It was nearly three years ago when All Elite Wrestling announced their first video game inspired by Nintendo 64 classics, WWF No Mercy and Virtual Pro Wrestling. They even hired the former director of AKI Corporation (Hideyuki Iwashita) to make sure this new effort felt as close as possible to those old favourites.
That a company would happily copy a video game series over two decades old is a sad indictment of how little wrestling simulators have evolved since 2001. The news was still exciting because of the overdue need for competition, but now that it’s finally here, AEW Fight Forever feels undercooked.
The roster is outdated for starters. The AEW Women’s World Champion (Toni Storm) and her rival Jamie Hayter are absent, as are signings like Keith Lee and FTR (who will arrive later as premium DLC). The wrestler creation mode is extremely lean on costumes and facial models. There are several match stipulations including ladder matches and barb wire deathmatches, but these too have a whiff of minimum viable product about them. The Casino Battle Royale is a cluster even though only four wrestlers are visible at once. Even 2v2 matches fail to support basic tornado tag team rules.
Modern wrestling games are expected to include so much, there are times when AEW Fight Forever spreads itself thin. Why time was spent including arcade style mini games — which feel devoid of creative spark and are mostly enjoyment free — is a mystery. The marketing has used the word “arcadey” a few times, which is puzzling because the in-ring action is more nuanced than that, and it does play well enough to forgive some outdated content here and there.
The stylised character models are authentic. Jon Moxley swaggers out from the crowd like he does on TV; Malekai Black looks convincingly spooky in his skull mask; even Yuka Sakazaki feels every bit the “Magical Girl” she portrays in kayfabe. The story is the same in motion. While moves occasionally feel too sped up, they are animated well. Players will adore Rey Fenix’s springboard somersaults and high-flying dropkicks, for instance.
An intuitive control scheme and fluid animation helps. Floating hint labels show when to perform pins and signature moves. These helped me wrestle my first exhibition match without looking at a control scheme. Granted, not every player is going to have years of experience with the old N64 games, so an annotated training mode is very welcome because it helps players practice beforehand.
Despite the tongue-in-cheek way it’s presented, AEW Fight Forever wants to be a pure wrestling game. You need only look at the gigantic number of moves to see evidence of that. The creation mode is lacking customisable parts, but in terms of moves it’s a mini triumph. Players can lose hours crafting a perfect move set, with thousands of strikes, holds, and taunts available at launch. Some of the labelling is a bit suspect, but a smart search option and a helpful favourites filter makes move customisation enjoyable nonetheless. This is easily the game’s best feature.
Sadly, AEW Fight Forever struggles to innovate on the No Mercy formula it holds in such high regard. The reversal system is trickier now as players have to manually counter holds as well as strikes. Knowing which move your opponent is attempting in a tie-up is pure guesswork, and the brief windows for success make button-bashing way too attractive.
Defensive play is less viable because of this. Matches feel overly fast-paced and are usually decided by those who can execute as many moves as possible, as fast as possible. Because health values are hidden and wrestlers don’t sell injuries very clearly, it’s difficult to appreciate any sense of pace. Even then, wrestlers can’t take much punishment thus pin attempts are exceptionally hard to kick out of. There simply isn’t time for matches to be fun in the first place.
They really need to tune this. I was winning in less than 60 seconds when playing as Jade Cargill. Jade has a strong momentum skill, gets a buff on first attack, and she can unfairly assault her opponent before the bell. It doesn’t take long from there to abuse a few stomps, hit a spinbuster; Glam Slam; see ya later.
The submission mechanics barely feel there. Wrestlers have health markers for their different limbs, but why bother working one when pins are so much easier? Players could slap on Brian Danielson’s Cattle Mutilation three times fishing for a tap out, or they could just hit one knee strike for an easy pin instead.
CPU wrestlers are effective in close quarters, and they sidestep the sluggish targetting system to excel in matches with multiple opponents. Multi-person matches are a total headache, especially since wrestlers will lie on the ground for artificially long periods of time to give other participants a chance to win. Amusingly, one path in the story mode pits your star against a couple of jobbers in a handicap match, only the finicky targetting system and overpowered double team moves actually make this bout insanely difficult!
That Road to Elite story mode is painfully limited as well, to the point where players will see everything worthwhile after a few attempts at best. Several redundant cutscenes try to hide the shallowness of it all, so players will be pressing the skip button constantly. Four introductory vignettes need to be individually skipped before play starts; training in the gym has a superfluous vignette to skip; dining at the restaurant to recover vitality; skip; sightseeing to improve mental state; skip — it makes you wonder why this stuff is even there to begin with.
The only good thing about Road to Elite is how the stories advance regardless of who wins. While any character can enter, the short mode is aimed at custom wrestlers who can upgrade their skills. Weight training or winning a mini game grants points to spend on skills that help dictate a wrestler’s style. Players must do this for every wrestler they create, and if that wasn’t tedious enough, a bug in the PC version wipes their skills upon starting Road to Elite a second time.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the PC version. Yeah, my wrestler got stuck in the canvas once, the mouse cursor doesn’t hide when using a joypad, and a secret character I met the requirements for didn’t unlock. Otherwise this edition looks handsome and runs smoothly in 120hz. I wasn’t able to test online play, sadly. We’re just over a month into release and I couldn’t find any ranked matches to join after searching multiple times. (I hope this upcoming Stadium Stampede mode has bots because the player base is not there on PC right now.)
There are some nice little touches elsewhere. There’s a stacked jukebox menu that lets players customize the audio with tracks from AEW’s growing musical portfolio. Most of it is exhaustingly abrasive rock music (that’s modern entrance themes for ya), but there are some cool tracks by Platinum Max Caster and Austin Gunn, and there’s nothing quite like booting up to Cult of Personality by Living Colour.
The arena editor is a cute addition, the shop menu using in-game currency has potential (if they can add some things worth buying), and there are snippets of authentic voice work to add realism. Indeed, commentator Jim Ross sounds about as motivated in his tutorial cutaways as he does on TV. (But we won’t hold that against anyone.)
Overall, AEW Fight Forever can’t be recommended yet. THQ Nordic has promised regular updates, so I might revisit this in a year’s time to see how things improve. The developers haven’t done a great job finding the fun in the matches themselves, and it would be simpler to call Road to Elite a total failure in need of a rethink. It’s hard to imagine how Yuke’s can solve such crucial problems in this premier release, but I wish them luck.
Using cutesy reviewer wordplay, I’d call this a solid debut in need of a monster push. A lot needs tuning here, but AEW Fight Forever plays just well enough to have potential for the future. The hardest of the hardcore fans could buy in now and have a reasonable time of it. Everyone else should let it play out and see where it goes.