Talk about life imitating art. The ridiculous trash talking we're used to seeing on the WWE and TNA TV shows has spilled over into the video game world, and, if anything, it's even more bitter, and more genuine, than its real life inspiration.
First ex-WWE wrestler Kurt Angle comes out and slams long-running THQ series WWE Smackdown vs. Raw for its "lack of effort and lack of ideas". Then Mitchell Cameron, associate brand manager for WWE at publisher THQ, called out the bitter Angle as nothing more than a "trash talker", saying "we're taking notice of what he's got to say and we're going to try to respond in our game". Handbags at dawn?
Absolutely. But it's all part of the fun, and it's all part of the show. Angle says that Midway "have actually spent hours with wrestlers with TNA Impact! You're going to see it's so much more authentic. It's a no brainer. We're going to win the war definitely". He certainly talks a good game, but does his game play a good game? We body slammed our way over to Midway's London HQ for an exclusive hands on with WWE's first real competition in years to find out.
The first thing we noticed was how impressive the graphics are. Midway is billing TNA Impact! as a more authentic representation of professional wrestling than WWE, which is targeted at a younger audience. Each wrestler looks superbly realistic, with facial animations, muscle movement and external effects, like sweating, combining to provide what at first glance looks almost like it could be the real thing. This probably has something to do with the fact that each wrestler has been individually motion captured and full body scanned, something Angle is certainly proud of. Christian Cage's virtual alter ego even has visible scars he picked up from a recent real life match. Wrestlers keep their eyes firmly fixed on each other as they move about the six-sided ring, they grimace, perspire, and contort just as they do on television. It's clear that Midway really has invested plenty of time and effort into making the game look as good as it possibly can.
The animations look a lot smoother than in the disappointing WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2008, too. Fighting feels more fluid and more responsive. One of the main criticisms wrestling games have justifiably suffered in the past is that they have always had extremely clunky combat controls. While TNA Impact! is no Virtua Fighter, it feels at least as if someone has sat down and thought about how they could improve matters.
When Kurt Angle started going on about how authentic and realistic his game would be, we were, in all honesty, sceptical. And our first hands-on preview, with a build that felt too early to be shown to press, did nothing to change that view. To his credit though, it looks like he was making some sense, if you can sift through his obvious ill-feeling towards Vince Mcmahon and the WWE.
TNA Impact!'s combat, surprisingly, feels as if it's got decent depth and requires a degree of skill to master. You've got your bog standard punch, kick and grab buttons, as you'd expect, but you've also got a counter button (RB on the Xbox 360 pad, likely R1 on the PS3/PS2 pad). If you time it just right you can counter almost any attack in the game, usually resulting in some spectacular moves. In one match, as Kurt Angle, we managed to counter a drop kick while the outspoken one was lying on his back, wrapping his legs around his unfortunate assailant and throwing him to the ground. And if your timing is especially good you'll be able to counter counters, resulting in some particularly fluid switch-ups and animation changes. It's not simply a case of holding down or spamming the counter button either - it needs to be combined with the punch and kick buttons, as well as the trigger buttons, and timed perfectly, to work. It can get quite complicated in parts too. Something even as simple as a flying drop kick involves combining the counter, grapple and action buttons after rebounding off the ropes.
The more hardcore elements are countered (see what we did there?) by some more casual friendly gameplay mechanics, designed to make the game more approachable to newcomers. One example is the button-pressing mini-game, which is a bit like the security hacking mini-game in Mass Effect. Here, when both players are locked in a grip, you need to press random buttons in sequence as quickly and as accurately as possible. Eventually one wrestler wins, and is able to bust out of the grip and perform a move.
As far as game modes go, we were only able to get hands on with the Ultimate X mode, but there will be plenty of alternatives, including your standard match and tag team derivatives (you can go online with up to three other players in Fatal Four Way matches), as well options to create a wrestler and customise entrances and moves. Much of the story mode is under wraps, but what we can reveal is that story lines will follow closely what fans have seen on the TV show, and has even been written by the same guys. And, Midway told us, the show will incorporate the game in some way too.
Ultimate X involves climbing up cables high above the ring in an attempt to capture a suspended X-shaped belt perched above the ring. The first wrestler to untie the X wins. It's a lot harder than it sounds. Your opponent can drag you back down to the canvas, so you need to make sure you give them a right pummelling before you begin your ascent. Weapons are allowed as well, so expect some particularly brutal fights as each wrestler battles for supremacy.
Midway has confirmed that TNA Impact! will feature 25 wrestlers, with two bonus characters. Confirmed appearances include Kurt Angle, Booker T, Sting, Jeff Jarrett, Christian Cage, Samoa Joe, AJ Styles, Rhino, Christopher Daniels and more. The signature moves weren't in the build we got our sweaty palms on, but we're assured they are being added. Before you can use them however, you need to build up your Impact! Bar, displayed in the top two corners of the screen, by pounding your opponent into the canvas. When it's full you'll be able to trigger the signature moves, like the Canadian Destroyer, The Styles Clash and the Clutch.
There's still work being done on the game, mainly to do with balancing the wrestlers. Each fighter is divided up into three categories, grappler, acrobat and brawler, and Midway is making sure bigger wrestlers move slower and small wrestlers move quicker, that sort of thing. And, perhaps somewhat disappointingly, despite TNA the show being aimed at a more adult demographic compared with WWE, there won't be any blood in the game.
It's been easy to dismiss wrestling games in the past as cynical cash-ins devoid of gaming quality, but TNA Impact! seems to be striving for something better. Clearly those hoping for a Virtua Fighter quality wrestling game will be disappointed, but there's plenty to suggest that Midway's WWE killer will have enough to force THQ to raise their game. And for that Kurt Angle and co should be applauded.