Talking to the big man.
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.