Here’s the thing about wrestling videogames -- they‘re usually totally great, or completely terrible. A tricky genre that’s seen its fair share of disasters, the wrestling games have gotten a rap amongst skeptical gamers. Midway’s TNA Impact!, the upcoming videogame counterpart to the Orlando-based up-and-coming Total Non-Stop Action federation (which airs on Spike TV) has more than the genre’s previous misfortunes working against it.
AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, Kurt Angle, Christopher Daniels, Sting, Abyss … If all (or none) of these names ring familiar, that‘s understandable. While TNA has made great strides since its beginnings five years ago, the brand isn’t quite as strong as that held by the current king of the ring, the WWE. Coupled with weaker brand recognition and a genre littered with years worth of train wrecks, Midway’s Los Angeles-based studios (formerly Paradox Development) could be fighting an uphill battle.
But among the disasters are the diamonds in the rough -- games like the AKI developed Nintendo 64 wrestling titles, and the mind-numbingly dense Fire Pro Wrestling series. These are titles that stand as classic, fun experiences, licensing aside. And having spent the weekend chatting with the talent behind TNA Impact!, it was a breath of fresh air to hear those games brought up on more than one occasion. But talk is one thing, and delivery is another.
I had a chance to sit down and play an early build of the game (60% complete), and let me be brutally honest -- I'm a bit surprised. This game isn’t shaping up to be a disaster at all.
"We really wanted to set the next-gen bar for wrestling games," the game’s producer, Sal Divita told a crowd of videogame and wrestling journalists during past weekend's press event in Atlanta, GA.
This would be the first time we’d have a chance to not only see the game in action, but to get our hands "on the sticks," as Divita put it. Along with Mark Turmell, Divita is one half of the team that brought us the arcade-style, fast-action sports games like NBA Jam, NFL Blitz, and WWF Wrestlemania: The Arcade Game. The duo have teamed up again, hoping to translate their patented style of quick, responsive gameplay to TNA’s first wrestling videogame.
And as you can see from these screenshots, TNA Impact! does deliver impressive next-gen visuals. Powered by a modified Unreal Engine 3, the game features detailed character models that looking strikingly similar to their real life counterparts. With full, one-on-one access to the entire roster of TNA talent, the Midway team was able to capture small details in wrestler faces and other nuances, with impressive skin textures that drip with perspiration. Just looking at it makes you want to take a shower, doesn't it?"Our art team is so good," DiVita bragged during his initial game presentation, pointing out lighting effects, a blood splotch on the floor of the ring, and he even makes a note to point out the depth of field in the crowd of fans. One fan is holding a sign with a glaring grammatical error -- "Eric your fired!" -- and I made a point to bring it up. I’m told the spelling error may be intentional, and after attending the "Fan Interaction" event, I believe it.
Astounding visuals and potential battles with the English language aside, the proof is in how the game plays and feels. Fortunately, after getting my hands on an Xbox 360 build , it looks like Midway are on the right track. The control scheme is certainly not revolutionary, but as promised, feels tight and responsive.
The X and the A button are responsible for punches and kicks, respectively. Stringing together various button combinations will launch a series of free-flowing combo attacks that usually will end with your opponent on the ground crying. Grapples are performed with the Y button -- you can then ruthlessly pound on your opponent by pressing punch and kick, or perform a move (like a suplex or a hip toss) by pressing Y in conjunction with the control stick. Any of your wrestlers attacks can be given extra power by holding the Left button, opening up a second tier of modified strong attacks.As with most wrestling and fighting titles, counters play a huge role in your success. Although not all of the reversal animations were in this early build, we were promised that most (if not all) moves could be countered. You could even counter your opponents counters, and with any luck, both opponents could vie for control until someone slipped up. While countering strikes was a cinch (pressing the counter button will make your wrestlers perform a very obvious and easy to time “swipe” animation), there was no on-screen indicator as to when a button should be pressed to reverse other moves. In each animation, however, there will be a window of opportunity for the reversal, so it’s just a matter of experience before you can become a reversal king. Or, you could just use my strategy of mashing the button, and hoping you get lucky (note: This is not an effective dating tip).
The B button is the "catch-all" action button, responsible for entering/exiting the ring; climbing up turnbuckles; making your character stand up once floored; picking up an opponent into a grapple; and pinning your opponent for the three count. Once pinned, the game enters the good old Mario Party/arcade throwback of wiggling the heck out the left stick. The difficulty of this definitely will be getting tweaked between now and the game’s release -- during my first match, I was able to take someone out with a single hip toss before accidentally pinning them for the three count.
When it comes to making the wrestlers run around the ring, the words "quick" and "responsive" are definitely applicable. Holding the right trigger will make your wrestler run; releasing it will make then to stop, the forward momentum causing the character’s weight to shift in a realistic manner. What’s really noteworthy about the running mechanic is how free it is -- while holding the button, you can have your wrestler run in any direction … even in a circle. This freedom of control feels fantastic in your hands, and is a stunning contrast to most wrestling games. which only let you run in one of eight directions at a time.After over two dozen match-ups, it definitely appears TNA Impact! is shaping up nicely. The action is quick and responsive, with very few dull moments in the action, and should find its place among gamers looking for fast paced gameplay. But with many months before the game ships, there’s still plenty to be done on the title.
Many of the wrestlers in this build shared move sets, and there was only one finishing move available. When the game ships, Midway are promising that each character will have his signature moves, giving the game the authenticity fans crave. I only had a chance to see one arena (TNA's Universal Studios home in Orlando, FL), but multiple locales will be present in the game, each with its own look a feel.
The title will also feature a full story mode, a create-a-wrestler feature, specialty matches, online play, and other bells and whistles that you might expect. While the team admittedly understands that there’s no way they could cram the sheer number of features that titles like WWE Smackdown vs. Raw can deliver, that’s certainly not their intent. They’re simply focusing on creating a tight and fun first entry to the series.
I certainly enjoyed what I played, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all comes together this Spring when the game hit’s the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, and Wii. And I’m not just saying that because Samoa Joe threatened to put me in a coquina clutch if I didn’t. Promise.