When nothing really draws me towards my PS4, I often succumb to the transient highs of mobile games.
If engaging with an opus like Red Dead Redemption 2 is the gaming equivalent of a long-term relationship, then mobile games are quick one-night stands; each offering the exciting thrill of the unknown. Many simply pass like ships in the night; some turn into an infatuation that might last a few months. But some, the really special ones, hang around for years.
For me, that special one is WWE Champions. If you’ve never heard of it, and I don’t blame you, it’s basically Candy Crush crossed with pro wrestling. How’s that for an elevator pitch?
It combines two things I love in one beautiful package: the act of matching coloured blocks, and the action that plays out in a wrestling ring. Shifting and combining blocks will power up moves, and you’ll see the action transformed into a wrestling match above the grid of blocks. It’s essentially turn based; matching gems together deals damage to your opponent along with powering up your special moves. So far, so straightforward, but things are complicated by a momentum meter, which swings back and forth depending on the damage dealt and initiates a pinning situation when it goes completely over to one side. To get out of the pin, you have three turns to match the amount of damage that put you in the pin (except if your health bar is empty, in which case you just lose).
Each wrestler also has a finishing move, which automatically pins the opponent. As with any match 3 game, the key to victory is creating combos and utilising special blocks. Match 3 and you’ll do damage, but match 4 and you’ll take out an entire row or column of gems. If you match 5, you’ll get a special gem that can act as any colour and, crucially, an extra turn.
Things get even more complicated later on with submission moves: special moves dealing damage and affecting the board by creating immobile gems that your opponent can’t move, or changing the colour of certain gems. Playing is not as complicated as it sounds – and, in many ways, it’s this complexity that makes WWE Champions quite so compelling. It’s a game that combines calculating strategy and visceral violence. Well, as visceral as you can get in a mobile match-three puzzle game.
What I really love about WWE Champions, though, is how polished the whole thing is. There’s a beautifully chunky, overblown quality to the character models, making them look like action figures that have come to life. There’s a strong focus on the special moves, with dynamic camera angles and authentic-sounding thuds giving them real feeling., Some of the characters have nice effects, too – like the way that Sting’s leather coat sways as he walks to the ring, or how Triple H spits water into the virtual camera.
The sound is also a lot of fun; a combination of the theme songs from WWE shows like Raw and Smackdown and the sort of noises that bring to mind previous gaming decades. Matching blocks and causing cascades give way to a cacophony of thuds, bleeps and tings that recall a pinball machine, and winning a match is accompanied by cheers from the virtual crowd. The overall effect is a lot of joyous noise that, somehow, seems to fit perfectly.
Throughout, it’s clear that WWE Champions is a game made by real wrestling fans. Its roster spans everyone from Doink the Clown to Andre the Giant and its continually being added to, including “before they were famous” NXT versions of star names like Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins, complete with the correct special moves.
All this work makes it worth persevering with one of the most byzantine progression systems I’ve ever seen in a video game. The goal is to increasing the rarity of your wrestler, which makes them more powerful. But doing this involves not only spending coins to increase their level to the max and collecting enough training points to increase the power of their moves to the max, but also by collecting rare tokens. These rare tokens are given out as rewards for difficult challenges, or are occasionally found within loot crates that need to broken during matches.
It’s a system that is of course, designed to get you to spend money on the game – the dirty, necessary part of any F2P model. For example, packs of tokens can be bought using virtual cash and, while you’ll earn some through playing the game, to get enough you’ll either need to be very patient or spend some real money. I wouldn’t say that you’re ever forced to purchase anything in-game – you will progress slowly without doing so. While spending money does give you access to more powerful characters etc., there is almost always a random element to the reward that you might receive that means it’s never a guaranteed quick fix.
I will admit to having spent money in WWE Champions. Not a huge amount, but probably equal to the cost of a couple of console games over the months I’ve been playing it. I don’t begrudge it on account of the enjoyment I’ve had out of the game. WWE Champions is extremely well made; clearly the product of a talented, dedicated team who, it often feels like, have gone way beyond the call of duty. Like any free to play game, it’s a shame I couldn’t just pay a fixed fee upfront for it, but I don’t begrudge paying a few quid now and then to support something that gives me hours and hours of pleasure on a regular basis.