We're laughing out loud. AJ Styles has just somersaulted from inside the six sided ring, over the top rope and belly flopped straight into Sting's face. "AJ is a high flyer," explains lead character artist Mark Lappin. "You guys can't do that."
We're in Midway's private booth in Convention Centre Los Angeles, the home of E3 2008. We've played the publisher's WWE SmackDown VS Raw 2009 killer before, and brought you our impressions on a number of occasions, but it's worth checking in once more, because the development team has a new mode to show off - Ultimate X Free For All.
There's two of us playing against Mark, who's using AJ. We've gone for Sting and Scott Steiner. This being an Ultimate X match, we're all after the big red X dangling high above the ring. The only way to get it though is to climb onto the top turn buckle (B, the interact button, on the Xbox 360 pad). From there, you inch along the ropes towards the centre where the X dangles, provocatively.
Mark takes AJ towards the middle, and we give chase. The three of us kick lumps out of each other as we hang on for dear life. There's even a leg grapple move you can do while hanging on, which helps you drag down tough hanging cookies. Sting approaches from below and jumps to drag AJ down to the canvass (Y). Despite Mark's efforts to bring his legs up to his chin to avoid Sting's attempts (RB), he eventually hits the deck, and the chaos begins again.
It's perhaps surprising, given that it's a wrestling game, but TNA Impact!, when played with an open mind, is a genuine blast. We're having uncomplicated, effortless fun as we painfully pound each other into the ground. Sure, it's not exactly pick up and play, but it's accessible and robust enough a fighting game that wrestling fans of both TNA and WWE will be pleasantly surprised by Midway's debut.
Part of the appeal is the counter system. Any move in the game can be reversed by a correctly timed press of the RB button. And any reversal can itself be reversed - which leads to some truly spectacular moments where huge, hulking wrestlers spin about each other as they jostle for slamming advantage. What's most impressive is the smoothness of the wrestler animations, and the abundance and variety. As far as we can tell every move can be reversed, no matter how complex. Sure, the window of opportunity to reverse varies, and thus the timing, but it's doable. Everything from the simple chest stomp to the flying drop kick can be twisted to your advantage if you're good enough. And, as we've explained, if you're even better than good, you'll start to see reversals performed on you as opportunities to show off.
Wrestling games are often slammed for their poor combat mechanics. Clunky and with poor collision detection, wrestling games usually find themselves appealing only to wrestling fans themselves. But TNA Impact!'s combat feels genuinely fluid. This is the first time Simon, VideoGamer.com's associate video producer (and HD camera genius) has played the game, and yet he performs the stand out move of our play test. Mark sends Steiner hurling towards the crowd barriers (you can send your opponent crashing into the environment - steel steps, metal post - by pressing the modifier button, LB, at the same time as the grab button, Y), but before his face smashes into its target, Sting grabs him mid run and hurls him to the ground. It's intuitive, fluid and solid combat - not something normally associated with wrestling games. And it also wins the approval of Mark, which, Simon says, is the most important thing.
We're not completely enamoured by TNA Impact!. The quick time event submission game looks like a pointless chore to us (turn your opponent's limb red by concentrating attacks on it and your submission is a guaranteed tap out), as does the QTE mini game you're forced to do when trying to tear the X down in an Ultimate X match. In fact, in general we don't like QTEs. But we reckon this won't ruin the game for us completely. It will probably end up just being an annoyance.
As fans of TNA the show will know it's a much more visceral, fast, athletic form of wrestling than WWE's more considered, slow but powerful style. It's closer to Lucha libre than WWE, in many ways. We're not picking sides at the moment - we'll wait for review code to pop though VideoGamer.com HQ's letterbox before we do that. But what we will say here is TNA Impact! is going to violently shake the wrestling game genre to its core when it's released this September. That much is certain. And that, for every wrestling fan out there who knows what a good game is, has to be a good thing.
TNA Impact! is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3, PS2 and Wii this September.