Pro-wrestling is all about acting. No, I'm not trying to get myself cold-clocked by Hulk Hogan. This is about physicality. I watched a live TNA event from a private box in The Arena at Gwinnet Center in Atlanta. From where I was sitting the wrestlers looked tiny, much smaller than they'd be if you were watching them on TV or playing them on a videogame, but when Sting came into the ring, I instantly understood why he's a star. They guy acts with his body the way Charlie Chaplin did. He sells every moment with his postures, his gestures. Even from the cheap seats you understand, from moment to moment, the emotional details of a match because Sting is telegraphing every minor victory, every setback with his body. That's the magic of wrestling, and it's a major detail that most videogames just haven't been able to pull off.
Sure, old-school wrestling games were able to recreate the People's Elbow or the Tombstone Piledriver -- signature moves of wildly popular superstars. But they've never managed to recreate the in-between moments -- the way a certain pro lumbers across the mat or reels when he takes a blow to the face. TNA iMPACT! aims to change that. Midway's Los Angeles development studio (formerly Paradox) has invested quite a bit of time and effort in making the movement of the wrestlers in their game more true-to-life. Each wrestler's character model is lovingly rendered, bumping up against but not falling headlong into the uncanny valley. Exhaustive motion capture sessions using the original wrestling talent like Samoa Joe, A.J. Styles and Jay Lethal help make the character animations breathe that extra bit of life into each of the fighters.
TNA iMPACT! has been devoted to realism since day one. A very early build of the game featured some of the detailed, 60-frames-per-second character animations -- but the fighting and movement felt sluggish. Such is the danger of trying to recreate flesh and blood with 100 percent accuracy. Real-life wrestling is a different animal from videogame wrestling. Human wrestlers move more deliberately. The pace of action in a match is significantly slower. The latest build of TNA iMPACT! addresses these issues. It feels much more responsive. The moves and movement are quickened without totally shattering the illusion.
Sal Davita walks me through a typical match at the Midway Gamer's Day in Las Vegas. We're playing the Xbox 360 version of the game in a dark corner of a swank bar in the Red Rocks Casino. Davita lounges in the padded booth, maybe a little buzzed. His game is in the final stages of polish -- it was supposed to drop this spring, but they've pushed the game back to the fall to continue refining animations and gameplay. Davita could easily kick my ass if he wanted to, but he goes easy on me teaching me the intricacies of the game's special moves, counters and pin mechanics. TNA iMPACT! is one of those games that really rewards practice. Knowing the timing of the moves and being able to read each character's movements are key to success. Even though I'm outclassed, I don't feel like I'm powerless. With the flick of the thumbstick I'm able to roll out from under an incoming body slam. I occasionally slip out of a grab or nail a decent dropkick.
After the match, Davita spools out the litany of features the game will sport: three classes of wrestlers, over 20 individual characters, 11 match types, weapons, online multiplayer. They're throwing everything at the wall with this game and much of it looks like it'll stick. My instant favorite match is the Ultimate X -- a bout unique to the TNA brand. Multiple wrestlers compete to shimmy across a wire, strung high above the ring. In the center dangles a large, red X. The first wrestler to grab the X and remove it from its perch wins the day. The proposition isn't as easy as it sounds. Other wrestlers can easily jump up and grab you as you're scaling the sides of the ring or inching across the rope -- and the X itself is no pushover. In the real world it takes a while to unravel the fiendish knot that holds it in place. In TNA iMPACT! players have to play a tricky mini-game to snag the X -- all the while fending off angry opponents. If there's one match in TNA iMPACT! that manages to recreate the dramatic push-and-pull of a real-world wrestling match, it's the Ultimate X. This one will make for some great multiplayer moments.
Before we part ways Davida and I talk about the future of the TNA wrestling league. The organization is growing by leaps and bounds -- the only true competitor to the WWE behemoth. Defections from Vince McMahon's massive corporation aren't unheard of and Midway Los Angeles, Davida tells me, is ready to respond to anything. If a huge wrestling celebrity were to sign with TNA after TNA iMPACT! goes gold, Davida and company are prepared to introduce the wrestler into the game as downloadable content. That's how seriously TNA iMPACT! is gunning to topple the WWE SmackDown vs. Raw games. I have a gut feeling they're not going to meet much resistance.
Preview based on an unfinished build of the game as seen at Midway's Gamers' Day and TNA! Bound for Glory.