bigger than the original. It’s a great racer in terms of gameplay and chock-full of content that could potentially keep you busy for months on end. But gutting the story—and taking away one of the key pillars that made the first Forza Horizon so special—to blur the line between single- and multiplayer left a sour taste in my mouth. If all you care about is getting behind the wheel and scenic European vistas, though, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better experience.

Developer: Playground Games/Turn 10 Studios • Publisher: Microsoft Studios • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 09.30.14
7.5
Bigger doesn’t always equate to better. Forza Horizon 2 definitely delivers a gameplay experience a step above its predecessor, but gutting story mode leaves the single-player soulless and more akin to a grind.
The Good A larger, more beautifully detailed world to explore; seamless multiplayer integration.
The Bad The story is nearly nonexistent.
The Ugly Tons of new music tracks—and still nothing good on the radio.
Forza Horizon 2 is available on Xbox One and Xbox 360. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Microsoft for the benefit of this review.

It’s never easy trying to reboot a franchise, especially when you’re doing it to an IP that has as much history as Wolfenstein. But new developer MachineGames wasn’t going to let that deter them from telling the kind of story they felt B.J. Blazkowicz deserved. We sat down and talked with Jens Matthies, Wolfenstein: The New Order’s creative director, to get the lowdown on this process and how the project first came about.

EGM: How did Wolfenstein: The New Order come about?

Jens Matthies: We knew [Zenimax] had bought id Software at that time about a year earlier and had all of their IP, and everyone at MachineGames are huge id Software fans. We all grew up playing their games. Games like Quake are the reason many of us at MachineGames are even in the industry, because you could modify that game. I started building levels and textures for Quake, and that allowed me to build a portfolio, and that allowed me to get a job in the industry back in the day. So, for me personally, id’s games have a special place in my heart.

When we started talking with Bethesda the first thing we asked them was if anyone was working on Wolfenstein. They said nobody was, so we responded by asking if we could give it a crack. Then we reached out to id and talked some with them, and everything just grew from that. We had a number of meetings with id Software, where they talked to us more in depth about Wolfenstein, and from there we started tinkering with several ideas for the kind of setting for a new game. This idea of the Nazis taking over the world, and having done so using some sort of very advanced technology came about. Then we figured we could move the timeline forward, so the world would be completely different from what you were used to with a Wolfenstein game. This was a very powerful concept for us, because it had such fertile soil for us to build creative ideas on.

We pitched it to id and they really liked it, and then we pitched it to Bethesda and they really liked it, and that was the game that we made.

EGM: For a very long time, people really didn’t know what to expect from this game. It never really seemed to fully come together until people sat down and actually played the game the entire way through. How hard was it to convey this was still a Wolfenstein game to people while saving all the major details that made it so good in the end?

JM: It’s always a problem for us to really sum up the experience in a short segment because of the kinds of games that we make. One of the reasons is that we love to give lots of variations in terms of settings and player interactions and storytelling. So, if you cut a half-hour segment out of the game, it’s not representative enough of the game, because the next half-hour will be different and the half-hour after that will be different from those. It’s hard for us to condense it into something that gives an overview. Depending on what half-hour segment you pick of the game, you’d have a different view of what the game is [based on] that snippet.

I think that’s very different from most other games, which tend to be more vertical slice–focused, where you have that half-hour and the rest of the game simply repeats that half-hour. It has the same look and feel and the same gameplay rhythm. Whereas we just don’t operate in that way. We look at the game holistically and build an arc for the player from start to finish, with ebbs and flows, and that has a much more strategic narrative flow. But I’m very happy now that the game is out and people are out there playing it and we can communicate about it since people understand fully what it is now.

EGM: Wolfenstein is a gaming franchise with a very rich legacy. Was it ever extra daunting or intimidating once it sank in, that you were working on the next chapter on a franchise with so much history?

JM: Well, I wouldn’t say it was extra daunting, because anytime you do this kind of game, it’s such a monumental undertaking that even if everything goes perfectly, it’s still at least a three-year process. This game ended up being three and a half years for us. That’s a big chunk of your life. That’s a big chunk of the whole team’s life. And it’s very important then that at the end of the development process you have something that was worth that kind of commitment in regards to the work and time you put into it. I think that, more than anything, is where the pressure comes from. Whatever IP you’re working on carries less pressure than the fact you are spending such an incredible amount of time and money and resources on making something, and it’s really important that it comes together.

Most of the major decisions that you make are early on. Things that don’t get their final polish and their final stage of execution until the final months of the project have all been planned and conceptualized very meticulously in the early months of the project. So it’s very important that the foundation you build early on is solid enough so it doesn’t break halfway through, or suddenly lots of things don’t work and you can’t do anything about it because the train is already in motion. I think that’s something we’ve gotten progressively better at over the years. There’s been a lot less rolling with the punches this time around, and we could focus on executing the vision we had early on.

EGM: You guys bucked the trend by not including a multiplayer mode, which is almost unheard of nowadays for a FPS game. What went into that decision? Was there ever any push back?

JM: This was really a testament to Bethesda as a publisher. They will give you a huge amount of trust as a developer. Whenever we say things like we feel the best possible game we can make is when the team is just focusing on one thing—in this case the single player—and we eliminate all the distractions around that, Bethesda is the kind of publisher that respects that. They trust the developer, but they are also primarily focused on whatever factors there are that can provide the best possible game, because they feel comfortable on selling a game on it’s merits and its quality. And this is vastly different from many other publishers, which operate under different sets of rules. Other publishers, they talk about a lot of things that are marketing-driven, a lot of things that are driven by other goals than what the developer feels will make the best possible game. This is also the big reason why we really wanted to work with Bethesda, because they have this tremendous process of working with developers. There was never any pushback. Obviously, questions were asked, but this is a publisher that you can explain your point of view and they’ll get it, and that’s very rare in our industry. It’s an amazing thing as a developer.

EGM: Let’s talk about B.J. a little bit. This is the most fully fleshed out B.J. has ever been as a character. Was it difficult expanding on a character who already had a bit of a history in gaming? Were there specific things from the past you wanted to keep? Was it hard filling in the blanks?

JM: The thing about B.J. is that, when we started this project, he was a lot more open because he’s been interpreted differently a couple of times before in different games, and the agreed upon facts about him are fairly few. There’s some backstory and some lore, but there was never an in-depth characterization we had to worry about conflicting with. The hard part was making our own choices on what we considered to be the roots of the character and building on those to make the most compelling character we could.

Very early on, we settled on his image from the pixel face in the original Wolfenstein 3D, because we felt that was the most pure and true piece of information about him. At that time, when the guys at id decided, with the sensibilities they had at the time, inventing a genre as young guys, that this was the guy, with the square jaw and the muscles on this grunt—which I’m sure was very inspired by the Sylvester Stallones and Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the late ’80s and early ’90s. And that, at least, we didn’t want to shy away from. We wanted to see if we could make that character, who is really sort of an action hero cliché, and give him the depth and really make the player experience what it is to be this guy. That, to us, was just so much more interesting than doing some sort of modern version that just turns [him] into, like, a Nathan Drake clone, because that’s what most shooter protagonists are like these days. But that was our thought process around that.

EGM: Will shooting Nazis ever get old?

JM: [Laughs] Well, there certainly was a period there with Call of Duty and Medal of Honor where that was the norm. And I guess Battlefield did that, too. But it’s been a while, so I think the timing felt especially right to bring back some good old fashioned Nazi killing.

EGM: I think the moments in Wolfenstein: The New Order that surprised me the most were the downtime segments you had in the resistance base. It was such a huge change of pace, and almost felt RPG-like in regards to the missions you had to do there. What was the reasoning behind those levels and what were you hoping to accomplish with them?

JM: From very early on, both internally and from when we started talking to the media about the game, we wanted this to be an action-adventure shooter more than just a straight-up FPS game. In broad stroke terms, it is good for pacing because if it was all action all the time the game could get numbing after a while. You need to mix it up and activate different problem-solving skills in the brain just to keep everything fresh and interesting. But it’s also great to find a way to anchor the story and the player experience into something that is more emotional relatable, because a game like this, fundamentally, is just so over-the-top crazy that if you don’t provide a counter-balance with intimacy or drama that you can feel something towards it can become alienating emotionally for a player. So, the moments with the resistance serve that purpose.

It’s all well and good to have strong gameplay mechanics and an addictive gameplay loop, but if you can also anchor that in a way that makes the player feel like they’re fighting for something worth fighting for then it just makes the experience that much stronger, and that’s always our goal. We want to integrate the story and the gameplay in a way that they’re both pulling you in the same direction. The story reinforces the gameplay and the gameplay reinforces the story.

EGM: The New Order has a perk system where you normally have to accomplish a certain set of objectives to activate the next set of potential perks to then unlock. Is setting that up in a linear order like you did a way to challenge players to possibly try different play-styles in the campaign? What was the reasoning behind that?

JM: Another focus for Wolfenstein: The New Order was definitely that you could play it in a broad array of ways. It allows for many playstyles. You can play it more tactically and stealthily, creeping forward through the levels. Some situations force you think more on your feet, with enemies charging you and the cover breaking so you can’t really camp out for too long, but it’s definitely easy to miss out on some of those aspects of the gameplay. So the perks were a way to incentivize the player to try different things. You can also play the game very aggressively, dual-wielding massive shotguns and whatnot. The perks system was a way to make you get a taste of different playstyles if you wanted to unlock their rewards. Plus, it could be a bit of an eye-opener if you’d suddenly rather play these other ways. What we found was people who default into one playstyle or another, would incorporate these other methods at certain points and broaden their playstyle over the course of the entire game.

The reason why they’re not all unlockable at the start is that they would just unlock too randomly. We want you to engage more directly with the system and think about how you’re taking on each situation strategically. If everything was unlockable from the start, the system could end just being some sort of background noise for you, and suddenly you’d get better or have more of something and not realize why because you’re engaging less with the system. But by structuring the system the way we did, everything happens less by chance and more by you choosing to go after a perk and unlocking it. This also makes it feel more like an actual achievement for the player and not a random reward.

EGM: Part of what that also speaks to, I believe, is that it adds another layer of replayability to the campaign. Another aspect of replayability came through in the critical choice you force players to make at the start of the campaign. What was the inspiration behind that singular choice and what affect did it have on you developing the game?

JM: It had to do with creating meaningful, emotional engines for the player to propel them through the narrative. That’s the thing with a game: It’s not enough to just have a story, or just have context, because, in a game, you as a player are in charge of advancing it and finishing it or not. From a story point of view, then, you need players emotionally invested in the outcome. When we develop and antagonist like Deathshead, he has to do something to you, the player, that motivates you to hunt this guy down and sticks with you the whole game so that you keep going after him to put an end to him. That choice was one of those things where if you, the player, are the one making the choice, then you are emotionally invested from then on for the rest of the game. Once we came up with it, we realized that we had to do these two timelines and decided how we would separate them from one another. There was a huge ripple effect from that one idea, but we felt that it was so cool because no one had really done anything like that before in this kind of game.

EGM: Were you ever tempted to insert more choices like that and have several branches in the story?

JM: It’s an interesting question, and I think it’s just the difference between how we view the game as the developer and how a journalist or just a player might view it. For us, it’s not about milking an idea until its dead. We do a lot of things in the game only once, because it’s really powerful once, but the more you do something, the less powerful it gets. Whatever ideas we may have, its rare that we think we should do it 20 more times. It’s more that we have a cool idea, we implement it, and then try to come up with more cool ideas. It helps build up a unique narration full of unique moments as opposed to just variation on the same moment. And, of course, doing something like this has a production aspect to it. If we were to branch off several more times, it would lead to a copious amount of work to support all that. But we never really got into that discussion. We felt like the choice was a really great, signature moment from the game and we never felt like that needed to be repeated.

EGM:  The atmosphere of the game is almost unto a character in and of itself. Can you talk to us some about the use of music and voice acting was critical to helping convey some more subtle messages within the game?

JM: There is one aspect of it that has to do with sticking with the vision. And that is harder than you may think, because there are so many different disciplines that go into making a game. It’s very easy for the disciplines to get atomized and isolated from each other, but what you really need in order to execute a project properly is cross-disciplinary cohesion. So, if I write a scene, just because I know what the scene is about and what the scene is supposed to convey, I will have information about that, which can help guide other aspects of it. It’s everything from audio to lighting and camera angles. If we had hired some script guy to write the script and someone else to record the voices and someone else to lay music over that, it wouldn’t be as strong. You need the understanding about what everything is and what they mean and why they’re there to in order to be available to everyone who might work with it. So that’s one side of it, and why we keep everything that has to do with that original vision very active throughout the development.

The other aspect is that you have to have really talented people that can take an idea and actually execute it the way it needs to be executed. The audio designers, for example, are involved with the creative process the entire way through, and the composer that we hired, Mick Gordon, is just an incredibly talented guy. We could just give him very basic, broad stroke thoughts about a scene or a moment or a gameplay section, and he was able to turn those ideas into the perfect pieces of music. Unless you have those kinds of people on the team, it just doesn’t work, but we are fortunate to have a lot of talented people here.

Same thing with the voice performance aspect. Our director specializes in directing actors. His name is Tom Keegan, and he is very much my mentor when it comes to directing actors. We had this very intense collaboration with everything from the casting to all of the recording of the performances. Just making sure you cast a game correctly is incredibly important. I had worked on a couple of games before, and that extra experience when it comes to casting was critical. Its weird, too, because there are some parts that you think are going to be hard to cast turn out to be easy and some parts you think will be easy to fill turn out to be extremely hard. But you cannot compromise on that. And then you get into the studio for full performance capture, which we helped pioneer back in 2005 with The Darkness, so we have a lot of experience with it. That helps, because it is a completely alien environment. [The actors] have nothing they can relate to with regard to real world objects or people because everyone is dressed up in these crazy looking tights. In that high pressure environment, the actors have to find an emotional truth for them to express, and directing all of that it is critical to know exactly what you’re after so that you can help the actor get there. So when we’re in a recording session, I’m the only one in the room who has some sort of conceptual understanding of how that will look in the game. Everyone else doesn’t know how everything will come together in the end, so you have to have that vision with you all the way through so you can measure what you’re seeing and recording and see how all the puzzle pieces will go to together in the end.

Basically, over the years you accumulate a backlog of f***-ups and you try not to do them again. That’s what experience is all about.

EGM: You mentioned earlier the advantages of cross-disciplinary knowledge. Does that help you maintain focus over a three and a half year development cycle?

JM: I think it does. I started out making textures and levels. I’ve done art for computer graphics in one way or another longer than anything. I started when I was 12, so it’s been a long time. I’m very much an artist; it’s my foundation and visuals have always interested me. The more experience I got in making games, the more I realized it wasn’t enough making sure textures and levels looked good. There are so many other dimensions to a game that matter, and if they don’t do their part it doesn’t matter if the textures and levels look good. What started happening was, I started broadening my skillset and scope of a game and from that I became an art director and from that I started dabbling in the story aspects and that naturally got me into dealing with the animation side of things, which led to audio, and then for this game I figured I might as well write the whole thing myself. It’s not all me, of course—I had help—but I had never really been behind the keyboard before. Actually writing the story, I’d write a scene here or there and I’d be more focused on the execution of the story on the recording side and the implementation side and all that. But that’s been my journey, to broaden my skillset and the depth and breadth of my scope. I think it has to be that way.

This kind of game is so big and so vast in its complexity that one person cannot be on top of everything, though. There has to be so much cooperation for everything to work and negotiating with people’s different sense of sensibilities to come together into a cohesive whole. That is essentially what it’s all about. But there is also the side of it where it’s very personally rewarding for me to do different kinds of work throughout the process. In the beginning it was just me and the keyboard writing text. Then later it’s massive shoots and recording sessions, and even later on after that it’s doing camera work for our cinematics and just talking to the audio people and the animators and the lighting people and the modelers, and its very rewarding to have that much variation in your work.

EGM: The game has been well received by fans and press alike. At this point it’s been a few months after the release. Have you given any thought as to what MachineGames next project may be going forward at this point in time?

JM: We think about that all the time and we would love to do a sequel. We always thought about a sequel while making this game, so we have a lot of ideas in The New Order that we could build upon for a sequel. A sequel would be the dream next project for us.

A magnificent mash-up

Whenever players first hear about a videogame mashup, there are typically two distinct reactions. Some will freak out as their eyeballs gush tears of joy in a manner befitting an anime character and their mind explodes due to the onslaught of unbelievable awesomeness. Others have a more subdued reaction: their face plastered with a look of puzzlement as the world around them slowly shatters due to the immense confusion with which they’re suddenly burdened.

When I first heard about Hyrule Warriors, I admit I fell into the latter category. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Legend of Zelda. I even like Dynasty Warriors, to be honest. But mixing the two together? Please don’t tell Nintendo of America president and COO Reggie Fils-Aimé, but my body was simply not ready. My state of corporeal preparedness aside, the day has come where Hyrule Warriors now sits in my Wii U.

What surprised me right away about Hyrule Warriors was the story. On the surface, sure, we’ve heard it all before. A hero named Link must once again save Hyrule from an unfathomable evil. But this time, he must do it across time and space, visiting Legend of Zelda realms from the past (Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword specifically) to prevent the four fragments of an eternal evil from reuniting.

Though it sounds simple enough, the story finds a way to stay true to the classic Legend of Zelda formulapaying proper homage when necessarywhile also adding its own wrinkles on how characters came to be and how they aid Link on his quest. Everything’s familiar enough to give welcome pangs of nostalgia, but not quite so unoriginal as to feel brainlessly derivative or lacking in value of its own.

The narrative was also far longer than I expected. The main campaign lasts 18 missions, each about 30 to 40 minutes, and the story takes unexpected twists and turns, thrusting you into the shoes of heroes besides Link to take advantage of the Dynasty Warriors gameplay elements. The only part of the story that disappointed me? The fact that Koei Tecmo couldn’t find a way to work with Nintendo and make this adventure fall somewhere in the convoluted Zelda canon.

If the story makes brilliant use of its Zelda source material, the gameplay is where the Dynasty Warriors part of this mashup comes through. Droves of Bokoblins, Stalfos, and other classic Zelda enemies fill the screen as you hack and slash your way through literally thousands of them during each mission while trying to capture castles, keeps, or forts, and rout the dark forces.

However, it seems like the the development team’s efforts went into trying to fit all those enemies onscreen at once, because the levels that you fight through are some of the most generic, bland locales ever to exist in Hyrule. At least you get something for flaying as many baddies as possible, since Link and the other playable heroes and villains can level up by grinding through those seemingly endless hordes, earning better weapons and crafting materials that provide stat boosts to each character.

To give the gameplay a Legend of Zelda twist, however, each new level often contains a classic dungeon itemsuch as the boomerang, bow and arrow, hookshot, or bomb—which are then used to vanquish familiar bosses like King Dodongo or Gohma.

Unfortunately, even the addition of these classic items can’t prevent the gameplay from getting a bit tedious, even for the most devoted of Zelda fans, since the game quickly devolves into the mindless abuse of a single button. The lack of enemy difficulty is only trumped by the pitiful ally AI that always seems to find a way to get into trouble with these simpleton minions. Even the boss battles quickly become tiresome and simple, with no single creature proving to be a true threat—except when you’re surrounded by the never-ending waves of underlings that often come to their aid.

Fortunately, there’s a lot more waiting to be discovered just beneath Hyrule Warriors’ surface if you can tolerate the somewhat monotonous gameplay. After beating the story, you unlock Hero Mode (an ultra-hard difficulty for all the levels), as well as the ability to go back and replay any level with any hero in Free Play mode. Each level also has hidden gold skulltulas—with a grand total of 100 in the gamethat unlock special art and items as you find more.

The biggest replayability factor, however, might be Adventure mode, which opens up on a 8-bit world map from the original NES Legend of Zelda. Here, you can take on an assortment of challenges, such as killing a certain amount of enemies within a specific time limit, fighting all the bosses in quick succession, or even just answering a quiz based on the game. Each completed challenge unlocks more and more of the map and will sometimes reward you with new items that can be taken back into Story mode. You can also level up the heroes you don’t play with as often, since some sections require specific characters to earn an “A” completion ranking.

Overall, Nintendo and Koei Tecmo did a great job putting a unique spin on one of gaming’s crown-jewel franchises. It’s a mashup that most of us didn’t really want, but we should be happy now that we have it. If you love hack-n-slash games or are just a Legend of Zelda aficionado, then there’s more than enough in Hyrule Warriors to satisfy both those needs.

Developer: Team Ninja, Omega Force • Publisher: Nintendo, Koei Tecmo • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 09.26.14
8.0
If hack-n-slash games are your jamor you can tolerate them but really just love The Legend of Zelda in all its iterations—then Hyrule Warriors is a more-than-worthy warmup for Link on the Wii U.
The Good A unique take on the Legend of Zelda formula that will appeal to fans of the franchise.
The Bad The hack-n-slash gameplay can get repetitive; bosses feel like pushovers.
The Ugly Darunia’s victory dance makes me never want to play with him ever again.
Hyrule Warriors is a Wii U exclusive. Review code was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this review.

A shorthanded debut

NHL 14 was the pinnacle for EA Sports’ NHL franchise—and that’s saying something, considering its quality and consistency for more than two decades. It seemed like the folks at EA Canada had crammed in every mode and feature they could come up with and pushed the technology to its limits on the last generation of consoles. But this peak seemed to come at a perfect time, since it was just as we began the transition to new consoles. It seemed more than plausible that EA Canada could reach new heights this year with NHL 15 on new-gen hardware.

Unfortunately, this is another case where expectations were greater than reality. It’s not that the on-ice product is bad with NHL 15. In fact, once you decide to start a game in Be a Pro, Be a GM, or any of the other modes, actually playing a game of hockey might be better than ever. The new NBC presentation package makes it feel like every game is Game of the Week, and commentary from the team of Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Ray Ferraro is stellar. I’m about 40 games into my Be a GM mode (I play every game of the season), and I’m just now starting to hear some repeat commentary, but I’m still getting surprised here and there.

The graphics have also made a spectacular transition to the new console generation, and everything looks sharper and crisper—you can almost feel the chill of the ice itself. What’s more, the player models are amazingly realistic and even borrow a few tricks from EA Sports UFC when it comes to bruising and facial contortions from fights. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the eye of a guy you pummeled in an earlier bout swelled shut by the third period.

The biggest improvement comes from the revamped physics, though: huge player pileups when you crash the net, realistic puck bounces that lead to frustrating turnovers or fortunate close calls, and more dynamic goalie saves make it seem like you’re watching a game in real life. All the goal-scoring glitches of past years have seemingly been erased as well—the AI’s improved all around, and your opponent always tries to anticipate your every move. And even the issues with faceoffs—my one disappointment from last year’s game—are now fixed, since you can use your stick with more pinpoint precision than ever before.

When you get off the ice, however, everything takes a horribly sour turn. Countless modes from previous years have been nixed. Even with patches coming in during the next 60 days to bring back Playoff Mode and Online Team Play, you’re still missing EA Sports Hockey League, Winter Classic, and Be a Legend. NHL Moments Live mode from NHL 13 was brought back to cushion this blow, but you still don’t want modes completely removed from the game. It feels like instead of continuing to build on what they’d created over the previous few years, EA Canada instead hit the reset button with new-gen.

The worst part, though, may be the fact that EA Canada scaled back the modes that did make it into the game. Be a Pro has lost the “Live the Life” feature introduced in last year’s game, which allowed you to interact with teammates, family, fans, and the front office and deal with a balancing metagame as you tried to keep everyone in your life happy while also maintaining a high level of on-ice play.

You’ve also lost the ability to simulate to your next shift in Be a Pro. Now, you have to watch the entire game on the bench when you’re not playing, whereas last year, a button press would move you forward in time. This becomes particularly painful if you take a penalty and then have to watch the minutes tick off on the clock from the sin bin. I don’t want to watch a hockey videogame. I want to play. These subtle omissions have turned one of my favorite modes from last year into an afterthought when I boot up the game now.

Be a GM has its own set of issues now, too. To begin with, your team’s AHL affiliate has been completely done away with—now, minor-league players are just “in the system” instead of accumulating any stats or progress whatsoever. There’s also no GM tracking mechanic anymore to let you know how you’re doing or to give you an idea of what goals you need to aim for. The preseason and fantasy-draft options have also been removed, and the year-end draft for each season is fully automated by the CPU. If I’m running a franchise, I want to run the franchise! Don’t take any aspect of that away from me—and especially don’t assign it to the computer!

To make matters worse, the little control you still have left becomes all the more complicated due to the panel user-interface system that’s now permeated every EA Sports franchise. Yes, being able to jump to my favorite modes as soon as I start the game up is a welcome addition, but making trades, changing my lines, and even just resting my goalie have all become a chore because of this new system. The old list system had its problems, but it was nowhere near as bad as what this universal UI homogenization by EA Sports has done. Changing your lines is so difficult that in Hockey Ultimate Team, one of the patches is solely to help adjust this. I wish this patch were for all game modes, because changing lines and making adjustments in Be a GM right now is a nightmare.

And speaking of HUT, nothing has infuriated me more than not being able to earn pucks (the HUT currency used to buy packs to get new players) in single-player modes outside of HUT. Yes, you earned many more for playing online, but as someone who loved Be a GM and Be a Pro modes and spent more time there than anywhere else, it was nice to still earn a few pucks for playing the modes I wanted to play. This only helped extend NHL 14’s life for me; after a while, I would play a little bit of HUT because I’d accrued so many pucks. Now, it feels like the best way to get pucks is to buy them through microtransactions. EA Sports trying to squeeze more money out of us? Color me surprised.

After playing limited demos of NHL 15 leading up to its release, I could not be more disappointed with the final result. It feels like so much time and focus went into getting the graphics and physics systems up to snuff for new-gen that EA Canada forgot about the rest of the game. At the very least, there’s hope, though. Now that the transition’s been made—however painfully—next year’s title can bring NHL back to its former glory.

Developer: EA Canada • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 09.09.14
7.0
The new physics system, presentation elements, and graphics are definitely a step forward for the franchise, but the wholesale removal or scaling back of so many modes leaves you wondering how such a great series could struggle so mightily with the console transition.
The Good The physics and graphics are the best the series has ever seen.
The Bad So many modes and features are missing compared to NHL 14 that it’s hard to believe this is the full game.
The Ugly This will go down with Madden 06 as one of the most disappointing generation transition games for a sports franchise.
NHL 15 is available on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, and PS3. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review.

A new Assassin’s Creed, which bundles the last three console titles in the series together, was announced by Ubisoft this morning.

Officially titled Assassin’s Creed: Birth of a New World – The American Saga, the three games in the bundle are Assassin’s Creed III, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation HD, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

The collection has a release date of October 28, which means that with Assassin’s Creed Unity and Assassin’s Creed Rogue coming out on November 11, that there will be three Assassin’s Creed games coming out within a three-week period.

Assassin’s Creed: Birth of a New World – The American Saga will be available on Xbox 360 and PS3.

Batman: Arkham Knight will be available for purchase on June 2, 2015, and will also have two different collector’s editions, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment announced this morning.

The first collector’s edition is the Limited Edition and includes an 80-page art book full of concept art, a unique SteelBook case with the game, a limited edition comic, three skins from DC’s New 52, and a Batman Memorial Statue. This entire package will cost $99.99.

The second collector’s edition is the Batmobile Edition and will include everything as the Limited Edition, except the Batman Memorial Statue is replaced by a fully transformable Batmobile statue by Triforce and will retail for $199.99.

The final chapter in Rocksteady’s Batman trilogy (Arkham Origins was done by Warner Bros. Montreal) was originally scheduled for release sometime this fall before being delayed earlier this year. There were then rampant rumors, including some started by the voice of Batman himself, Kevin Conroy, which had the game looking at a Q1 2015 release. WBIE put all the speculation to rest, though, with this announcement.

Batman: Arkham Knight will be available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC.

Hard choices make for a hard Clementine

Editor’s Note: In order to avoid spoiling events from previous episodes in this and the first season of The Walking Dead, the language will remain as vague as possible. That being said, some situations may still be specifically referenced. Thus, if you don’t want anything spoiled, we recommend you play previous episodes and then return to this review. Consider yourself warned.

After a less-than-stellar outing in Episode 4, the final chapter in season two of Telltale’s The Walking Dead does a fine job of bringing the stories of each remaining party member to a head before leaving Clementine with an awful decision that will change her forever.

This episode is, in many ways, the best of the season. Here, it becomes clear just how many moments that seemed innocuous at the time were actually more important than some of the more action-driven sequences over the first four episodes that led up to this thrilling conclusion.

As tensions rise, the ever-present rift in the group opens wider and wider, with Clementine stuck in the middle trying to act as the lone peacekeeper. This adds some high anxiety to what would’ve been more casual conversations earlier in the year, and it makes each vocal choice for Clementine all the more harrowing, since you didn’t know where it might steer the characters.

This focus on dialogue and character growth makes No Going Back feel more akin to the TV show than any of the preceding episodes in the series, and it’s a refreshing change of pace. There’s a minimal amount of puzzle-solving that doesn’t require Clementine to just be quick on her feet and react physically or verbally as you’d like her to, truly making her decisions feel more like your own. You don’t have the time to contemplate most answers and just have to go with your gut, which helps fix some of the haphazard pacing we’ve seen throughout much of this season.

This also allows Episode 5 to continue to add layers to Clementine, who almost seems to be growing up in front of us like a child star would on a TV show—and that only adds to the intrigue of what may happen with her in the future. My decisions continued to mold her into a character unique to my particular playthrough, and that’s a prospect that has me only looking forward to more Walking Dead.

That said, a few moments in the episode feel a little gaudy. In particular, a dream sequence seems wholly out of place, like the writers were trying to force even more drama in for no good reason. There are more than enough moments in this chapter that pull on your heartstrings as it is, and the dream simply destroys the flow of what’s otherwise the smoothest-running episode until that point. No Going Back’s already the longest of the season at just over two hours, so that particular sequence easily could’ve hit the cutting-room floor.

With that in mind, No Going Back serves as a microcosm of the entire season itself, with highs and lows that mimic the previous episodes and continue to put this season in stark contrast to the consistent greatness seen in the first. At the very least, however, the episode ends on a high note that not only serves as a fitting conclusion, showcasing the huge character growth for most of Clementine’s remaining group, but also leaving the door open for more than enough new storylines in season three.

Developer: Telltale Games • Publisher: Telltale Games • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 08.26.14
8.0

A few unnecessary sequences hold back the episode a bit, but as a whole, No Going Back serves as a fitting conclusion to season two. And thankfully, it also leaves enough room for more intrigue and drama in season three.

The Good The story takes unexpected turns when heartrending decisions need to be made.
The Bad Like much of the season, there’s an up-and-down quality to the episode, and some moments make you question their inclusion.
The Ugly Sometimes, you never truly know someone until it’s too late.
The Walking Dead: Season 2: Episode 5 – No Going Back is available on Xbox 360, PS3, PC, and iOS. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360. Review code was provided by Telltale for the benefit of this review.

A playoff contender—but not quite championship caliber

Much like how Punxsutawney Phil supposedly predicts the coming of spring each Groundhog Day, Madden can set the tone for the coming months when it pops up at the end of each August. Football fans look to the rankings to see how their team stacks up around the NFL, and gamers hope a strong showing will get the busiest season of the year off on the right foot. Of course, this isn’t always the case—especially considering the difficulties the franchise faces as an annual title. But this year’s entry, Madden NFL 15, hopes to not just signify the end of the summer gaming drought but kick off the final major gaming quarter of the year with a bang.

EA Tiburon touted a bevy of new features, tweaks to existing options, and various upgrades in the months leading up to this release. It seems they wanted to prove to gamers that they could make big strides in a single year of a Madden development cycle instead of the incremental changes we’ve seen in years past. And while some improvements definitely help the developer make a run at this lofty goal, enough stumbles on that path keep Madden NFL 15 from being a true football fanatic’s dream.

Since the gameplay—especially on the defensive side of the ball—was the primary focus for this year’s game, I’ll start there. The new defensive-line dynamics now allow players to jump snap counts, choose if they want to use finesse or a power move to get to the QB with a single, well-time button press, or even shed blockers to make the big hit on the running back trying to scoot by off tackle. As someone who primarily plays on the defensive line, this was a welcome leap forward: With a few quick button taps, I got past my blocker—or occasionally, admittedly, I fell flat on my face. But more importantly, I knew why my actions did or didn’t work. The responsiveness, combined with the simplicity, reignited my passion for being in the trenches.

Unfortunately, not everything on defense was such a hit. While I usually play on the D-line, sometimes I like to go into the secondary depending on the down, distance, and my play-call. I’m no Richard Sherman by any means, but I can hold my own back there, and I’ve had my fair share of user picks over the years. The Ball Hawk feature was supposed to have made a big step forward this year, and in some regards, it has. It’s never been easier to pick up the ball as it leaves the QB’s hand and make a play on it. But for some reason, even when I played a pass perfectly, my cornerbacks kept dropping the ball. I kept track, and even if I leaped at the perfect moment to catch a pass at its apex, trained my defensive backs so that their catching abilities were in the 90s, and read the receiver’s route from the get-go, I’d still only make the interception about 10 percent of the time and while, yes, a fair amount of DBs are just failed receivers, these are still unrealistic numbers. For as much as I loved playing on the defensive line, I couldn’t stand playing in the secondary—it felt unrewarding for no good reason.

Now, some might rebut that by noting that if I picked off those passes every time, I’d set new records for interceptions in a year. This is true. But I more than doubled the all-time single-season sack record while playing on the defensive line (with the horrible Damontre Moore of the New York Giants, no less!). So, if the game is purposely trying to keep my numbers in realistic realms in the secondary, it should do the same on the defensive line.

The other defense element that irked me? The new tackle cone. You’d think after the Madden 06 debacle with QB vision, that would be the last we ever saw a vision cone in the series. Even more so than back then, I found it distracting more than helpful, but I’ve also been playing Madden for 20 years now—and I’d hope that in all that time, I’d know how to make a tackle. At least this feature is only optional, however, and I can see the potential of how it could help Madden newcomers who are just trying to learn the ins and outs of the sport.

You’ll find fewer tweaks on offense, but the big difference this year revolves around QB accuracy. Thankfully, this is another winning addition for the Madden folks. Not only are QBs a lot more realistic when it comes to throws on the run (and their corresponding accuracy), but the new pass-catching animations will have you sharing a lot of clips with your buddies. One-handed grabs in the back of the end zone, stretches over the sideline while standing on tiptoes, and sliding grabs across the middle are now a lot more commonplace depending on how off your quarterback is, and these new spectacular grabs were definitely a welcome sight.

Besides the gameplay, Madden NFL 15 tries its best to help players learn the game of football, starting with the very basics. If you want to jump right in, new community playbook options offer the popular choice in different situations and give you a third opinion besides your own and the AI on what play to run. Also, Skills Trainer has seen a huge shift this year. Whether it’s teaching you the very definition of a Cover 2 versus a Cover 3 or when and where to blitz, Skills Trainer now feels like the perfect program not only to teach you about Madden, but also about football itself. The Gauntlet mode in Skills Trainer is a fun way to implement everything you learn with creative minigames, such as trying to use your blockers to avoid 10 would-be tacklers or kicking a 100-yard field goal in hurricane-force winds.

Another new feature comes in the Connected Franchise mode. Rather than the “hot/cold” system of previous years, players on your Franchise Mode team now have a “confidence” meter that can impact their on-field exploits. If an athlete who’s rated a 75 is playing really well and the team is on a winning streak, he may perform like an 80. And If he’s playing horribly and the team is on a losing streak, he might slip down to a rank around 70. I liked this idea a lot, but the game did a horrible job of explaining it in a one-minute Trey Wingo-narrated video at the start of the mode. From week to week, you can work on your confidence or on your player as a whole. There are only so many “hours” in a week, though, that you can use for training. It took me a long time to realize how important confidence really was and that I needed to spend as much time working on that as I did building up my receivers’ route-running abilities and my D-line’s block-shedding skills. The game really does a poor job laying everything out here.

And speaking of laying things out, the user interface is still a cluttered mess. I really wish they’d clean up the menu navigation so that I’m not constantly searching for the different modes on the front screen or for particular pages inside each mode. The worst in terms of user interface may be Madden Ultimate Team. The mode itself is better than ever, with hundreds of solo challenges for those who don’t want to play online, and a new team-specialty system that gives you bonuses based on what you want your team to excel in (for example, a “ground-and-pound” team will see bonuses in offensive line and running back performance), but getting around in Ultimate Team is a joke.

While on that subject, I did go online for a few matches, and everything seemed to be in tip-top shape. Of course, there were only a couple dozen people online, so we won’t see how the online play really handles until the servers are inundated with thousands more people.

My only other issue with Madden NFL 15—and this is something I hope gets patched—is the bevy of immersion-breaking glitches. There aren’t as many as in previous years, but you’ll still get your fair share of animation problems and audio issues. Some of my favorites this year include the player lying on the field who starts to spasm randomly like he’s having a seizure; the player who, when he trips over someone else, stiffens up like he’s been shot and slowly falls to the ground; and the receiver who never stops running when he gets out of bounds and endlessly rubs against the challenge review booth on the sideline. And there are just as many audio snafus as there are visual ones, like when the sideline reporter says your receiver will miss the rest of the season with an injury, only to find out after the game it’s only a 4-week injury, or when Jim Nantz says you have the least amount of interceptions in the league, when, in fact, you have the most (I’m playing with Eli Manning here—can you blame me?!). And if I have to hear Phil Simms crack the same lame joke about Jim Nantz’s golf game one more time, I’m going to start smashing some speakers around here.

Despite all this, however, Madden NFL 15 is still more of a step forward for the franchise than a step back. I’m glad to see EA Tiburon is trying to do more every year than just giving the game a roster update, and they’re putting real effort into the yearly adjustments with the franchise. It’s just regrettable that some of the changes they’ve made here clearly need to go back to the Xs and Os on the drawing board.

Developer: EA Tiburon • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 08.26.14
7.5
New defensive-line play and more defining accuracy with QBs highlight some of the many changes this year’s Madden brings to the table. Unfortunately, not all the other tweaks are nearly as successful.
The Good Revamped presentation and new defensive-line play work wonderfully and are highlights amongst this year’s changes.
The Bad Enough glitches and AI lapses to break immersion—and occasionally bring about my ire.
The Ugly Annihilating EGM freelancer extraordinaire Jason Fanelli online 31-14 and 52-7 while testing out multiplayer. Poor dude never saw it coming.
Madden NFL 15 is available on PS4, Xbox One, PS3, and Xbox 360. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review.

It’s time to play the game…

Even though 2K bought the rights to the WWE franchise last year during THQ’s liquidation, longtime developer Yuke’s had already done a lot of the heavy lifting for WWE 2K14 by the time the deal had been finalized. This year would be a different story, however: NBA 2K developer Visual Concepts had the chance to bring a few of their tricks to the table and elevate the bar for the franchise alongside Yuke’s. So, it was with great anticipation that I got a chance to go hands-on with WWE 2K15 at the annual SummerSlam preview event.

Right from the get-go, I got the sense that 2K is trying to bring WWE in line with its other major sports franchise by giving players something the series has never had before: a career mode. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to play this mode, but here’s the way 2K outlined it: To begin with, you’ll create a wrestler via the same celebrated customization system we’ve seen for many years now. From there, you’ll work your way up from the WWE training facility in Florida to the developmental territory of NXT to undercards on shows like RAW and SmackDown to winning lower belts to main-eventing PPVs—and finally, with some luck, end up a WWE Hall of Famer.

Longtime fans of the series should be happy to know that this is all in addition to WWE Universe mode, where you get to be the all-powerful GM of WWE programming and put who you want in whatever kind of matches you want. Both these experiences side by side could offer the WWE franchise the one-two single-player punch it’s desperately needed over the years.

But that’s not all we’re getting. I got a chance to get some hands-on time with the new 2K Signature mode, which follows in the footsteps of previous years where we learned about the Monday Night Wars or the Attitude Era. This year’s incarnation will tell the stories of celebrated WWE rivalries, including Triple H versus Shawn Michaels and John Cena squaring off against CM Punk—and I got to play the first match of that latter rivalry. As with previous years, classic WWE footage will help set up the matches that you’ll relive in the ring.

Once I was actually able to step into the ring in 2K Signature and Exhibition is when things got most interesting with WWE 2K15. The first major change fans will notice? The visuals. While some models were clearly placeholders (CM Punk, for example, looked like someone just put a wig on “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in Create a Superstar), and parts of the arenas still need some touching up, the elements that were fully rendered and ready to go looked great. Cena, Cesaro, Randy Orton, and even Goldust looked unbelievably lifelike and animated as smoothly as the NBA players do in NBA 2K, so I can’t wait to see how everything looks in the final product.

The other major in-ring changes, though, came in terms of gameplay, with two new features that could rub longtime WWE fans the wrong way. The first of these is a new rock-paper-scissors-style early grapple system. In order to try to tell a more accurate story like those seen every Monday on RAW or at a monthly PPV, early grapples will be met with a minigame that starts with a button press, which signifies one of three hold attempts you’ll go for. Whoever picks the superior hold will have the advantage, and then both players will use the right stick to try to find the “sweet spot” and further progress in this new quicktime event. If you progress fully, you either escape the hold if you picked the inferior selection at the beginning, or you’ll do a minimal-damage move like an arm wrench.

The idea is that every WWE match doesn’t start off with a bunch of power moves (unless you’re Brock Lesnar). There’s a slow buildup to the moments that make us start chanting “This is awesome!” After two or three of these early grapples, business will pick up, and the action will progress like players are used to, with the full array of moves available to do damage. Personally, I didn’t mind the new minigame mechanic, but I could see how after dozens of matches, it would start to grind on some people. Thankfully, there’s an option to turn them off, though they’ll be set “on” as the default option.

The other new mechanic ties into the interface, which has also seen some changes. Wrestlers now have three lifebars, which drop from green to yellow to red—the last of which represents the best time to try to pin your opponent. You also have a percentage meter that dictates when you can use Signatures and Finishers. At 100 percent, you can bank a Signature. At 150 percent, you can bank a Finisher. You can have a Signature and three Finishers banked at any given time, though I’m sure there’ll be options to modify that as well. The last—and easily most controversial—addition is a default stamina meter that’s now included in the UI.

The issue with the stamina meter is that by the time you get to the latter stages of a match and are ready to finally use your Signature moves, perform an OMG! Moment like throwing someone through a barricade, or finally hit your Finisher and win, the stamina meter won’t let you do it. You need at least half a stamina bar alone to perform a given Finisher. And every regular move, counter, or just running around the ring depletes it. While it’s unknown if the stamina meter can be turned off, I sure hope it can, because it really ruined the pacing of all the matches I played. Yes, it does seem to fall more in line with the simulation style 2K wants to achieve, but I just don’t know if WWE fans want a pure simulation when it comes to wrestling. After all, the sport itself has the over-the-top quality of an arcade game. Moving the needle too far in the “simulation” direction could have unintended consequences, and many of my personal frustrations centered on that damned stamina meter.

There was nothing worse during my hands-on time than having three Finishers banked in the 2K Signature match between Punk and Cena—and then not being able to hit any of them because Punk was worn down. I’d have to leave the ring and walk laps around it—with the dunderheaded AI-controlled Cena slowly following behind me—until my stamina returned and I could get back in the ring, perform a GTS, and win the match. And in Exhibition mode, my opponent and I were just taking knees and catching our breath, yelling at the meter to fill up faster and helpless to do anything in the ring to further our cause.

Even with the ill-advised addition of the stamina meter, I’m more excited than not about WWE 2K15. Once all the models have a full coat of polish, the game will look better than ever before, and I’m particularly excited about the career mode. But the minor gameplay tweaks seem to give the game too many simulation aspects, and that could hurt the overall experience come October.

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