by Alex Knapp
Systems: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii and PlayStation 2
Developer: Midway Studios Los Angeles
Publisher: Midway Games
As the year 2015 gets underway, one of the biggest subjects on the minds of wrestling fans everywhere is the current state of TNA (or is it called Impact Wrestling? Apparently, not even Dixie Carter knows).
After years of partnership, TNA’s flagship weekly TV show, Impact, was dumped from Spike, and after scrambling for a new network deal, they are currently chugging along on Destination America. All the while, there seems to be a new horror story every week about the company’s backstage environment or financial state. Whatever the truth of the details are, it is obvious to everyone who is not Dixie that this is a company in a grave state of decline.
Faced with such a dramatic series of events, one is inclined to look back and reflect. To think back to a time which was only seven years ago, but which now may seem like the distant, idyllic glory days of yesteryear. A time when TNA President Dixie Carter was not an onscreen personality. When Jeff Jarrett was still at the promotion he founded, heading up the trusty (?) booking team of Vince Russo and Dutch Mantel. When they were avoiding going on the road for shows before they were fiscally capable of doing so, and instead had a stable home arena at the Impact Zone in Orlando. A time when TNA, for all of their struggles for direction and viewership, and for all of the times they demonstrated an ineptitude that would make WCW face palm, really seemed to be on the rise as a viable competing alternative to the WWE monopoly.
They had made themselves distinct from the get-go with their unique six-sided wrestling ring. They had gone from being a pay-per-view only wrestling promotion to weekly national TV on Spike. They had assembled an impressive roster of talent consisting of famous veterans from WCW and WWE, alongside some of the finest in the new generation of professional wrestlers who had made a name for themselves in Ring Of Honor (ROH) and other indies. They had some neat distinguishing attractions in the athleticism of the X-division, not to mention the knockouts division, which offered the hope of revitalizing women’s wrestling in America.
Although they were still in second place by light-years, and it may have been presumptuous to call them a direct threat to WWE, they were growing. And in 2008, they accomplished yet another symbol of growth: Their very first video game. TNA Impact! And boy, did they trumpet this fact from the heavens.
I cannot think of any other wrestling video game that received so much hype from its associated promotion. Episodes of Impact constantly featured previews and making-of vignettes to build anticipation. Wrestlers Samoa Joe, Jay Lethal, AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels (all four of whom would go on to narrate the game’s tutorial videos) in particular had a big hand in the making of the game, and were featured strongly in promotional material. And, of course, they went so far as to debut the protagonist of the game’s story mode, Suicide (first name: Suicide, last name: From the TNA Video Game) as an onscreen character, played by Frankie Kazarian and Christopher “I went from the Fallen Angel and Curry Man gimmicks to this; what the hell is happening to my career?” Daniels.
TNA and Midway Games promoted this release with no shortage of passion and gusto, and as WWE’s flagship game series, WWE SmackDown vs. Raw, grew more and more stale, fans’ hopes were raised that TNA’s ambitions of being an alternative wrestling product would also be realized on the game consoles.
But if there’s one thing the story of TNA has taught us over the years, it’s that you can’t build success off of hype and enthusiasm alone.
If all the advertisements and previews weren’t hype enough, the game opens up with a dramatic video package showing the TNA stars in battle, as a narrator builds anticipation for a true proving ground of great pro wrestling talent. When you get started, you see that the game features an impressive roster of talent which represent the company well. You have established veterans such as Kurt Angle, Sting, Christian Cage, Scott Steiner, Rhino, Team 3D, Kevin Nash and Booker T., alongside TNA originals like AJ, Joe, Daniels, Lethal, Abyss, Motor City Machine Guns and LAX. Match selections include singles, tag, handicap, falls count anywhere, submission, every man for himself battle royal and the most unique feature of the game: The signature match of the X-division, the Ultimate X match.
This all looks pretty decent so far. And when you get to the ring, the anticipation builds even further; the graphics are very good, the wrestlers have great renditions, and the moves are well-animated and smooth. But, in probably the greatest metaphor for TNA that could possibly be made, just when this game starts to look intriguing and really seem on the cusp of offering an engaging wrestling experience, it trips over some key fundamentals, and the wheels start falling off the wagon.
In addition to basic and strong punches and kicks, the game features a grapple system where the biggest and most powerful moves are executed through pressing the directional pad in addition to the grapple button from both standing and grapple positions. I get the distinct feeling that Midway was trying really hard to not be too similar to SmackDown vs. Raw with this. The game already shares quite a few similarities with the dominant WWE titles (such as the system for targeting specific body parts), so it would behoove them to try not to seem like cheap imitators. The game has some good ideas in this regard, such as the submission system in which you have to tap onscreen button combinations faster than your opponent. But while, on paper, the grapple system is simple and straightforward, in practice, I would often find myself not pulling off the move I wanted, and I didn’t feel as in control of my wrestling style as I would like. It sometimes felt like my grapples and moves were random and out of my control.
However, what makes this worse is probably the most disappointing thing that could happen in a game for a promotion which touts itself as offering a high-impact wrestling-centered product: The move sets are actually pretty limited. What moves you are able to execute look good, but there are only a handful you can actually do, and matches quickly become repetitive and bland. It’s probably the worst weakness for a game of this caliber to have; you have a roster of some of the most talented wrestlers in the world, and you want to imitate their diverse and honed move sets, right? But you can’t really do that in this game, due to both the control issues and the fact that there isn’t much there anyway. It’s very underwhelming.
That’s not the worst thing about the gameplay, though. That dubious honor goes undoubtedly to how unnecessarily hard it is to kick out of pinfalls. When you get covered for a pin, you have to wiggle the joysticks back and forth vigorously until you fill up your kick out meter. But this is probably the most frustrating kick out system I’ve ever had to deal with in a wrestling game! You can’t just wiggle the sticks randomly; no, apparently, the game is very picky, and will only budge if you wiggle both sticks from left to right in a straight vertical fashion! I would often find myself getting covered early in the match, and I’d put my palm over my controller and vigorously brush the joysticks back and forth, and my meter wouldn’t budge! It responds only when it wants to, and you can lose matches for the cheapest, worst reasons, having little damage and having guzzled most of the offense in the match, only to go down when your opponent gets lucky, gets you off your feet for a second, and makes the cover.
Generally, if it’s early in the match, you can still have just barely enough time to kick out at two, if you’re lucky and can manage to get the meter to respond to your touch. But if your opponent manages to land his finisher on you, you’re screwed! You can’t kick out, because your meter is bigger and advances more slowly. You can’t make a dramatic comeback, and it’s not possible to reverse finishers either. Basically, if you don’t maintain the offense and do everything in your power to not let your opponent grab you when he has a finisher ready, then that’s all she wrote. This is NOT the sort of thing I should have to worry about in a 21st Century wrestling game, and the cheap losses this mechanic brings really causes a lot of unneeded aggravation, to say nothing of how much they limit your ability to have fun, back-and-forth matches.
The match selection sounds like a decent variety at first. But in practice, they don’t necessarily provide extremely different experiences. For example, the falls count anywhere match might sound like the chance to have a wild, hardcore, out-of-the-ring brawl. But in actuality, this ends up being redundant, because Midway made a strange decision: There are no countouts or disqualifications in the entire game! In your basic match, you have every right to brawl outside of the ring and bash each other with chairs. Thus, the only variety that wrestling an FCA match offers is…well, you can pin your opponent outside of the ring.
The Ultimate X match can indeed be fun and unique. It operates a little bit like a ladder match from a SmackDown vs. Raw game. You have to incapacitate your opponent, and then climb one of the poles in the corner in order to reach the X suspended over the ring, and then head over to the X hung in the center and unhook it. To do so, all you need to do is beat a simple mini game where you press a button with the proper timing on a meter. As you race to do this, you and your opponent will be kicking each other off of the X and sending each other plummeting back to the mat until one of you unhooks the prize and emerges the victor. This can provide some fun moments. The problem is, when it comes to the match selection, this is really the only unique thing, and the only thing that really drives home that I’m playing a TNA game. For heaven’s sake, there aren’t even any knockouts in this game!
The Story Mode presents one of the game’s central attractions. And say what you want about it, but let no one call it unoriginal. You play the aforementioned Suicide (or, if you want to be formal, Mr. From the TNA Video Game), a fast-rising star in TNA who works his way up the ranks of the promotion and earns a shot at the TNA World Heavyweight Championship. But before the match, you are confronted by Homicide and Hernandez of LAX, who order you to take a dive and lose the match. You refuse and go on to win the title, but are assaulted and viciously beat down shortly afterwards. You wake up with amnesia in a hospital room in Tijuana (?), and receive reconstructive surgery to restore your appearance. Including changing things like your body type, skin color and eye color. Meaning that these doctors in a rundown hospital in Mexico have apparently mastered the advanced gene therapy techniques that the bad guys in the James Bond movie Die Another Day used. From there, you re-enter the world of professional wrestling, make your way back into TNA, and have to fight your way back to the top and discover the mastermind behind your downfall.
It’s convoluted, silly and Russo-tastic, but it’s different, I’ll give it that. The story itself, while not exactly William Shakespeare, is a decent little page-turner, full of zany Russo swerves and soap opera drama. But it has its rough spots. Because, as I said, matches often end up being pretty redundant, it can be boring to run through a few long streams of matches against jobbers before you come up to a new turning point in the story.
And then there’s the final boss match at the end. I won’t spoil who the ultimate enemy is here, but…it’s TNA in the 2000s. Take a wild guess. And the match against him is one of the cheapest, most frustrating parts of the game. Difficult boss matches aren’t anything new in wrestling games, and sometimes they can be effective, providing an incredible feeling of accomplishment when you eventually win. When you finally pin Great Puma at the end of Pro Wrestling (NES), or take down The Undertaker in the Defeat the Streak mode in WWE 2K14, you feel awesome. But the key reason why they work is that they aren’t cheap. They’re difficult, no doubt, but at least they’re fair, logical and require you to simply have top notch skills and reaction time.
Such is not the case with this final boss. This wrestler has ridiculously outsized damage to his moves, capable of nearly stunning you with one basic punch. His Impact meter fills up at a super speed, it takes forever for your attacks to dish him major damage and put a body part in the red, and when you land a finisher on him, chances are he still won’t be ready to go down, and will be able to finish you off within two minutes afterwards (and remember what I said about kicking out of pinfalls in this game? Yeah…). It crosses the line from being a challenge to just being cheap. I had to go online to look up a strategy on how to beat him; without going into detail, it worked, but I feel dirty for the way I won this match. It’s probably the most embarrassing way I’ve succeeded in a wrestling game yet.
When you want to take a break from matches, the game features a sizable amount of bonus content. It’s full of behind-the-scenes videos showing the making of this game and interviews with the Midway team. It also features some full length TNA matches, including bouts from the promotion’s early years and a couple of matches exclusive to the game. And heck, this game was even the first to introduce what has become commonplace in today’s wrestling games: DLC content! They really are throwing a lot of shiny stuff at the player in TNA Impact. Almost too much, actually.
Again: There was so much hype and promotion surrounding this game. They spent so much of both the buildup to the game and the game itself promoting their identity and promising fans the moon. And I want to respect their passion and like this game. But unfortunately, when you look past all the publicity, all the shiny bells-and-whistles, and all the gimmicks, this game ends up leaving me asking the same question as the old lady in the Wendy’s commercial: “Where’s the beef?”
At the end of the day, TNA Impact! doesn’t live up to the hype, and while it shows potential, it messes up on too many basics, and ends up falling flat. And yet, I don’t want to be too harsh on this game. In a way, I kind of see it in a similar vein as WCW vs. The World; a flawed first outing that needs a lot of improvement, but shows the signs of something that could be built off of and expanded on in sequels.
Sadly, it’s unlikely that we’ll see such a sequel. Shortly after the game’s release, Midway was acquired by Time Warner, and the TNA game license did not go with them, putting TNA games in limbo for a while. Eventually, they were able to release an adaptation of TNA Impact! for handheld systems, along with a few little games for the iOS. But there has not yet been another serious attempt at a TNA game for the major consoles. And given the current shape of TNA, we may never see another one.
What a fitting story for their first video game. A lot of razzle-dazzle, a lot of hype, a lot of ambition and, most tragically, a lot of potential. And every now and then, you see in it something that makes you mark out and enjoy what you’re looking at. But then, it makes some glaring, fundamental mistakes, and ends up being an inconsistent, frustrating and ultimately mediocre experience. In a way, isn’t that just so TNA?
Rating: 2.5 stars
Photo 1: en.wikipedia.org
Photo 2: prowrestling.wikia.com
Photo 3: el33tonline.com
Categories: Wrestling Reviews