THQ has long been the home for wrestling games with its WWE series, but Midway aims to take a shot at that market with a new title based on TNA iMPACT! – also the new kid on the block. Twenty-five Total Nonstop Action wrestling stars make up the roster, including fan favorites like Kurt Angle, Booker T, Samoa Joe, Alex Shelley, Chris Sabin and AJ Styles. Several of those stars were on hand last week to humiliate the press in one on one matches on the Xbox 360 version of the game. These guys are genuinely into this game – and quite good at it – and have spent time with Midway-LA making sure they get things right… and it seems to be paying off.

Already, TNA has a leg up on the competition in the visual department. Using Unreal Engine 3, the team has delivered an amazing group of large virtual athletes that look and move exactly like their television counterparts. The animation is very fluid and the frame rate is rock solid. The developers note that they are aiming for a full sixty frames per second. Each character makes an appropriately grand entrance into one of many superbly detailed arenas.

The movement system is very easy to grasp, but the ability to counter gives the game a lot of depth. On the face of the gamepad you’ll find buttons for special actions (entering and exiting the ring, climbing the turnbuckle, etc.), kicking, punching, and grappling. The latter three can be supercharged by simultaneously holding down the left button, while the right button performs a block or a counter-move. If you time it right, you can even counter your opponent’s counter-move! Each wrestler is classified as a grappler, acrobat, or brawler and has an appropriate move set. Simultaneous or sequential button presses can yield even more interesting results such as individual signature moves like The Canadian Destroyer or The Styles Clash. A player-shaped icon in the corner of the screen will show you the body-specific damage you’ve taken over the course of the round and you will be handicapped accordingly. Take too much damage and you’ll find yourself ripe for a pin or a submission move, in which case you’ll have to get to mashing those buttons if you hope to make it up for more punishment. Of course, you’re always free to leave the confines of the ring and take your chances on the floor if the action proves to be too much for you.

As I mentioned before, TNA iMPACT is the newcomer to the professional wrestling world and to distinguish themselves they’ve introduced a few innovations to the ring. Most notably… the ring; which for some reason has six sides (perhaps to give its wrestlers more turnbuckles to climb?). Another more interesting feature that they’ve introduced is the Ultimate X match, which really showcases the athletic ability of its stars. Select this mode and you’ll see a big X suspended over the floor of the ring. It’s your job to climb your way hand over hand to claim the prize and win the match. Naturally, your opponent will be doing his best to do the same thing – and to stop you. One thing we were not able to see was the story mode, in which you create your own wrestler and customize the costume and move sets then embark on a career in the ring. Tag-team, four-way, and one on one match modes are all available as well. Some or all of those may be available online but, again, the developer wants to make sure that the frame rates remain solid. With a virtually finished product in hand and until September to polish, it’s a good bet that they’ll do it.

It must be noted that we were not able to test the PS3 version, though I see no reason that it will be substantially different. Perhaps most interestingly, PS2 and Wii versions are planned as well. Epic has made a big deal out of publically declaring Unreal Engine 3 out of the league of the likes of the Wii, so I have no idea how that will work out. Perhaps it will be a different engine altogether.

For me, this was the surprise of the show. I’m not a big wrestling game aficionado. Heck, I don’t even watch wrestling. But it’s definitely very fun, the game looks fantastic, and the team is really making the best of the license. Keep an eye out for this one if you’ve got the machine and think this might be your kind of game.

Sting Gameplay

Samoa Joe Gameplay

Christian Cage Gameplay