WWE 2K14's transition from THQ to 2K has had limited effects so far

This year's WWE game, WWE 2K14, could have been a casualty of THQ's bankruptcy filing last December.

But instead of going through the drawn-out bankruptcy auction process — like Deep Silver's Metro: Last Light, Ubisoft's South Park: The Stick of Truth and many other titles formerly owned by THQ — the WWE license was handled separately, which allowed development of WWE 2K14 to stay on schedule. And from what we played yesterday, 2K Sports is right on track to deliver a game that will offer the usual iterative improvements, even if it doesn't evince the new publisher's influence just yet.

According to representatives for 2K Sports, our first hands-on session with WWE 2K14 was meant to give us a taste of the gameplay tweaks that Japan-based developer Yuke's is making this year. "Tweak" is the appropriate word, since most of the changes we noticed are subtle; the minor alterations carry over the vision that the now-defunct THQ laid out with WWE '13 last October.

Reviewers and fans criticized WWE titles in previous years for their plodding pace, stiff animations and molasses-slow wrestler movement, which made for games that didn't deliver the look or uptempo feel of a real wrestling match. Yuke's ratcheted up the perception of speed last year with a new reversal mechanic and revised, broadcast-style presentation elements such as camera cuts that showcased moves.

The studio is continuing along those lines in WWE 2K14 with new animations that make the characters look more lifelike. There's actually an acceleration to the run animation this year, so your wrestler won't immediately go from a standstill to a sprint when you pull the left trigger. Wrestlers also have small idle animations, like adjusting a wristband, that are meant to lend them some more humanity. Strikes such as punches are now the fastest attacks in the game, and rightfully so — it didn't make sense that they could be beaten by grapples in previous WWE games.

Reversals were the biggest change Yuke's made last year, an addition to the series that turned out to be a double-edged sword. The reversal animations provided much-needed fluidity in WWE '13, and created back-and-forth reversal contests that turned matches into thrilling affairs. But that seesaw battle caused frustrations for both hardcore and casual players, according to WWE franchise creative director Cory Ledesma.

"The hardcore guys," said Ledesma in an interview with Polygon, "they [knew] the timing so well in the reversal [that] they would just go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth." Two skilled players could get locked in a long chain of reversals, which was problematic because they'd see the same reversal animations repeated and because the sequence would kill the pacing in a match. Casual players, on the other hand, were always at a disadvantage against more experienced players and even the WWE '13 AI, both of which could easily reverse their reversals.

WWE 2K14 still features reversals, but in most cases, the chain ends at one: You reverse an attack, and it goes directly into a move. Certain moves, such as transitioning between positions during a grapple, will open up possibilities for back-and-forth reversals. But much of the excitement this year comes from spectacular new animations for catching airborne or running opponents in finishers. These are superstar-specific moves, like catapulting an opponent into the air after an Irish whip and catching them in The Rock's Rock Bottom or John Cena's Attitude Adjustment.

We played two one-on-one matches of WWE 2K14 and a Triple Threat match with one AI opponent, and immediately noticed that reversals don't dominate the flow of a match quite as much as they did in WWE '13. Ledesma also pointed out that this improves online play, because reversals are difficult enough to time properly before network latency is factored in; the developers have also baked in the ability for them to fine-tune the timing windows, which will allow them to account for lag if it's a problem after launch.

the developers never stopped working on WWE 2K14

While reversals are less important this year, we saw a higher prevalence of double-team moves in the three-player match; those moves happen organically, without any special prompts, which makes it even more impressive when combatants actually manage to pull them off. The quick strikes also change things up because they're tough to reverse, so they allow one wrestler to actually put together a sustained stretch of attacks, which is something you'd see in a real match.

But we didn't catch any massive changes in the ring; at this point, WWE 2K14 plays like an evolved version of its immediate predecessor. In that light, it would be easy to assume that THQ's bankruptcy proceedings threw a wrench into the game's development cycle. But according to Ledesma, that's not the case.

"Amazingly enough, we worked throughout that whole time," said Ledesma. "I think maybe we were only down half a day as we moved offices, or something like that; it was a really, really seamless transition."

Ledesma explained that he and the old THQ Fight Team, the franchise's Los Angeles-based production staff, felt an obligation to keep working on this year's game and let the chips fall where they may. (Take-Two announced in February that it had signed an exclusive five-year licensing agreement with WWE.)

"we felt a commitment to ourselves to continue to work on the game"

"We've obviously been working together as a team for a very long time, so we felt a commitment to ourselves to continue to work on the game and to make sure the quality stands up. We knew that the game was going to get done; it was just a matter of [waiting for] the situation to unfold and to finalize itself," said Ledesma. "And we knew that it wasn't going to take a very long time, and it was a very quick transition, and so we wanted to make sure that production didn't stop because it can be very detrimental, obviously — even just missing a week, how much that impacts the schedule."

As for 2K Sports' impact on the series, Ledesma said it will "start to manifest itself this year and then just steamroll every year after that," but acknowledged that "it takes a while to finally start to get wholesale changes into the game." And in response to a question about some fans being disappointed that 2K kept Yuke's on instead of bringing in a new studio, he noted that the developers are thrilled to be working under 2K because it's clear that the company is "fully behind" the WWE series — which wasn't necessarily the case before.

"I don't want to get too much into what happened at THQ or to, kind of, stomp on that grave too much," Ledesma began. "But of course, you've always got to fully support a product in order for it to reach its potential, and I think that just maybe wasn't happening [at THQ] as much as it should be.

"And so I think everyone looks at the new setup as an opportunity to really fully meet [the franchise's] potential."

Ledesma also pointed out if 2K had dropped Yuke's — and the studio's accumulated years of work on the series — shipping a game this year would have been highly unlikely.

"It's a really challenging thing for a developer to do, and I don't think people will ever appreciate it until the day comes when there isn't a wrestling game, or someone has to start from scratch," he said.

With 2K Sports serving as the new sheriff in town, some fans are likely expecting a lot, while others may be content with a game that maintains the status quo. And it's possible that the publisher is saving major changes for the franchise's next-generation debut, which appears to be scheduled for 2014. Yuke's struck a chord with the Attitude Era mode in WWE '13, and it remains to be seen whether the studio can deliver something as fresh this year.

WWE 2K14 will be released Oct. 29 on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

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