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.
The face buttons are reserved for standard kicks and punches, as well as a grab and an action button (used to climb ropes and interact with weapons and objects). Combining d-pad presses with the grab button will perform traditional wrestling moves, like pile drivers and DDTs (unlike in the WWE, moves that impact on your opponent's head are allowed in TNA). Special, trademark finishers are also implemented this way, which change the camera angle and take control away from the player. These are only available when your Impact! meter, displayed in the upper corners of the screen, is full.
Impact! also has a few mini games that trigger during certain conditions. In an Ultimate X match, when the player is hanging out of the ropes and nears the X above the ring, a slider mini game triggers which requires players to time multiple presses of the A button to drag it down. When you lift your opponent and ready him for a spectacular move a quick time event will trigger which sees both wrestlers battle for supremacy. Press the face buttons in the correct sequence quickly enough and you'll trigger the move. If your opponent beats you to it he will escape from your hold.
Impact! looks great. The wrestlers look as close to the real thing as we've seen in a wrestling game, with impressive facial animations and effective reactions to spine busting attacks. Much of this is to do with Impact!'s greater focus on authenticity. One of the features the wrestlers are keen to push is the motion capturing sessions they endured. The game features over 200 motion captured moves, filmed during several sessions with about five members of the TNA roster. It's a point of difference, for sure. As Kurt Angle pointed out the last time we chatted to him, there's no mo cap in SmackDown Vs RAW.
It's easy to be cynical about wrestling games. Compared with traditional fighting games they can feel clunky, uninspired and unsophisticated. But this misses the point somewhat. Wrestling games are in a genre all on their own. They're not to be taken as seriously as Virtua Fighter or Street Fighter 2. When played with an open mind and with friends there's plenty of fun to be had. And TNA Impact!, from what we've played, has this in spades. In many ways, I'd much rather pop a wrestling game into my games console when my mates come round for a few beers than Tekken.
Whether Impact! is the game to drag the wrestling genre back into quality town, however, remains to be seen. We'll have to wait until September, when the game is due for release, to find out for sure. But what's certain is that TNA Impact! will draw first blood in this heavyweight wrestling video game bout. It'll have at least two months head start on SmackDown Vs RAW 2009, which traditionally releases in November. As the new kid on the block it's a confident move. TNA is laying down the gauntlet. It's saying to WWE: 'You've had it your own way far too long. Things have got stale, and we're here to shake things up.'
So confident is Midway in Impact! that work on TNA 2 is primed to begin. "They're going to take a couple of months off, and after that we go right back in the studio and start working on TNA Impact! 2," revealed Samoa Joe.
"What we didn't get in this game we're definitely looking forward to getting in the next game. One of the big things was Lockdown. We wanted to have Lockdown in this game, time constraints didn't permit it. But I know in the next game we will have Lockdown and tons of features we wanted to implement in this game but we were just getting used to the technology, the new Unreal engine, stuff like that. Now they're masters at using it and so we're eagerly awaiting to start working on the new game."
Trash talking is as much a part of professional wrestling as the wrestling itself, but soon the time for digs and insults will be over, and we'll see if TNA Impact! really will give THQ something to worry about.
TNA Impact! Is scheduled for release on Xbox 360, PS3, PS2 and Wii in September 2008.