A Brief History

In the previous Video Game Choo Choo era of Gamesline, I had been brought onto the site with few expectations. One of them was dedicated coverage of wrestling games, specifically the WWE2K series, which I have cultivated a deep understanding of from playing since WWE Smackdown! Shut Your Mouth. I reviewed two wrestling games, WWE2K17 and WWE2K18, both at two stars, lamenting the ridiculously slow pace of progress these games make in terms of improvements. However, at the end of my 2K17 review, I shared a story of a match I had with Finn Balor where everything gameplay wise finally clicked into place. It was an incredibly smooth match where every reversal felt deliberate, every strike landed exactly as it was supposed to, as if it would be the quality of match you would expect on TV. This thought has never left me, and has only coagulated into what I believe the perfect wrestling game should be.

Wrestling games have a problem with being taken seriously. Trying to recreate the physical art of Professional Wrestling in video game form is a surprisingly difficult task, considering games are often built on pre-scripted animations while wrestling is a sport all about freeform movement. Their closest analogue, fighting games, uses tightly constructed movesets per character in order maintain a sense of balance. Wrestling games don’t have this, as their appeal comes from having a large set of highly customizable playable characters, and the ability to create new wrestlers from whole cloth to fulfill the fantasy of completing a roster, or to make wrestlers from entirely different promotions in entirely different parts of the world that will never in a million years interact with each other in real life finally fight each other.

This combination of open customization and the need to cover as many edgecases possible when it comes to the highly complex art of making multiple bodies move in tandem with each other in 3D space creates what most people who play games affectionately refer to as Jank. It’s very difficult for people who’ve never played these games to simply pick up a controller and totally get a grasp on what’s going on. Very similar actions (i.e. going to the corner to perform a dive from the top rope, from the middle rope, or a springboard dive) require different bespoke inputs in order to properly recreate the sport of pro wrestling.

The other layer on top of all of this is the second closest analogue to wrestling games: sports games. Madden, NBA2K, FIFA; all of these series and more have run on a consistent yearly release model with very little deviations on the formula. The WWE2K series has also ran on that model without a break in their release cycle for two decades before… the event occurred. The big difference between other sports and pro wrestling is that most sports don’t change that much. Sure, there are rule changes and seasonal roster updates, but wrestling as an artform evolves drastically and at a fast pace. New stars come into the fold and with them comes new signature moves that need to be animated. Different styles of wrestling gain popularity. Wrestlers keep coming up with deeply creative ways to pretend to hurt each within a 24’ x 24’ ring, and wrestling games need to keep up with that. The level of innovation in wrestling compared to how the annual update cycle limits the ability to develop ways to recreate it is drastically lopsided. Thus, the level of jank, the inscrutable nature of controlling human beings, and the stagnation, all of which has left wrestling games with a very earned reputation of mediocrity.

Frederick Underfunny as he deserves to be remembered, from WWE2K19.

In 2018, something happened in the world of wrestling games. It wasn’t marvelous or groundbreaking, but it was, at the very least, something. WWE2K19 came out, the last WWE2K game developed by Yuke’s, the long tenured and bemoaned developers of the franchise. Yuke’s was seen as a running joke; of course these games are so bad, they’re made by fucking Yuke’s. Anyone else could have been making them and probably done a better job. But that perception changed, because WWE2K19 was easily the most competent WWE2K title they had ever made. Mitchell Saltzmann wrote for IGN that “it stops the downward spiral of the series and puts it back on track,” and that “this might finally be the blueprint for a championship contender again.”

With great quality of life features and a talented community creating high quality custom wrestlers, everything you would want out of one of these games was there. It wasn’t perfect, but the game was loaded with little things that made it way more fun and gave it a long shelf-life. Not only could you make custom arenas in school gyms or little shithole venues like The Asylum, but playable arenas also existed for time honored wrestling venues like the Tokyo Dome and Korakuen Hall in Japan, as well as the Hammerstein Ballroom and Madison Square Garden. It was also the first time one of these games had a story mode that genuinely stuck with me.

The MyPlayer mode in WWE2K19 is not necessarily revolutionary, but they were punching far above their belt. It’s a story about a young indie wrestler named Buzz who’s truly insufferable, his far more talented friend who will basically never get hired by WWE on account of how short he is, and their father figure manager, Barron Blade, a former WWE wrestler in WWE2K lore, who goes to some pretty deep lows in order to keep their careers from taking off. By the end of the story, Buzz is dealing with forgiving Barron Blade publicly in the middle of the ring, and you get to make the choice to make amends or leave the ring, severing that relationship with your father figure. It’s the first time any one of these games made me feel a real genuine emotion. I ultimately forgave him, because despite everything, Buzz is such an irredeemable piece of shit sell-out that he would let his personal life play out in front of a huge audience for a feel good moment that people would talk about. 

I never reviewed WWE2K19. I made attempts to write about it in some form or another that never came together how I wanted them to. But I can firmly say that, if I had reviewed WWE2K19, I would have given it 3 stars. Hell, maybe even 4. It’s a 3 objectively, and IGN agrees with me since they gave it 7.3 out of 10, but it’s 4 stars in my heart. If nothing else, it should have been a solid foundation for the franchise to come.

In 2019, tragedy struck for wrestling games everywhere: WWE2K20 released. The first game created solely by Visual Concepts, WWE2K20 is a tremendously bad game littered with bugs and horrible design decisions, walking back a lot of quality of life features that WWE2K19 had either by choice or by negligence. There was literally a bug where you could not play the game in the year 2020. It was such a huge failure that they took an extra year and a half to completely rework their engine from the ground up. I did not review WWE2K20, but if I did, it would have gotten 1 star, and even that star is a courtesy.

Elsewhere in 2019, making gigantic waves in the wrestling world was the debut of All Elite Wrestling, a big budget US wrestling company that acted as direct competition to the WWE’s monopoly on the industry. With it came a bold promise: wrestling made by the wrestlers, for wrestling fans who simply love wrestling. No megalomaniacal billionaire octogenarians micromanaging every single aspect of a show written by utterly incompetent creative. Shortly after AEW established itself as worthy competition to WWE’s hegemonic empire, they announced that they were looking to make a video game of their own, heralding back to the older generation of AKI style games like the fondly remembered N64 title WWF No Mercy. Soon after, they entered a business deal with Yuke’s, and everything seemed like it was off to the races for what would be AEW’s first attempt in the gaming world.

The WWE2K franchise, after realizing that whatever they put out could only go up from WWE2K20 released WWE2K22. It featured even nicer looking graphics and completely reworked gameplay, and was heralded as the first time this series was good. There’s one major problem with this, though. WWE2K22 and the latest entry in the series, WWE2K23, suck major ass. They aren’t fun to play. People who tell you they’re finally fun are lying to you. They reworked the striking and the grappling systems, the two most important verbs in wrestling, to be far less coherent and way more annoying to engage with.

Yet media outlets ate this shit up. The line thrown around was “these games are finally fun” without the slightest bit of critical thinking. 2K22 and 2K23 genuinely make me sad to play because they took a system that, while not perfect, rewarded precise play with cool, fluid looking spots and tossed it in the garbage. This, in my mind, in a genre all about recreating the physical artform of wrestling, should be the platonic ideal to strive for in a wrestling game. That’s not even mentioning that the level of jank suddenly didn’t go away when they reworked the striking and grapple systems, it’s still there! It never went away! What these games made very clear was that the era of 2K19 style wrestling games were over, and they weren’t coming back.

While WWE2K games reveled in mediocrity as they’ve always strived to do, AEW’s first foray into a major console game dubbed AEW: Fight Forever was closing in. Development around the game seemed like it was very troubled, and that a mandate was placed on Yuke’s to finish development after 3 some-odd years and just get something out. That’s when the media blitz started. The release date for Fight Forever was announced a mere month before it would come out, speaking to an uncertainty to the game’s quality. The promise during this hype cycle was clear: it may not be the type of game you’re expecting, but at least it’ll be dumb fun. It will bring you back to what you love about wrestling games.

The Review

AEW: Fight Forever is not a game that will bring you back what you love about wrestling games, and will only frustrate you with how little there is to it. It’s got way too little of everything you’d expect out of a wrestling game from the roster to the match types to customization options for wrestlers. Its marketing coasts off the idea that it’s a “simpler” alternative to WWE games that’s much easier to pick up and play for most people, a concept not only untrue but also indicative of how limited this game is. Make no mistake, AEW: Fight Forever is a half-baked mess that leaves you wondering how it got so bad.

Yakuza with AEW wrestlers this is not.

I don’t want to beat around the bush: if you were expecting the gameplay to be smoother and less janky than its WWE counterparts, you’d be sorely mistaken. You have 3 primary attacks, Punches, Kicks, and Grapples, which each correspond to a face button on your controller. You can also reverse strike and grapple moves with their own separate dedicated counter buttons. Holding them down while not stunned will put you in a defensive state that will block, not counter, oncoming grapples or strikes depending on if you’re holding down the correct one to block. On paper, this makes a lot of sense and can turn the game of standing toe to toe with another wrestler into an interesting game of rock, paper, scissors, only with two options instead of three. 

In practice, you are so rarely on your feet with another competitor that this back and forth rarely plays out how you expect it to. Instead, since you are typically mid-animation most of the time, holding those buttons down means nothing, and you need to tap them in order to execute a counter to get back on your feet. There’s zero indication of the correct timing of counter moves, leaving the act of countering deeply confusing. If you didn’t know you could counter moves at all, you’d likely just be scratching your head as to why you’ll never get a chance to fight back. Fight Forever’s back and forth is confusing and annoying to use. There’s an option in the menu that allows you to counter with face buttons instead of the bumpers, but that doesn’t really amount to much if you’re trying to play with any sort of accuracy at all. Instead, it exists for people to mash the buttons hoping for something to happen. That seems to be the core conceit of AEW: Fight Forever: if you hit buttons, something will happen eventually. That’s it, that’s the entire design philosophy.

This is the godawful combat that AEW: Fight Forever is being marketed as silky smooth, easy to pick up and fun to master.

This control scheme is actually very similar to the control scheme of WWE2K22/23. That game, too, boasts a Light Attack, Strong Attack and Grapple buttons, but the striking system was reworked from previous entries to be focused around a goofy looking and even worse to use combo system, on top of cutting down the amount of normal and strong strikes your wrestler can use. Because, you know, every time Roman Reigns does a suplex in real life, he has to do 3 extraordinarily shitty looking punches first. The grappling system in previous entries allowed you to press a single button to use a move. Now you have to press a button to get into a grappling state, and then press a button again with the input you want to use the move, which then starts a horrible canned animation to get the wrestlers into the position the move needs them to be in before the move can even start. It’s fucking terrible. I don’t understand the logic to change it into this, and the changes to both the striking and grappling systems make the games far less fun and way goofier looking than their previous counterparts.

AEW: Fight Forever doesn’t have a hackneyed and poorly executed combo system, but that doesn’t mean it’s free of sin either. Yuke’s, independent of WWE and Visual Concept’s really awful design philosophy, also came up with the idea to grapple someone and then push the button again to do a grapple move. Why do they keep doing this??? Fight Forever also arbitrarily limits the amount of moves you can do on each button. Not only are strikes limited to a paltry amount of 4 light attacks and 4 strong attacks, but you can also only do four grapples with the inputs being Neutral A, Up+A, Down+A, and Left or Right+A as the same move. Not Left+A and Right+A. Why? Why do this? Why not just let us have five moves instead of four if you’re taking up an input for no reason? 2K19 doesn’t have this problem. 2K19 lets you do more moves with less buttons and less button presses. Why do I have to hit A>Up+A to do a suplex when I could simply press A? Why do BOTH of the major video game wrestling brands do this??? I pine for the days where you could simply press a button and it did the move you wanted it to.

Aside from baffling and arbitrarily limiting design decisions, the combat just isn’t very good. It’s floaty, confusing, attacks have next to no impact and there are so many weird systems layered on top of each other that every match feels like a fever dream of the worst wrestling match you’ve ever seen. Also, none of it looks cool to do, which is the gravest sin of a wrestling game. It’s not completely without merit, there’s some cool tiny, very inspired things that I wish were in a better game. In a tag team match, you don’t need to do a canned animation to perform a tag. If your partner is close to you, even if they’re mid move, you can hit the tag button and tag yourself in. Every character has voice lines for getting damaged or talking where that’s voiced by their real world counterpart. There’s a skateboard you can ride and do flips on. It’s really silly, it’s great! The big oversized monitor at the top of the screen can actually be slammed into multiple times and it gets into various states of disarray. When someone bleeds in this game, they REALLY fucking bleed. Orange Cassidy has an entirely separate, exclusive fighting style you can activate mid-match based around putting his hands in his pockets. It has intergender matches! All of these things are cool quirks that are fun to play around with, but do not nearly cover the fundamentals of a wrestling game.

Perhaps one of the biggest things for a wrestling game to succeed, something truly fundamental, is how well you can micromanage wrestlers. The minutiae of getting into a wrestler’s stats and making tweaks, changing parts of their movesets or even giving them a new look, is as much part of a wrestling game as the combat. And, crucially, character creation NEEDS to be on point. You need to be able to do one of two things: make a custom wrestler that looks eerily close to a real life wrestler that exists and isn’t in the game, or make a hideous abomination that you can goof around with. Even when a roster is lacking, and AEW: Fight Forever’s roster is certainly lacking, you should at least be able to fill in the gaps of people who are missing with created characters, especially being able to download them from really talented creators. In all of these respects, AEW: Fight Forever fails utterly and miserably.

The character creator is embarrassingly bad. You get a small handful of prefab body types, a small handful of prefab outfits that you can sometimes change the color of, and that’s about it. There’s no custom logo functionality. At all. Period. There aren’t even premade logos you can place to somehow make some sort of shape. There’s nothing. You can’t put anything on the outfits your character wears. Also, clothing parts are arbitrarily limited to Wrestling Gear and Street Wear. That means you can’t have a wrestler who just wears a shirt and pants to the ring. They have to wear some sort of wrestling gear. They also can’t wear wrestling gear going around the town. You simply cannot make any kind of character of any substance save for maybe characters that are simply abstract concepts. It’s just not possible.

“Ok, no matter, I won’t mess around with custom characters then,” you say. “The roster is tiny and missing people, but that’s ok, I can just tweak what’s here to make them all unique. Hell, I might even be able to put them in some cool outfits. There’s an option to customize existing wrestlers, let’s give that a shot!” The only thing you can customize on existing wrestlers is whether or not to give them a shirt for entrances. That’s not a joke or hyperbole. That’s literally all you can edit when it comes to wrestler aesthetics. You can’t change the color of their gear, you can’t update it, you can’t give them new entrance wear. Nothing. Well, you can give them a t-shirt. That’s all you can do. 

As for in-ring customization, the movepool in this game is quite large! You may even be deeply tempted to edit their moves considering every single wrestler in the game has the same moveset template with their signature moves slapped on. If you thought these wrestlers had any variety at all that made them feel unique, you’d feel the same wave of despair I felt realizing that they all had the same punches and the same dropkick and the same draping suplex on the top rope and the same elbow drop in the same spots over and over and over again, wrestler after wrestler. You may even go “hey, that’s not the correct finisher,” and you may want to get into the moveset editor to change it to the right one. While you’re there, you think to yourself “oh yeah, there’s up to five signature and finisher slots per wrestler, I should get in and add a couple more that make sense since for some reason this character has only one of each and they’re not even right.” Then it dawns on you. The finisher and signature slots are locked. You can’t do anything with them.

That’s OK, you think. You can just go and change this wrestler’s stats and skills so you can equip the right moves on him. You dig through menus, searching around, trying to find where you can do this. It takes you roughly 20 minutes before you awkwardly stumble on the Wrestler Info submenu. You click on the wrestler whose info you want to check out, and then you go over to the Moves & Skills page. You see the prompt to go to the Skill List at the bottom of the page. You start scrolling through skills until you’re hit with a second dawning realization. You can’t edit anything on this page. You looked all over, you can’t find any other page where you can do this. You simply cannot edit a wrestler’s skills. 

Well, there’s one way.. sort of. You have to bring them into the Road To Elite story mode, play through some tedious matches, and upgrade it there once you’ve earned enough EXP. Mind you, you can only have one story mode save at a time, so if you’re playing through it already with, say, the embarrassingly bad custom character you came up with, then you have to delete that save and lose all that progress in order to edit somebody else. Also, the changes made in Road To Elite will not immediately reflect on the character in exhibition mode. You’ll only get to use your new stats after you’ve beaten Road To Elite. Not being able to change these things easily in a genre largely about micromanagement and customization is a fundamental failure in understanding what people want out of wrestling games. And also it means 85% of the roster is stuck with one shitty finisher unless you invest hundreds of hours of gameplay more than you would need to compared to other games of the genre.

Road To Elite is similarly sparse and lackluster to the rest of the game, and it’s also got most of the actual content that’s in Fight Forever. You pick any character on the roster and play through very loose interpretations of the events of the first few years of AEW’s history. The writing sucks in a way that’s not even so-bad-it’s-good, it sucks in a way that you could tell whichever writer was working on this game crunched 70 hour weeks to get enough dialogue into the game to actually make something halfway coherent. In between your matches, you can do small events where you can go around the town in scenes with panoramic 2D image backgrounds that look so awful that they make Fire Emblem: Three Houses supports look professional. Sometimes you run into another wrestler and you take a picture with them. Wow!

AEW: Fight Forever Presents: Writing

The amount of match types is certainly lacking as well, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if, like every other wrestling game in existence, you had the option to edit the match types with whatever stipulations you saw fit. Having read this far into the review, it may no longer shock you to learn that this is not the case when it comes to AEW: Fight Forever. You have your standard 1-on-1 match which comes with Lights Out (the AEW nomenclature for No-DQ matches), Falls Count Anywhere and Ladder Match variants, 2-on-2 tag matches, 3-way and 4-way matches, a Casino Battle Royale (the AEW equivalent of the Royal Rumble), and the excellently named Exploding Barbed Wire Death Match. 

The standout here is definitely the one you think it is just by reading this list. While it doesn’t follow the same exact rules of the Exploding Barbed Wire Death Match in real life, it’s still a very gruesome and deeply silly match type. In 2 minutes, the ring will explode. After that, you’re free to throw each other into barbed wire to your heart’s content until somebody pins or submits. Fight Forever’s very gorey blood splatter is on display here. It looks very goofy, like someone used a blot tool all over the mat over and over again, but put up against the comparatively bloodless WWE2K games, it’s oddly satisfying to see.

Much like AEW’s biggest strength as opposed to their real-life competition, the tag matches are also fairly impressive in their execution. The ability to tag your opponent whenever they’re near the corner is a great touch, and it really feels like a lot of care was put into making tag team wrestling shine. Enemy AI will drag you towards their corner when they grapple you, leading to moments where they set up tag team moves against you. Also, there’s a larger variety of different kinds of tag moves you can execute compared to how they’ve historically been implemented, from a bunch of different in-ring positions. These nice touches don’t suddenly make the game not feel awkward to play, but there was obvious consideration put into how to make this mode stand out. The AI, as well, is overly eager to jump in the ring, both your teammate and the opponents, which leads to weird awkward clusterfucks happening practically once every 30 seconds of a match.

Wardlow at his most relatable.

There’s also a menu item for minigames, though, for some reason, only 3 are available. There are more in the game, they show up in the Road To Elite mode, you just can’t choose to play them. Truth be told, I’m not even sure how to unlock them. I figured playing them in Road To Elite would unlock them in Exhibition mode, but that was not the case. Not that anyone who’s coming to this game is doing it specifically for minigames, but it’s another oddly sparse thing in a game full to the brim with sparsity.

The roster for Fight Forever features pretty much every big AEW star you would expect. CM Punk is there, Cody Rhodes is there despite being part of the WWE currently, Bryan Danielson, Darby Allin, Ricky Starks are all there, and so is Abadon for some reason. The wrestlers who aren’t there, though, stick out like a sore thumb. Despite his former tag partner, Keith Lee, being announced as upcoming DLC, Swerve Strickland is entirely absent. The Acclaimed are nowhere to be found. Private Party, Top Flight, Proud ‘n’ Powerful Santana and Ortiz, Samoa Joe, Toni Storm, Jamie Hayter; the list of absent wrestlers goes on and on. There’s only one member of Dark Order, John Silver, which is deeply ironic considering how much promotion Evil Uno has done for this game that he’s not even in. Brody King and Claudio Castignoli are both featured in videos and in-game promotional images, but are simply not in the game otherwise.The game only comes with 3 dedicated tag teams: Best Friends, the Lucha Bros and The Young Bucks with Chris Jericho and Sammy Guevara thrown in on the tag team menu for some good-but-confusing measure. Jeff Hardy is in the game but his brother Matt is only available as a pre-order bonus. FTR, the current tag team champs, are coming later as DLC. It’s not like they spent a ton of time making all the existing wrestlers feel unique with how obviously templated the movesets are, so why not throw in a few undercarders? Thankfully the thin roster spares us from having to see Jay Lethal in a video game which is something nobody should have to endure, but if having Jay Lethal in means we also get Danhausen, Ethan Page, Rush and Konosuke Takeshita, then I will gladly ignore Jay Lethal’s existence in a video game.

While I can’t speak to the quality of the online mode as it was impossible for me to find any other people to play with during the review period, to the game’s credit, it is relatively bug-free, which for a wrestling game, is definitely a startling accomplishment. It’s not flawless, I’ve run into a few issues where I’ve clipped into the ring during ladder matches or training mode just plain not working when I switched to it from the moveset editor, but it’s a very stable game that won’t be easy to break. There is a distinct lack of accessibility features, which is a huge bummer considering the only way to break out of pins and submissions is button mashing (something I’m not exactly thrilled to do as someone with pretty bad carpal tunnel syndrome). Performance wise, it ran excellently on my PC with an RTX 2070 Super GPU, and it ran with no issues on my Steam Deck, both in docked and undocked modes. The load times were incredibly quick and I didn’t even have it installed directly to my SSD. For all the game’s faults, performance was definitely not an issue.

Despite its good performance, I cannot, in good conscience, recommend AEW: Fight Forever for wrestling fans of any stripe. It’s an unfun mess that doesn’t achieve anything that fans of wrestling games have come to expect, and is a testament to how rushing out a game, even a game that felt like it was taking too long to make, will only result in a worse product overall. The sad part is I’m sure people crunched to make this game. I’m sure people dedicated 100 hour workweeks, missing time with their families and sleeping at the office, just to get this game to the state it’s at now. No amount of crunch should go into the development of any game, but especially not a game as bad as this one. 

AEW: Fight Forever, for a brief moment, looked like a glimmer of hope for wrestling games. We’re in a world where something like WWE2K19, a really solid wrestling game, did not become the foundation for wrestling games to come. The truly sad part is, while WWE2K19 does still exist and you can play it, its online features were shut down permanently. You can’t play the game as it was intended, downloading tons of custom wrestlers to create the roster you want. You can’t play it with your friends anymore. Mods exist for the PC version as a way to supplement that customizability, but the mod tools are so inscrutable that even attempting to do something like adding a new wrestler to the game is a monumental task that will take consulting videos, guides, and documentation that is only as useful as you can understand it. As it exists, we now have two branching paths of major wrestling game development going forward, and neither of them recognize what the last truly good wrestling game did right. Fans of the wrestling game genre simply have nowhere left to go.

I spent years putting up with the mediocrity that is WWE to the point where weekly episodes of RAW would spark bouts of depression. AEW got me to fall in love with wrestling again, but I can’t say the same for their first attempt at a video game. I hope their next game is better, I truly do. I have been truly desperate for a good wrestling game. And, who knows, maybe this will be that solid foundation. Maybe it just needs a few more strokes of paint and a couple updates and it’ll be just what I’m looking for. Maybe. But right now, it’s just another mediocre game in a genre so deprived of anything truly good (barring Fire Pro Wrestling World which came out six years ago and hasn’t seen a new update in three of them) that folks have now wound up saying MDickie’s Wrestling Empire is a genuinely good wrestling game, and no genre deserves its best game to be made by MDickie.

1 stars

All gimmicks and no psychology, brother.

A lack of fundamental features that wrestling game veterans come to expect makes AEW: Fight Forever a disappointing package that is not saved by a floaty, often unresponsive and confusing control scheme.

About Scott

Scott B is a 28 year old proud sword owner and gamer of honor, desperately on the search for wife.

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