It's been a long time since anyone has come through with a legitimate licensed wrestling game to oppose THQ's long-running WWE-licensed games. That's largely because there hasn't been another meaningful organization to license for years. Recently, Orlando-based TNA Wrestling has risen to becoming a meaningful, though certainly smaller alternative to the WWE. So it's no surprise that the rise of a new wrestling organization has led to the rise of a new wrestling game based on the promotion. And much like TNA's weekly television show, Midway's interactive take on things is a combination of terrific highs and crushing lows. When you push all of those goods and bads together, you get a game that has a great deal of potential, but has a lot of quirks and annoying issues that really hold it back.
The most standout thing about TNA iMPACT! is its gameplay. It's a much faster game than you're probably used to if you've been following the genre for the last few years. Also, the controls feel nicely streamlined. It's easy to pick up the contoller, mess around for a few minutes, and get a good feel for when and where to use each of your attacks. The game uses a modifier button to execute "strong" versions of many attacks, and this button is what changes a simple run against the ropes into a dive that takes you through the ropes, out onto the floor, and (ideally) crashing down on top of your opponent.
The game is also very counter-focused with an emphasis on proper timing to avoid and reverse attacks. The window for countering moves is really tight, though, which makes it difficult to get used to. It also makes countering in online matches tough when the connection to the other player isn't great.
There's a downside to the game's easy control, though. The game doesn't offer as many moves as you'd expect, and it's easy to find yourself doing the same "toward+strong grapple" move again and again and again. It seemed like I spent most of my time in the story mode just suplexing people repeatedly, then whipping them into a turnbuckle so I could grab them and smash their head into the corner four times.
The game's match types cover most of the basic things you'd expect from a four-player game, but you won't find any sort of "no disqualification" or "hardcore" match in here. That's because all the matches are no DQ. There's no ref in the ring, you can't get counted out, and there are always plenty of chairs around the ring that are free to use as weapons. The only meaningful gimmick match is the Ultimate X, which is a match that positions a big friggin' X above the center of the ring, hanging from cables that attach to four of the turnbuckles. To win, someone must climb up a turnbuckle, climb out onto the cables, shimmy over to the X, and play a timing-based minigame to unhook it from the cables. It's a good addition.
The main single-player component to TNA is a story mode that opens with you playing the role of a fictional wrestler named Suicide. Suicide wins the TNA championship instead of taking a dive, so he's laid out by the tag team LAX and dumped in Tijuana with amnesia and a messed-up face. That brings you into the create-a-wrestler menus. You pick a new name for yourself and through your inherent, subliminal thirst for wrestling, find yourself working your way back to TNA. With your new look, the guys who hated you before don't recognize you.
The thing about the story mode is that it starts with a solid premise--it's certainly more interesting than anything that TNA has put on its television programming for the past few months. But the game almost immediately sticks you in a bunch of awful, boring tag team matches with Eric Young as your partner. Most of the time, there's no rhyme or reason to your matches, either. You just proceed through matches with no real end in sight until the game decides to spring a cutscene on you. Also, a large chunk of your time in story mode is spent wrestling created wrestlers, not actual TNA talent. With more interaction with the guys you actually watch TNA to see and some more story sequences to keep things focused, this could have been a much better mode.
For some players, a wrestling game lives and dies by its create-a-wrestler options. Those players will not enjoy this game. That's not to say that the character creation options are bad, it's more that they're pretty squarely focused on letting you make average-looking wrestling dudes, as opposed to slyly including parts that let you re-create wrestlers from the past. Outside of a decidedly Stone Cold Steve Austin-like vest and a variety of lucha masks, you're probably going to end up with a guy that looks like a low-rent, mid-card wrestler... which is pretty much perfect for the story mode.
Visually, the game has nice character models and textures, but the canned, motion-captured movement makes it feel like you're just setting off strings of animation instead of actually moving around and executing techniques. Also, there are plenty of spots where the models clip through each other, so don't be surprised to see one guy's foot sticking out of the other guy's back.
The audio in the game is awesome in some spots. Things like slamming a wrestler into a turnbuckle sound like someone being murdered. Body slams and other moves that send wrestlers crashing to the mat also sound thunderously nice. It's backed up by some of the weakest commentary I've heard in awhile. Don West and Mike Tenay rarely say anything related to the action, and when they do, it's almost always a few seconds too late. On top of that, they repeat themselves a lot, and the game rarely uses a wrestler's name, so it's a lot of "he" this and "he" that.
The overall feeling that TNA iMPACT! leaves me with is that it's a solid first step. With some iteration, more content, and more vocal contributions from more members of the TNA roster, a sequel could be just as viable of an alternative to the SmackDown! series as TNA's brand of wrestling is to WWE's.