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AEW Fight Forever Review: Nostalgia that hits more than it misses

AEW’s modern version of WWF No Mercy proves you can go back again.

Rather than start this review about a wrestling video game using wrestling cliche’s about challenging the longstanding champion or even comparing AEW: Fight Forever to its WWE2K counterpart, let’s skip all that and get right to the bottomline: AEW: Fight Forever is a time machine that recreates WWF No Mercy and similar wrestling video games from the late 1990s. That fact that it shies away from the current sports simulation trend, along with its obvious nostalgic bent makes it an experiment.

Don’t fret; this is still a modern wrestling game that does (most) of what gamers expect from the genre in 2023. But it’s wagering that its back-to-basics approach regarding look, feel, controls, and even presentation appeal to more than just anyone who came of age during professional sports entertainment’s late ‘90s boom. This dedication to yesteryear results in a game that plays like a modern version of THQ’s Nintendo 64 hits that’s just as much fun but needs a bit more technical polish.

The Elite

Fight Forever’s low entry barrier functions as its chief selling point. Seriously, there’s not much to it for anyone who last played one of these during the Clinton Administration. Grapple? Tap a button or hold a button. Break a submission? Mash buttons. Break a pin attempt? You guessed it: mash buttons. While the different difficulty levels affect just how much strategy comes necessary with said simplicity, the controls create an easy learning curve.

At the same time, even that relatively simple control scheme comes with an adjustment period for anyone accustomed to WWE’s simulation games. While that’s not a bad thing by any stretch, it is a thing worth noting for any competitive player or anyone playing for good old fashioned bragging rights against their friends.

That barebones approach bleeds into different match types and modes. There’s the traditional one-on-one, tag team, triple threat, four-way dance, and of course a ladder match. Specific to AEW, however, are the Casino Battle Royale and the Exploding Barbed Wire Death Match. The former operates the way you think but don’t expect more than four players in the ring at once. The game design doesn’t allow for more than four wrestlers in the ring at most, along with the referee of course. It’s a change of pace from modern comforts, but it never feels like a drawback.

Restricting the wrestlers in the ring furthers AEW Games’ goal to resurrect the past but it’s also the limitations of the game engine. The Exploding Barbed Wire Match feels at home in this game. Like each match option, it comes with its own rules of the road. It’s also the match wrestlers bleed the easiest. Fight Forever presents AEW’s traditional carnage without going full Jon Moxley; wrestlers bleed but they don’t leak all over the ring.

While those modes all bring their own brand of fun, Road to the Elite is where the game shines. Players pick a wrestler, either real or created, and play what amounts to a year in AEW. Like wrestling games of yore, Road to the Elite dabbles in branching storylines. Wins or losses bring take the wrestler in different directions. This means that no two people will share the same experience and gives the game replay value.

The mode also introduces the game’s RPG-like system where players earn rewards for not only winning matches but earning rave reviews. Those rewards can enhance one’s move set, add certain advantages to their repertoire, or heighten one’s ability before a very big match. Road to the Elite even offers optional deviations while in the middle of a storyline. So there's nothing wrong with ignoring Jungle Boy’s Rampage challenge if there’s a championship match against Chris Jericho that same week.

The Not So Elite

Fight Forever is a lot of fun but it’s rough around the edges. It’s that missing refinement that holds the game back since it grasps the big picture well but stumbles on the small details. The game sacrifices some modern touches for that simplicity it cites as a strength. Mashing buttons to escape a pin is fun but without a meter illustrating how close one is or isn’t to kicking out, it makes it a guessing game.

The same goes for submissions as there’s really no way to tell how close a wrestler is to tapping or breaking free. That in-ring confusion also shows itself in the game’s running controls that never truly feel responsive, along with the grappling counter system, which feels more like luck than skill when actually successful.

Road to the Elite packs plenty of plot but one’s road to riches and diamond rings feels disconnected. Winning the Tag Team Championships with Dustin Rhodes is a big moment, but then everyone seemingly forgot as it’s never mentioned again. More to the point, your wrestler doesn’t rock their championships to the ring in this mode, nor will they defend them. Alliances or enemies seemingly mean nothing, and while the stories branch in different directions, what happens after finishing one storyline has no continuity with the next one.

The game engine also hinders how much is possible within the game. Now, a lot of this boils down to expectations but ignoring the strides wrestling video games made since 2003 seems foolish. There’s no in-game commentary save for a few words from Tony Schiavone or Jim Ross before and after a match. The arenas are small, thus limiting the possibilities outside the ring.

And, shockingly, ring entrances are only kind of a thing. Much like No Mercy or WrestleMania 2000, ring entrances consist of a few seconds of music, wrestlers showing up on the top ramp, posing, and that’s that. The limited presentation also means no backstage areas for Falls Count Anywhere matches, which is strange considering how much the game’s real-life counterpart utilizes the entire arena similar when the match calls for it.

The Bottomline

Much like AEW’s first year, Fight Forever shows a lot of promise and establishes a solid foundation. And also like AEW in 2019, it misses the mark in key technical areas. Thankfully, none of those misses are dealbreakers. Fight Forever’s strengths make it enjoyable and it truly scratches an itch for anyone who missed this type of gameplay.

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