I'm in a crowded room, buried somewhere deep within the Covent Garden underworld, with TNA World champion Samoa Joe, Triple champ AJ Styles and X Division champion Petey Williams. TNA Impact!, the first genuine rival to WWE Smackdown VS Raw in years, is playable on a massive screen. Publisher Midway has dimmed the lights and readied the assembled throng for a brand new trailer, one you can see right here exclusively on VideoGamer.com.
It's a match between the virtual versions of Samoa Joe and AJ Styles, with commentary from the real life Samoa Joe and AJ Styles. As the two wrestlers pound each other into the ground, we discover that they're actually quite funny blokes. The crowd regularly laughs at their trash talking and put downs. I'm warming to these guys with every second that passes.
Samoa Joe wins, much to Styles' disgust. They, along with Williams, then take to the floor to answer questions on the game. From our chat with Samoa Joe and AJ Styles in Las Vegas earlier in the year, we knew that they were gamers, actual gamers. Now, in London, our time with the guys gives us a greater insight into this. The Japanese made Fire Pro Wrestling is mentioned, Giant Gram and the old, original THQ wrestling games are looked upon affectionately. The feeling is that the wrestling game genre is one that has found itself mired in the doldrums in recent years, and TNA Impact! is the game to change that.
But that's marketing speak. Fluff. Impact!'s going to be just another poor wrestling game, right? AJ Styles doesn't think so, as we found out when we caught up with him after the presentation. "I think the expectations for this game are definitely higher than maybe we'll be able to get to," he admits. "But I still think it's a great game. I think that people are going to want to play this game just to have fun. That's what it's all about. I know they're as sick as I am about the WWE games and how they suck."
Given Kurt Angle's comments from earlier in the year about TNA Impact! and what it's going to do to SmackDown Vs RAW, I'm taken aback by Style's frankness about expectations for his game. This openness is extended by Samoa Joe when I ask him if Impact! can overcome the cynicism surrounding wrestling games from hardcore gamers.
"It's going to be tough," he says. "The SmackDown games for the most part have their place, they have their fans. They're definitely a big fan base. For me personally I didn't enjoy playing it. Especially since there were so many fantastic titles as far as pro wrestling goes that came before. The original THQ games using the AKI engine, Giant Gram, AJ's a big fan of Fire Pro and Virtual Pro Wrestling. There was such a renaissance in professional wrestling games at one time that we thought it was a shame that there wasn't a great fun easy to play wrestling game out on the market that is intuitive, fast and looked great. When Midway came to us with the offer we jumped at the chance."
So the gauntlet has been laid, and now it's time for us to play the game and have a look for ourselves. The most obvious thing that strikes us is that Impact! is a quicker, zippier game than THQ's. The wrestlers move about the six-sided ring extremely quickly, almost too quickly given their size. It's also a game that's less about grappling and more about counters. On the Xbox 360 pad the RB button is used for reversals and counters. Time it right and you can counter pretty much any move in the game, from punches to kicks to off the top rope attacks. Time it even better and you can counter a counter, leading to some spectacular multi-string reversals where the wrestlers spin about and shift position as they switch between having a move performed on them to performing a move on their opponent. This actually works well, and led to some enthusiastic 'whoas!' and laughs during our multiplayer time with the game.
Simply bashing the counter button will work some of the time, but not all of the time. So newcomers should be able to get something out of the reversal system straight away, but need to put in practice to master it.