Photo Credit: Yuke's
It's no surprise that as the novel All Elite Wrestling grew in popularity, a video game based on it was brewing somewhere out on the horizon. As a viable alternative to mainstream pro wrestling — which the WWE dominates — the franchise managed to cement its legacy by bringing in talent already well-known within the community and a steep production value that rivalled any other competition. THQ Nordic's AEW: Fight Forever finds itself in the same position, banking on a roster full of established legends, as developer Yuke's draws from the knowledge it gained over the years making WWE titles, and boils it down to the basics to deliver arcade-heavy gameplay. That's right, we're going back to the retro 'WWF No Mercy' days where its strong and simplistic foundation allowed just about anyone to pick up and play the game.
If you're someone who grew up on the recent WWE 2K games, then the lack of showy aspects here might be off-putting for you. AEW: Fight Forever isn't big on realism, so don't go expecting visual fidelity that wows you with photo-realistic details or lighting that causes sweaty surfaces to shimmer. It's not a simulation game, so there's a distinct style to it that feels like a messy blend of cartoonish proportions and grounded appearance — almost as if Yuke's was having difficulty deciding on one, so they did both.
Now, I'm not a 'poor graphics = bad game' type of guy, but I feel like if the game had committed to one style, it would have helped with immersion; it's a tonal flaw. The reason I bring this up so early is that it's one of the first things you'll notice upon perusing the roster, which shows the wrestlers' in-game models instead of real-life portraits. Add to it the bland menu with some forgettable music, and you've got a subpar first impression.
AEW: Fight Forever's strength lies in its electrifying gameplay, where every hit and collision feels impactful without overcomplicating the controls. Just like earlier Yuke's titles, the idea is to build up momentum over the course of a match, by chaining various combos and pulling off taunts, to eventually seal the deal with strong finishers. Body part damage is included as a core mechanic, letting you focus repeated attacks and exploit weaknesses to wear down an opponent's limbs, arms, or torso. When playing as CM Punk, I found it extremely helpful to focus most of my attacks on the opponent's head, so when I executed my Go to Sleep (GTS) finisher — knee to the face — it guaranteed that they'd have a hard time getting back up from pinfall.
The damage levels are represented by a small visual diagram that pops up at the bottom upon dealing heavy hits, with the indicator climbing progressively from yellow to red with more wear. It's neatly placed next to the momentum meter as well, so when yours starts flashing, you know it's time to capitalise on it with a finisher to chase it down. Coming back from a rough start also feels great, as you can literally batter opponents back to the point where their momentum whittles down so fast that they lose their finisher.
Breaking out of pinfalls and submissions is as easy as haphazard button-mashing, without having to worry about small timing-based minigames that would make defeats seem unfair at times. The in-ring action is enjoyably fast-paced but lacks the responsiveness and polish you'd have come to terms with from the WWE 2K games. Wrestlers would often miss punches and springboard attacks from the apron, even within range, while whipping them into ropes or corners always felt clunky. The default targeting in AEW: Fight Forever doesn't work half the time, so I found myself switching to manual controls within the first hour of playtime.
That duration feels excruciatingly long when trying to figure out the controls yourself, since the game's tutorial mode simply throws you into a free-range sparring room with no directions, so good luck with your early matches. There is also no continuous omnidirectional running here, limiting your movement to only one straight direction. So each time you want to change directions, you're forced to briefly stop and switch angles before sprinting elsewhere.
While the opponent AI is generally a bit daft, their decision-making was a nightmare during Tag-Team matches. Tagging in your partner causes the opponent's teammate to also get inside the ring — regardless of what corner you're at — leading to a diarrhoea of oily, half-naked men trying to gang up on one another. The referee does nothing to break us apart, and so all four wrestlers overstay their welcome inside the ring, attacking anyone that isn't downed. God forbid your AI partner makes the mistake of hitting someone when things have cooled down, and no one bothers getting out of the ring for another few minutes.
Weapons add some delectable fun to pro wrestling games, with AEW offering a hilarious arsenal of baseball bats, steel chairs, kendo sticks, skateboards, frying pans, and literal explosives like propane tanks. However, the controls to pick them up and use them are quite painful, often resulting in no response no matter how many times you bash the button.
Professional wrestling is all about putting on a good show, and sadly AEW: Fight Forever heavily lacks in that department. The presentation is quite underwhelming, with practically non-existent match commentary, so all you hear is some lame background music and ambient crowd noise that would frequently raise in tempo when something exciting happens inside the ring. Not to mention, wrestler entrances have been severely cut short to mere seconds, sacrificing the large-scale spectacle of the giant titantrons, flashing lights, and signature music as they walk to the ring. Sure, some players tend to skip those one or two weeks into the game's lifespan, but it's a defining feature of the sport whose absence ruins the immersion for me. But hey, at least you can spam buttons to control the pyrotechnics within those five seconds (sarcasm). I wouldn't be ragging on the game so much if its quality matched its AAA price tag of Rs. 2,400/ $59.99.
It's not entirely bad though, because you can tell the game knows how to have fun. AEW: Fight Forever taps into a level of goofy brutality that pushes the medium of what the WWE 2K series managed to do — the latter is possibly to avoid parental backlash. There's an Exploding Barbed Wire death match that coats the ropes in electrocuted coils — emulating an electric fence — that shocks and damages anyone that makes contact with it. This creates a sense of urgency and tension, forcing you to remain dominant and ensure you stay in the dead-centre of the ring. Make the mistake of getting whipped into the corners or sides and expect sparks to fly off as your mangled body sprays blood all over the ring.
Ladder matches, while certainly fun, can come across as tedious since the controls sometimes fail to respond when trying to pick them up. Meanwhile, the Casino Battle Royale mode (AEW's version of Royal Rumble) feels extremely shallow, as the game is limited to holding a maximum of four wrestlers on screen, at any given point in time. Given the game's emphasis on unbridled chaos, this restriction feels like a mockery of the match that's supposed to up the stakes by bombarding the entire roster onto the ring. I also found it weird that pro wrestling staples such as the steel cage and six-man tag-team matches were nowhere to be seen in AEW: Fight Forever, culminating in a barebone feel that runs the risk of becoming monotonous pretty quickly. Hopefully, the studio expands on it in the future.
Casual players might have been drawn to Road to Elite, AEW: Fight Forever's short-but-sweet career mode with branching paths, but it unfortunately falls flat. As an existing star from the roster or a custom-created one, you speedrun a 16-month-long journey, ping-ponging across North America, gradually evolving from a new signee to a champion. Wins, losses, and any choices you make shape your outcome through some condensed retelling of old plot angles that align you with Chris Jericho's Inner Circle faction and such.
Early on, you also forge friendships with fellow wrestlers and compete in Tag-Team matches, with losses stacking up to build a bitter break-up between you two. This is also where they would confess to stealing your luggage for weeks, in a narrative thread that feels silly at first, but nothing out of the bounds of something you'd see on a normal episode of All Elite Wrestling. My gripe, however, is that these plot beats never form an overarching arc, instead serving as start-and-stop events that simply carry you from one fight to the next. It severely lacks depth, or any kind of payoff with branching paths.
Scattered between those fights are light RPG elements that encourage you to engage in side activities such as hitting the gym to earn skill points, trying the local cuisine to boost energy, or going sightseeing to increase temporary motivation levels. Unfortunately, all stat points and skill upgrades are rendered useless/ unchangeable if you play as an existing wrestler, which logically makes sense, but then you're only left with fights and some dining segments to deal with. The mode, which is already quite barebones, gets significantly cut down, forcing you to create your own wrestler to start from the bare minimum and slowly build up.
On paper, this isn't a bad thing at all — in fact, most players would probably start their run with a freshly-created fighter. But sadly, AEW: Fight Forever's character creation suite is extremely limited, not offering enough options such as facial restructuring, eyes and nose shaping, and other minute details that help personalise a creation. Instead, you get some unmodifiable pre-set assets and bland clothing that can be combined to create a lifeless, machine-like interpretation of what you had in mind.
Additional assets such as entrances, attire, and taunts can be unlocked using in-game credits — which are unlocked through gameplay — but they aren't appealing or plentiful enough to warrant the extra grind. Furthermore, the Road to Elite mode only lets you save progress as one character, forcing you to delete the existing save file should you wish to try out the story with a different one.
In a faithful leap forward that's meant to kickstart a fresh wrestling game franchise, AEW: Fight Forever stumbles quite a bit. This is true for its real-life counterpart as well - a relative newcomer to the scene which will take a while before standing toe-to-toe with WWE's decades-long legacy. Much of the gameplay feels like a good start though, thanks to a fast-paced experience that isn't harsh on novices, mixed with an absurd amount of brutality and gore. Unfortunately, the game is tarnished by clunky mechanics, dimwit AI, lack of commentary, shortened entrances, and a poorly-written story mode that does not justify its high price tag. I'll admit there's a foundation for a better sequel, but for now, I find it hard to recommend this to wrestling fans.
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