A glance at the Total Nonstop Action wrestling stable gives the impression that it’s a place where all the big names of the last ten years have gone to see out their days until the body can take no more and their sagging man-boobs and paunches become a bigger obstacle than their opponents.
But with relatively recent WWE headliners such as Booker T, Kurt Angle, Big Poppa Pump, Christian, Rhino and Sting in its ranks, and all looking in top condition, it soon becomes clear that TNA is no retirement home for the flabby to wallow around in the unique hexagonal ring.
Now it must be noted that I am a wrestling fan, having watched it on and off since the days of Ravishing Rick Rude, Jake the Snake Roberts, The Ultimate Warrior and Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura.
When it comes to wrestling games however I do have a deeply ingrained hatred of them stemming from the early days of some downright awful titles riddled with infuriating collision problems, horrific targeting systems and user-unfriendly controls. (Backyard Wrestling anyone? Shudder.)
Even with the more recent Smackdown vs Raw titles, I couldn’t help but go into them with a negative outlook. They struck me as being prettier versions of the same shitty games. I’m wrong in this assessment, I know, which is why I was determined to go into TNA iMPACT! with an open mind, wiping those preconceptions from my head altogether.
I’m glad I did, because there’s a whole heapin’ helpin’ of fun to be had here and surprisingly enough, while there’s still some elementary annoyances, the problems aren’t serious enough to be off-putting.
Starting off, you can dive straight into a match with a selection of wrestlers (about 25 in all, half of which have to be unlocked in Story Mode) or head to the character creation section where you can design your own in a fairly basic creator. Here you can assign moves and actions as you earn them during Story Mode, too – and believe me, you’re going to need more than the default move-set to survive. Once your character is formed, the story begins with him starting his career in the back streets of Mexico, Lucha Libre style before competing in a Mexican Gauntlet match for a chance to cross the border into a US Army base and another Gauntlet match. Win that, and you earn a trial for a spot on the TNA roster.
At that point you’ve pretty much made it, and even though the matches do range from Solo, Tag-Team, Free-For-All and variations thereof to the very different Ultimate X style match (where you have to climb ropes to untie an ‘X’ from above the ring), it’s all much of a muchness until the end.
Your TNA career begins with some Tag Team matches and it’s at this point where you first notice the loading times. Each wrestler’s entrance is preceded by a loading screen (so that’s 4 loading screens), add to them the loading of the match before we see any wrestlers, and one more just before the match starts and you have to sit through about a minute of loading for each match. Luckily you can skip through the entrance theatrics, although it is nice to see exactly who your opponents are.
The control scheme, when compared to the likes of Smackdown vs Raw, is simplified but still takes some time to master before you can really be confident that you can pull off the exact move you want, when you want it. Left stick controls the movement of your wrestler, the face buttons perform punch, kick, grapple, pin, get in/out of the ring and climb the turnbuckle, and the shoulder buttons make your wrestler run, perform a reversal or turn any other move into a stronger move. I did find myself repeating favourite moves often but your opponents do wise-up and start using reversals earlier if you repeat them too often, which forces you to change things up a little.
Your HUD includes a silhouette of your wrestler, which changes colour according to the damage received on various body parts. There is also an Impact meter which, when filled, allows you to perform a signature finishing move by initiating a standing grapple. Next to that is a Stun meter which fills up if you are taking a steady beating from your opponent, when full your character will stand there all woozy and you have to waggle the right thumbstick furiously to shake it off until the Stun meter is depleted. During this time your opponent is usually making moves to flatten you from the top of the turnbuckle. This manic stick waggling is repeated if you get pinned too. A separate meter will appear and the faster you waggle, the faster the meter will fill (which is also dependant on how much of a beating you’ve been subjected to). Fill the meter before the 3 count and you will break free.
Now I’m sure Microsoft have made their controllers to take a decent thrashing, but the right stick really does take a regular hiding in TNA iMPACT!. (I couldn’t help but think of the old arcade classic Hyper Olympics and using a coin to rub over the buttons.)
Further button mashing occurs when a submission hold is applied. This takes you into a kind of mini-game in which a combination of buttons appear on screen which you have to press in order. The theory is to hit your combination before your opponent does, to break free from the hold. The problem I found was that the button presses changed so fast that only the most seasoned Guitar Hero veterans would have a chance of hitting them in order. I found myself just rolling my thumb around on the face buttons and eventually I’d fluke a combo before my wrestler tapped out. It’s a feature that doesn’t seem well thought out, but at least it wasn’t more stick waggling.
The RB button is used to perform reversals and counters, and if you can master this action (you get a fleeting prompt in your HUD) then this is the most satisfying part of the game. There’s nothing better (with beating your opponent to a pulp with a steel chair a close second), than reading a special move and countering it with a special one of your own. All counters can be countered however, and when three or four counters are strung together the result is brilliant to watch.
Graphically, the game looks sweet, the FMV sequences are well detailed and the game barely skipped a beat at 1080p. The character acting and voices are excellent, the story is littered with black humour and the commentary is varied enough that it compliments the in-ring action nicely without being annoying.
Multiplayer allows for 1-4 players locally, all on the same screen which zooms out slightly to accommodate players being spread around the ring. Online you can play solo or team up with a friend to indulge in some tag-team action.
So my congratulations goes out to Midway for producing an extremely competent wrestling title in TNA iMPACT! If they can keep an old cynic like myself interested, then they must be doing something right.