Most wrestling games get it wrong. Matches shouldn’t just be about who wins or loses, but how entertaining they are. WWE games are historically bad at this—they’re afraid to reflect ‘real’ wrestling, where two athletes work together to tell a story while legitimately knocking the piss out of one another, so instead they play like confused fighting games. They often feel indecisive, lacking the sense of momentum recognisable in every worthwhile wrestling match. Fire Pro Wrestling World, out now on Steam Early Access, is different.
It’s a deceptive game. It looks simple, with stout 2D graphics and graceful animation that recalls ancient coin-ops such as WWF Wrestlefest, but it’s actually complex title that demands finesse. It has excellent heritage, too. While mainstream wrestling games were busying themselves with improved likenesses, entrances, and subsurface scattering, the Fire Pro series was diligently learning to be a more thoughtful experience—a trend continued in Fire Pro Wrestling World.
The focus is on the flow and feel of matches. Things start small. Light attacks such as snapmeres, armbars, and haymakers signal the match is in its early stages, easing you into the competition before the high spots. There’s nothing stopping you from hitting big attacks early on, but you’re more likely to land the light ones. In this sense, Fire Pro does a fine job of representing the escalation and narrative of a professional wrestling match. But it’s deeper than that.
It’s not just about how much damage you do. Every move acts like the link in a chain, leading you onto something else. As mentioned above, light attacks are aperitifs, used to kick things off. Medium attacks act like momentum shifts. Opponents stay down longer after receiving them, giving you time to apply holds, draw breath, or climb the turnbuckle. Big moves, however, don’t necessarily keep your opponent down as long.
This seemed weird to me at first—I expected powerbombs and piledrivers to stagger my opponents—but now I can see the logic of it. Hit a big move and your opponent will struggle back to their feet, dazed, letting you execute more flamboyant attacks you’d normally struggle to land. In real life, wrestlers often pop back up to take another bump to increasing the pace towards the end of a match, and that’s exactly what this represents. It gives Fire Pro a dynamism that’s missing from WWE games.
Because of all this, the final two minutes of every match are where it’s at. I found that I didn’t mind when an opponent kicked out of my finisher on a count of 2.9, just because the match rating was always in the back of my mind. Likewise with the option to play dead. When your opponent climbs the turnbuckle, you can hold a button to remain on the mat. You can be conniving about it, and use the opportunity to roll out of the way at the last minute, or you could choose to sell your opponent’s frog splash for the sake of the match. What could be more like real wrestling than that?
Although the feel of the matches is familiar, the execution takes some getting used to. It’s all about timing. You have to pinpoint the right moment to execute a move. Input an attack too early and you’ll lose your chance; press it too late and your opponent will beat you to it. I struggled to get the timing right until I started listening for the ‘stamp’ that goes with every grapple. It’s a strange system at first, but the precision of it works well in context: lose your timing and you can be on the receiving end of a chain of moves before nailing an attack that will let you shift the momentum.
There are other limitations that might seem jarring. You can only throw your opponents into the left and right turnbuckles, because you can only run laterally. It feels like an odd thing at first, but I soon discovered it didn’t alter how I felt about matches, in the same way I neither know nor care which corner of a real wrestling ring is being used. In fact, the slight limitations encourage you to use your imagination, in a way that nicely recalls the likes of Warzone or No Mercy. By giving us less, Fire Pro Wrestling World somehow encourages players to be more creative. There are gaps, but you fill them in yourself.
Nowhere is this more obvious that in the character creation mode, which is comprehensive enough to deserve a feature of its own. After just a week of being in early access, Fire Pro Wrestling World had thousands of custom wrestlers, covering the complete history of the business. Think of a wrestler, living or dead, and somebody has probably made them. Bastion Booger sits alongside Bam Bam Bigelow; Karl Gotch can fight Rugged Ronnie Garvin. It’s the best use of the Steam Workshop I’ve seen, almost as if the community sees creating the most obscure, forgotten wrestlers as a challenge.
And, as you’d expect, it’s not limited to wrestlers, either. My favourite custom match was a Battle Royale featuring Tom, Phil, and Samuel from the PC Gamer team (I was writing a magazine diary, okay?) facing off against Bob Ross, Geralt of Rivia, and Gabe Newell. Always believe in the beauty of your dreams.
The downside of the focus on matches and wrestlers is that everything else feels sparse. This may come in time—this is an early access game, after all—but right now, the stuff outside ring is the only thing WWE games do better. There are tournaments and leagues, but they lack the long-term drama I want as a wrestling fan.
When you’ve got such a rich, overwhelming bank of wrestlers (as well as bears, game developers, and wet-on-wet oil painting experts), you want stories that engage those personalities. This can only come from building feuds, beating rivals, and driving storylines. At the moment, there’s nothing in Fire Pro Wrestling World that gives that option, and the lack of a persistent programme of matches is disappointing. The Universe mode has been the most consistently worthwhile element of recent WWE games - something similar would be incredible here.
I’m having more fun in the matches than I have in any recent WWE title, but the problem is that it selfishly makes me want more. For me, the ideal wrestling game would fall somewhere between a management sim and an RPG—I want to make a character, build their career, and have power over their ultimate success. That extra level of narrative direction is the biggest thing missing from Fire Pro Wrestling World. All the story currently comes from the matches themselves—which is a purist’s dream, perhaps—but more depth would turn a good game into a great one.