The one-word catchphrase is a mythical achievement in professional wrestling. If you’re so well-loved by the fans that you can get a single word ‘over’ with the crowd – Ric Flair’s “woooooo”, Steve Austin’s “what”, Daniel Bryan’s “yes” – you’ve clearly earned legend status.

In trying to make us feel like a WWE superstar, WWE 2K Battlegrounds also resulted in us developing our own one-word catchphrase, one we regularly shouted as we played the game. Unfortunately, this word was simply “why?”, and in true WWE promo fashion, we’re going to shout it in capital letters every time we say it so we can sound all cool and stuff.

WHY is only 30% of the roster available when you first start the game? 2K Sports boasts that 70 WWE Superstars are included on day one (with another 60 or so coming later down the line), but when you boot up the software for the first time you’ve only got a grand total of 20 to choose from. Half the characters on the cover aren’t actually playable right away. Steve Austin? Locked. The Rock? Locked. Andre the Giant? Ronda Rousey? Asuka? All locked.

Other big names who didn’t make the cover and aren’t available from the start include Brock Lesnar, AJ Styles, Seth Rollins, Hulk Hogan and Becky Lynch. Even Drew McIntyre, the current WWE Champion, has to be unlocked before you can use him. Most of these superstars can be unlocked through an in-game store, but WHY has 2K made it such an enormous grind to get them all?

The store runs on Battle Bucks, an in-game currency that Battlegrounds rewards you with as you play matches. In a good match you can get 250 or so Battle Bucks; unlocking a premium superstar like Triple H requires 12,000 of them, but you can earn bonus Battle Bucks by levelling up, completing daily tasks and the like.

The problem is – and yes, we did the maths because we’re just that dedicated to you lovely readers – it costs a total of 276,000 Battle Bucks to unlock everyone, and after a solid weekend of play (during which time we finished the entire campaign mode) we’d only earned 66,000 of them. That may not sound too bad, but each wrestler also has a few alternate costumes which are also unlockable, meaning the total cost to unlock absolutely everything is 741,000 Battle Bucks.

Naturally, this being a 2K game, you can, of course, spend real money to unlock everything quicker, but WHY has it even bothered this time? It would cost you around £120 / $150 to buy enough currency to get all the wrestlers and outfits, so there’s no point in even going down the usual “typical 2K, trying to make us pay even more” routine this time; nobody in their right mind would be daft enough to even entertain that idea, so these ‘micro’ transactions are a non-starter, frankly.

Perhaps even more annoying is that some other wrestlers can’t be unlocked in the store, and can only be added to your roster by progressing through the bizarre campaign mode. If you’re a fan of Braun Strowman, Alexa Bliss, Ember Moon or the like, you’re going to have to get stuck into this single-player story mode before you can play as them – even if you only bought the game for multiplayer purposes.

Most ridiculous of all is that John Cena is only unlocked when you beat an extremely annoying Royal Rumble match near the end of the campaign, meaning any kids hoping to play as their hero will either have to ‘git gud’ and fight their way through a lengthy, often cheap single-player mode, or hope they have a parent or sibling good enough at games to play through the campaign and unlock him for them. Not that the game ever explains that this is how to get him, mind you; until you play the campaign and reach that point, a whole fifty-seven matches into it, there’s no trace of him in the game whatsoever. We know his catchphrase is “you can’t see me”, but there was no need to take him that literally.

Speaking of the campaign, WHY was it decided that players would be forced to play through it with completely fictional characters? The story follows Stone Cold Steve Austin as he travels the world in search of new wrestlers to take part in Paul Heyman’s new brainchild, WWE Battlegrounds. What this essentially results in is a seven-chapter campaign, with each chapter putting you in control of a different, entirely made-up wrestler.

From the New York brawler to the Florida gator-rassler, to the bulky Scottish warrior ‘lassie’ and the weird Detroit-based hacker chap, each character in the campaign mode certainly has personality, but we just can’t understand why the story didn’t just involve WWE wrestlers people actually know (or let you use your own created wrestler). The final chapter is an especially pointless way to finish things; even though you’re asked to choose a male and female character to take part in the final matches, the game has already decided which ones it wanted you to pick and so the final scene shows them winning, regardless of who you selected.

All this would be softened a little if the action in the ring made up for it, but while it has decent enough foundations WHY does it have so many disappointing and undercooked elements? Take the class system: there are five ‘classes’ of wrestler – All-Rounder, Technician, Brawler, Powerhouse and High-Flyer – and each has their own standard move-set that everyone assigned to that class gets. As a result, other than signature and finisher moves, practically every superstar in the game only has one of five different move-sets.

This basically means that the Big Show and Natalya share almost all the same moves and therefore play exactly the same way, as do Mankind and Becky Lynch, or Dolph Ziggler and Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts. Fans will immediately know why this is disappointing: these pairs fight nothing like each other in real life, but because they both fall under the Powerhouse, Brawler and Technician categories respectively here, they basically become clone fighters. This makes for far less variety and, given that each class only has about nine or ten moves, means things get repetitive very quickly.

The same can be said for the various gimmicks that lie around some of the stages. The Everglades arena has an alligator you can throw an opponent into, Detroit lets you chuck someone under a car, Mexico has a radio-controlled goat (look, we don’t know), and Scotland lets you play the bagpipes, causing your opponent – even the Scottish ones – to cover their eyes as their health drains. Which is just rude to Scottish culture, frankly. All of these traps are fun the first time around, but they get old fast and take too long to implement, meaning before long you’ll just pretend they aren’t there.

On another note, WHY is the AI so atrocious? Either you play it on hard difficulty and have the vast majority of your moves automatically reversed, or you play it on an easier difficulty where they display all the intelligence of a bucket of clothes pegs. If both of you are outside the ring, they’ll suddenly turn away after a while, completely ignore you and try to run back in. This lets you easily attack them, put them on their backside then climb in yourself as the count ends. Tag matches, meanwhile, can often be won by pinning one opponent, which makes their partner enter the ring. They’ll then often ignore the referee’s five-count to make them leave, and you’ll win by default.

We could be here all day with this “WHY” gimmick, even though we’re sure it’s probably getting annoying by now. WHY is the character creation suite so painfully limited, and WHY do you have to use Battle Bucks to upgrade their stats, essentially making players choose between improving their creation or unlocking real-life superstars? WHY are Erick Rowan, Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson still in the roster despite the fact they were let go by the WWE five months ago (could they not have been swapped out for one of the 60-odd planned DLC fighters)? WHY does everyone’s entrance bizarrely involve a giant crate falling from the sky before they burst out of it? WHY do online matches lead to so many teleporting players that we no longer feel the need for a Portal remaster on Switch?

We haven't even discussed the handheld performance, either. While docked it actually does a pretty good job; the fighters and environments look sharp enough, and everything does its best to hold together and deliver a stable performance most of the time. Transition to handheld, however, and suddenly things look extremely rough and blurry (as you can probably tell by comparing the screenshots on this very page), especially when there are four wrestlers on-screen at the same time; small details are almost indecipherable at times.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about all of this is that, deep down, there’s the foundation of a genuinely entertaining wrestling game in there. When you play in local multiplayer it can honestly get quite enjoyable, partly because everyone’s in the same boat and putting up with the occasionally poor performance together (it occasionally locks up for a couple of seconds mid-bout in handheld mode, for example). In situations like this, the anarchy becomes almost endearing at times. There is undoubtedly clear potential here.

As is well known, the ‘proper’ WWE 2K game for this year was dropped due to the abysmal state of WWE 2K20. Had that not happened, this is the time of year we should have been expecting WWE 2K21, not Battlegrounds. We don’t know what the situation was here; was this game hastily put together to fill the gap? Was it originally planned for some time in 2021 and brought forward so there was something available for WWE fans this holiday period? If so (and again, we don’t know), that would have been unfortunate, because with a bit more time in the oven this one could have turned into a delicious feast, rather than the significantly undercooked dish we’ve ended up with.

If this foundation can be built on properly, then a potential WWE 2K Battlegrounds 2 could be a brilliant game. This absolutely isn’t one, but it doesn’t mean it can’t eventually become a much-loved arcade-style series that provides a more light-hearted alternative to the main WWE 2K series. Fans have been hoping for a spiritual successor to WWE All-Stars for years, and while this doesn’t live up to that, we hope 2K doesn’t ditch the idea now. With any luck, if a potential sequel comes around, the only ‘why’ question we’ll be asking is: “WHY wasn’t it like this the first time around?”

Conclusion

The concept behind WWE 2K Battlegrounds is a solid one, but it's let down time and time again by limited and repetitive combat, dopey AI, an excessively locked roster and a series of bewildering design choices that really should have been questioned at some point during production. We hope it eventually gets an improved sequel, but until then, the Switch is still lacking a proper main event-tier wrestling game.