When you think of wrestling, the chances are that you think of WWE - the camp, melodramatic and oh-so-macho "sports entertainment" circus which used to be called WWF before some pandas got upset or something. As a result, when you think of wrestling games, the chances are that you think of SmackDown!, THQ's long-running grappling franchise.
Midway is hoping that by later this year, you'll be thinking differently. With its upcoming wrestling debut, TNA iMPACT!, it's gambling not only on being able to turn out a wrestling game that's better than SmackDown! - but also on the whole TNA brand, a newer and less-recognised wrestling show which claims to be more action-packed and less mouthy than the WWE's offering. It's also doing the irritating capitalisation and exclamation mark thing.
TNA iMPACT! certainly sets out to be pretty distinctive - not least thanks to the unique set-up of the TNA events themselves. Eschewing the boxing-style ring of WWE, TNA uses a six-sided hexagonal ring - something that Midway rather spuriously claims is a guarantee of "six times the pain". We're not sure we follow the maths on that one. Other features seem a bit more relevant - like the Ultimate X events, which see wrestlers clambering over ropes high above the ring to try and reach a suspended trophy, while other wrestlers try to kick them back down to the rather hard-looking boards below.
The whole affair is pretty extensively motion-captured, with TNA's own wrestling stars donning the mo-cap suits for many gruelling sessions that recorded hundreds of different moves for the game. The result is definitely a step up for wrestling games in animation terms. Grapples and throws look incredibly solid, with the movement of aggressor and victim being perfectly synchronised - none of the loose holds, clipped polygons or odd timings which have made previous wrestling titles look more like a battle between plastic toys than men.
Not, of course, that wrestlers actually look like real men anyway - something which plays quite nicely into TNA iMPACT!'s hands. The day-glo presentation, skin-tight lycra and oily sheen on everyone's skin would probably look downright peculiar in any other game (remember those early FIFA titles on the 360, where it looked like every player had been liberally doused in translucent slime?) - but here, they fit the bill perfectly. Squint a little and give yourself a mild hangover, and you could be watching one of TNA's shows on Bravo.
Anyway, a few of TNA's wrestling stars popped along to Midway's game event in London recently to chat about the game - something which is normally pretty meaningless, but which turns out to be surprisingly insightful in this case. The three who speak to the press - AJ Styles, Petey Williams and heavyweight champion Samoa Joe - are all, it quickly transpires, genuine gamers. That's a claim often made by celebrities promoting games, but we're not sure any PR pre-briefing could have created Samoa Joe's genuine disgruntlement at being unable to watch his hotel room TV because of roommate AJ Styles' present obsession with LEGO Indiana Jones.
The three, unsurprisingly, are not fans of SmackDown! It feels "detached", Joe complains, compared to what they consider to be the immediacy of TNA's game (which does certainly have the edge on SmackDown! in terms of speed). The last time AJ played a SmackDown! game, he says, the franchise was still called WWF - "back when it was good", he jibes. Instead, all three profess to be big fans of a large number of more obscure games, reeling off names like the FirePro series and a host of other games, many of which only ever came out in Japan. "I don't actually know how we got our hands on those," muses AJ. "Illegally, that's how," shoots back Samoa Joe, to laughter from the assembled journalists.
The three are obviously hugely excited about the TNA game - and claim to have been deeply involved all the way through the design and development process. Obviously, they donned motion-capture suits to record the various moves, but they also spoke to the developers throughout the design process - and, says AJ, were delighted to discover that they shared the same tastes in obscure wrestling games, and the same desire to create that kind of immediate, satisfying feeling in the final game.
Even their language speaks to their love of games. As AJ relates an anecdote about the motion capture sessions - apparently, their caps kept getting pulled off during head-lock moves, which the software interpreted as the character being decapitated - Petey Williams can't resist a grinning comment. "Fatality!" he intones ghoulishly. Yep, these boys like their games. On the strength of what we've seen, we're starting to think we might like their game too.
Head to the next page for our full interview with TNA heavyweight champ Samoa Joe.
After the press conference, we caught up with TNA heavyweight champ Samoa Joe - who is frankly one of the biggest men we've ever met, and we've been to Texas - for a chat about TNA, videogames, and selling mortgages.
Eurogamer: What makes TNA different from the other wrestling shows that people might be more familiar with, like WWE?
Samoa Joe: As far as us, personally - I think TNA as a whole and our entire wrestling style is much more action-packed, it's much more death-defying and risk-taking than you'll see in WWE. We have athletes who will just go above and beyond to entertain the crowd, and if anything, I think, comparatively speaking our style of wrestling is much more high-impact, definitely more adrenaline-filled. For the most part, it's just more exciting. We're made or broken on what we do in the ring. We don't do a lot of jawing, we don't do a lot of talking - we just go into the ring and we wrestle, and we do what we do best, which is to entertain the fans.
Eurogamer: So there's a lot less of the showboating and posturing stuff.
Samoa Joe: Yeah, and I will say this - it's evident in our product that we don't mess around. We've got guys who go in there and just do things that you've never seen done anywhere else in the world. I think we have the roster and the athletes that WWE just doesn't have, and that really makes for an amazing product.
Eurogamer: Talking about being action-packed and death-defying sounds like you're describing a videogame already.
Samoa Joe: Absolutely! I think that's actually the major draw that Midway had to us. When you watch our product compared to WWE, we take risks that nobody in this industry really takes. From the Ultimate X to some of the scaffold stuff we do, to some of the amazing ladder matches that we have within the confines of our ring... As a whole, I feel that TNA and our product and our wrestling style is revolutionary. It's far above what you see currently in WWE.
Eurogamer: If you're spending that much time in the air, there must be some pretty good injuries to show for it.
Samoa Joe: Oh yeah. I've had, let's see... Four broken ribs, two bone ACLs [Anterior Cruciate Ligament, which sounds like a Harry Potter spell but is actually very sore, we're reliably informed], broken wrist, broken...
Eurogamer: All at the same time?
Samoa Joe: Actually I just broke my finger the other night! [Joe waves a disturbingly broken-looking finger in our horrified faces.] The list of injuries is so extensive at this point that you almost forget about old injuries. It definitely takes its toll, but at the same time, we're dedicated to delivering something different and alternative to what you see out there today. Those are the knocks that go along with it.
Eurogamer: Talking about your own career, Wikipedia claims that you used to be a mortgage salesman.
Samoa Joe: Yes, absolutely. At one time, I would call you at all hours of the night, I would offer to refinance your house - and if you said no, I'd say "okay, nice talking to you", and I'd be calling you tomorrow during dinner too. I think that helped me with being an evil character in wrestling, because I definitely had no problem with being an absolute voracious asshole on the phone, and I figured that would translate well into television! So yeah, it helped in that aspect - it was one of several jobs I held before becoming a professional wrestler.
Eurogamer: What is the career path from mortgage salesman through to professional wrestler, exactly?
Samoa Joe: The career path is basically that I was tired of working in a windowless office - and I actually did get tired of interrupting everybody's dinner with my offers of financial stability, freedom and...
Eurogamer: You actually remember the pitch!
Samoa Joe: Of course! I had a great one! Basically, I'd always done something physical in my life. I'd played American Football growing up and going through high-school, I'd done judo before that - I was the California State Junior Judo Champion. Even after I was done playing football, I was playing rugby for club teams around California. I needed something to be an outlet. I was working out in the judo studio one day and someone said I should try out for the Pro Wrestling course. I tried it, and I did it, and I took to it - I had an aptitude for it. Within a year I was working in Japan on a regular gig, and then I moved back to the States and worked with companies throughout the US. Finally I was signed by TNA, and here I am.
Eurogamer: We saw some clips earlier of you guys doing the motion capture. Normally we'd ask about wearing the fetching lycra body-suits, but I guess that's not so unusual for a wrestler...
Samoa Joe: Well... Yeah.
Eurogamer: All the same, how did you feel about going in to do the motion-capture? Did you find it enjoyable, challenging?
Samoa Joe: Our reaction... Initially, there's this really big cool factor - it's like, wow, we're about to capture this in 3D! Then, about six hours into the session, your back is starting to hurt and your head's starting to rattle, and all you can think is, "when are we ever going to get this done?" It's funny though, because when we saw the end product at the end of the day, it kind of made it all worth it - because all of a sudden you see this virtual representation of yourself, that looks fantastically like yourself, doing your moves. Yeah, it was worth it.
Eurogamer: In the videos, it looked like you captured two wrestlers at once, doing their moves together.
Samoa Joe: Honestly, in order to capture moves properly, we needed two guys in there at one time. We needed a guy to give the move, we needed a guy to take the move and sell it - to give it the realism that it would have if it was an actual match. Basically, every time you see anyone taking a throw or taking a punch in the face in the videogame, just know that somewhere along the line there was some poor soul in a spandex lycra bodysuit getting punched in the face or slammed to the mat for real! We definitely wanted to make it look as real as possible.
Eurogamer: You're obviously something of a gamer yourself - are you going to be playing your own game, once it comes out?
Samoa Joe: Absolutely. I mean, how could you not? It's you! I think anybody in the world, if you had a videogame that was based on you, and you starred in it... I doubt that you'd play much else either!
Eurogamer: So people playing online could come up against you, playing you...
Samoa Joe: Oh yeah! And they will lose unmercifully! It'll be a horrible tragedy; I'll have no problem telling you about the whole massacre as it occurs.
Eurogamer: But you're not going to share your Gamertag with us, are you.
Samoa Joe: Uhhh.... You know... I would normally, if it didn't result in, like, everyone in the world instant-messaging me while I'm trying to play a game.
Samoa Joe: It actually happened! I gave out one of my Gamertags thinking, oh, you know, it's no big deal - and then you're in the middle of a Call of Duty game and you keep getting "bloop! Message from so-and-so! Bloop! Message from so-and-so! Bloop! So-and-so wants to be your friend!" It just gets real annoying after a while.
Eurogamer: And it's convenient that now we won't be able to check up on you and see whether you're actually on top of the table.
Samoa Joe: Oh, it won't be a problem. If you fight me, you'll know. Instantaneously.
TNA iMPACT! is due out worldwide for PS3, 360, PS2 and Wii on 5th September.